I HEAR FATHER JOSÉ ANDRÉS TAMAYO CORTEZ before I meet him, his voice crackling over a public-address system, warning a young groom that in the 21st century it is not OK to come home drunk and abuse his new wife. It's a steamy day, and the small cinder block church is packed with wedding-goers. Women fan themselves. Babies wriggle and fuss. The priest's camouflage-clad bodyguards stand at the chapel door and windows, their M-16s pointed at the dirt.
I've traveled to Olancho, a lawless logging region known as the Texas of Honduras, because Tamayo has an international reputation for standing up to the logging interests, legal and illegal, that have been chainsawing their way through mountains rich in pine and tropical hardwoods. He and a growing number of Catholic clergy throughout Latin America have come to see protection of the land and water as God's work, their duty to the region's 500 million Catholics.
Although few North Americans seem to have noticed it yet, in the past few years a "liberation ecology" movement, with the church at its spiritual heart, has been taking shape from Chile to Mexico. Will the Vatican, I wonder, encourage or stifle it? Latin American Catholics have, after all, taken on what they saw as forces of injustice before. The liberation theology movement that began to gain strength in the 1970s sided with the poor during a time when military regimes, supported by the region's oligarchs, ruthlessly suppressed social reform--killing more than 200,000 people in Guatemala alone, most of them indigenous.
Critics of that Catholic activism, including Pope John Paul II, feared that some in the clergy were flirting with godless Marxism. Rome assigned an enforcer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to rein in what it saw as renegade priests and bishops. Ratzinger's policy helped derail the movement and gave his career a solid boost. In 2005, the Roman Catholic Church elected him its Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI.
Logging is big business near Olancho, Honduras, above, and efforts to fight destructive practices there have been met with violence. Since 1998, six environmentalists have been killed, and Father Andrés Tamayo, below, must now travel with armed bodyguards.
Today both Guatemala and Honduras are embroiled in particularly contentious struggles over resources. I arrive in the spring, during the otherworldly ceremonies of Semana Santa--Holy Week--and just ahead of Benedict's highly publicized visit to Brazil, his first as pope to this part of the world. Drumbeats echo from village walls and tangy incense clouds the streets, along with an air of danger and possibility.
I've been in the region two weeks and traveled more than 1,500 miles on rough and scary roads by the time I visit Tamayo. A confession he makes confirms my impression that the stakes are high in this place where fragile economies and ecologies intertwine.
Tamayo, 51, is short and wide-shouldered and reminds me of the images of Mayan warriors chiseled into vine-covered temples. Yet his hands tremble as he speaks. "Sometimes I get so scared I can't think at all," he says. "I get paralyzed. I just wait for death to come."
PREPARING FOR THIS TRIP, I CONSULTED AN OLD FRIEND, a former priest who had lived for years in Mexico and now works at a parish in North Philadelphia. He sent me essays by American poet and farmer Wendell Berry. In one, Berry contrasts the disembodied "rational mind" of industry and economy with a "sympathetic mind" that is moved by "affection for its home place, the local topography, the local memories, and the local creatures." The sympathetic mind believes that "landscapes should not be used by people who do not live in them and share their fate."
Central Americans have always mined and logged. Mayans adorned themselves in gold and silver jewelry and used the precious metals to decorate their temples. For centuries, though, foreigners have seen the region's resources as booty. "Our wealth," Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galleano writes, "has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others." The transnational companies that now have a corner on Central American timber and metals--most of them from Canada and the United States--are part of a lineage dating back to the 16th century, when conquistadors began sending ships loaded with New World gold and silver back to Spain's Catholic rulers to fund the Inquisition.
Today a new breed of clergy is more inclined to side with people like Quintin Miranda, a shopkeeper I met in western Honduras. Miranda had the good fortune to grow up in the lovely highland town of San Andrés. San Andrés had the misfortune to be perched atop a massive cache of gold. In 1997, a Canadian mining company, Greenstone, offered to buy every house in San Andrés so that it could develop the area as an open-pit mine. When villagers balked, the company sweetened the deal by saying it would build "San Andrés Minas" and relocate the population en masse a few miles away to company-built homes at a lower elevation.
Greenstone representatives warned the reluctant Miranda that if he didn't sell, the government could legally expropriate his land. Miranda held out. The air in San Andrés was crisp and several degrees cooler than in the new town. The night stars shone so brightly they lit the village streets. His brother, father, and great-grandmother were buried in the town cemetery. "I would rather be poor in San Andrés than anywhere else," he says. But when his was one of three families left, his village a ghost town, he finally gave in. The company appropriated the town's name for its mine and then bulldozed the place.
Residents of the village of San Miguel, a few miles away in a valley, don't have gold underfoot. They're merely too close to the open-pit San Andrés mine, whose new owner, Canada's Yamana Corporation, wants room to expand its dumping grounds. According to local activists, the company has been buying dwellings in San Miguel and smashing them without offering to build shelters elsewhere. (Yamana did not return phone calls.) Aqua blue and cream-colored houses stand beside piles of demolished adobe. Women hang laundry and tobacco leaves in their yards. Chickens, piglets, and children scramble around in the dirt. But it's too quiet, as if this once vibrant world were populated with apparitions.
I did not tour the San Andrés operation, which had sales of $12 million in the first quarter of 2007. I did, however, gain entrance to the San Martin mine, ten hours away in Honduras's Siria Valley. U.S.-Canadian metals giant Glamis opened the mine in 2000. (Glamis was acquired by Goldcorp, headquartered in Toronto, in 2006.) At its peak of productivity, the mine used 220 gallons of water a minute in this semi-arid region, pulling 180 ounces of gold a day from the rubble. (On average, mines grind out three tons of rock waste to make a single gold ring.)
My guide at San Martin is environmental director Renán Chávez, a Costa Rican biologist who had previously worked at a Goldcorp mine in his own country. Chávez compares "open sky" gold mining to coffee brewing. First, workers dig enormous pits. Then they crush the displaced rock and shove it into massive piles, or heaps. In a process known as heap leaching, they spray the piles with cyanide, which percolates down, adhering to flecks of gold before passing into a pipe that carries the slurry to plastic-lined lagoons (the coffeepot, I guess).
Three lagoons hold and help process the cyanide and gold mixture. The first of these, the dreg pond, contains the highest concentration of cyanide; Chávez tells me that its chemical smell keeps birds and other animals away. By the third holding area, pumps have collected the gold and sent the bulk of the cyanide back uphill for more leaching. A great white heron fishes on the banks of this pond, while ducks skid over its surface and turtles bask on semi-submerged logs. "It's usually nice over here, but this is great!" Chávez says, smiling. He shows me another area that workers had replanted a year and a half ago. Native guanacaste, mahogany, and pine trees flourish.