A Divine Gift
By Javier Sierra
Father Andrés Tamayo has been fighting an epidemic that is devastating Honduras' old growth forests, an insatiable scourge that is leveling one of the richest ecosystems in Central America.
That epidemic is greed.
Father Tamayo is the defender of a paradise on earth located in southeastern Honduras- in Olancho, the country's largest region.
Olancho's abundant ecosystem is home to more than 500 different kinds of birds and countless endangered animal and plant species. The livelihood of thousands of peasants depends on the area's vast biodiversity. Before the epidemic arrived, it was called Free Olancho.
Today, more than half of its 12 million acres of forest have been decimated by indiscriminate clear-cutting.
"What they are doing to our forests, to this divine gift, is a great sin against human beings and the work of God, " says Father Tamayo, a 47-year-old Salvadorean who has been working in Honduras for many years. "Every five minutes, 2.5 acres of forest are illegally harvested, which adds up to 325,000 acres a year. In 20 years, all this will be a desert."
The devastation is already taking its toll. There are severe water shortages in Olancho because of extreme erosion and the lowering of the water table. Harvests have dwindled, and poverty and migration have risen.
The most painful part of this pillage of the country's resources is that it has been taking place with the government's blessings.
"The Forest Development Corporation, instead of regulating and protecting the forests, is an ally of the timber mafias," says Father Tamayo. "Illegal activities become 'legal' because they are viewed with indifference by the Attorney General's Environmental Office and the Government Accountability Office."
One of the timber barons has already put a price on Father Tamayo's head.
This abuse and impunity inspired him to found Olancho's Environmental Movement (MAO), a coalition of residents dedicated to stopping the destruction of the forests. In 2003 and 2004, Father Tamayo led thousands of people in a March for Life between Olancho and the capital, Tegucigalpa, in order to increase awareness of this great injustice.
Today, the destruction of Olancho is a national issue, present on the agenda of both the executive and legislative branches of government. His work has also attracted international attention, and in April, his courage and determination were rewarded when he received the Goldman Prize, the Nobel of the environmental advocacy world, in San Francisco.
But upon his return to Honduras, his enemies again proved to be relentless. The timber mafias welcomed Father Tamayo home by starting dozens of forest fires throughout Honduras. The smoke was so intense that the country's four main airports had to be closed.
Later, two of MAO's forest guardians were shot at and kidnapped when they discovered an illegal clear-cutting operation. One was injured by a bullet wound in the leg. Both were eventually let go only to serve as messengers for a formal death threat to one of their co-workers. Death threats to Father Tamayo have also intensified.
"My courage emerges from my own conscience," says Tamayo, who has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez. "Death threats do not worry me- I don't waste my time thinking about death. I work to defend life, in order to fulfill the gospel and to be faithful to God and the people."
And to bring some sanity in the midst of all the destruction. Tamayo proposes that an official audit of the country's natural resources take place in Honduras in order to protect the forests from pillagers.
He also advocates that international financial institutions give aid to Honduras on the condition that the country respects and protects its wilderness and that countries like the United States reject any imports of Honduran timber that is not ecologically certified.
The alternative in unthinkable.
"This greed is not only extinguishing the soul of the forests," Father Tamayo warns. "It is also clear-cutting the human spirit, the sense of community, the responsibility we all have as stewards of a divine gift."
Father Tamayo's example should serve as a lesson for all the timber mafias that are compromising our future. The message is clear: Our ancestral forests cannot be used as fuel to feed the insatiable fires of our greed.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.
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