Bulldozers and Blasphemy In Latin America, Catholics are standing up to those who covet their gold and timber
By Marilyn Berlin Snell
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Faith flourishes in Latin America, where suffering is enshrined and reenacted each year during Holy Week. Villagers in Guatemala, above, walk along streets adorned with religious scenes as intricate as
a Navajo sand painting.
IN LATIN AMERICA, DEATH COMES WILDLY TO LIFE as the faithful reenact Christ's suffering throughout the Holy Week leading to Easter. During those April days in Guatemala, children put on devilish red masks representing Judas and demand money from highway travelers slowed by small towns' axle-bending speed bumps. Villagers work through the night to create tableaux on the pavement using pine needles and other natural materials. I see a crucified Jesus made of corn kernels and bark on a street in San Marcos; a Saint Francis in the forest with a fawn and ducks made of painted sawdust. Male parishioners wearing hooded black robes shoulder heavy crosses or pull floats displaying Christ's mutilated body through the streets, trampling the art.
Later, in Honduras, the memory of crushed pine needles mixes with the scent of Olancho's forests as I walk with Tamayo, talking about a life infused with death. The priest's mother died while he was a baby in El Salvador. He later became an altar boy for Monsignor Oscar Romero. In 1979, during El Salvador's civil war, Romero sent the young seminarian to confirm a parishioner's grisly find in a field near the church: the bodies of two nuns buried standing, heads above ground and nearly severed. An informant falsely fingered Tamayo for the nuns' deaths. On Romero's orders, Tamayo fled to Guatemala, then to Costa Rica, and finally Honduras. A few years later, paramilitaries assassinated Romero as he said mass.
In Olancho, Tamayo's efforts to strengthen and enforce the country's forestry laws and to stop loggers' plunder have again made him a target. Unregulated forestry production in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, is worth an estimated $55 million to $70 million per year. One afternoon in 2005, Tamayo was driving a colleague who worked for the priest's Environmental Movement of Olancho through a logging area about an hour from his church. Three snipers hiding in the thick undergrowth near the road, apparently aiming at Tamayo, put a bullet through his colleague's head.
"His brains were on the window," Tamayo says. To save his own life, the priest hit the gas on his church's Toyota pickup. No one was ever arrested, and it wasn't the end of the mayhem. Last December, in daylight, gunmen shot and killed two more members of the environmental group. Several men are in custody, charged with murder.
A few months before these killings, 280 pro-logging activists surrounded Tamayo's church and tried to breach the high compound walls to get at him. The siege lasted three days before the Honduran army was called in to disperse the mob, and President Zelaya assigned soldiers to protect Tamayo around the clock. Three to five soldiers are now constantly at his side. Tamayo has grown accustomed to fear. "This is how I live," he says with a smile and a hint of defiance in his voice. "I can't stop what I'm doing. You have to have balls."
On the day I visit, I bring Tamayo a gift of chorizo, but he declines the sausage, giving it instead to his security detail. When I ask why, he tells me that as an orphan in El Salvador, living with a neighbor, he noticed that the priest was the best-fed person in his small village. This seemed wrong, and when Tamayo decided to follow his calling, he vowed never to eat better than the poorest in his parish.
Before our dinner of beans and rice, Tamayo takes me into the forest. The logging concession we see is relatively small and "legal," meaning the permit holders have permission to cut. But their techniques--bulldozing steep hillsides to get at the pine, cutting right to the banks of the creek, and felling everything except diseased or crooked trees--violate the law.
The loggers stop working when we arrive. They seem to know of Tamayo but say nothing as we walk by, two of his bodyguards flanking him while the third, the commander, hikes above us on the hillside to keep the entire scene--loggers, priest, visitors, potential sniper--in his sight.
"The company is supposed to leave a 150-meter buffer around water sources before it cuts a tree, but who is here to make sure the law is respected?" Tamayo asks. "There is no future view on sustainability."
In a forest once dense with pine, the closest trees on this concession are far enough apart to string a hammock. A logger now sleeps in one, surrounded by stumps and parched ground. Already, half of Olancho's 12 million acres of forest have been destroyed.
In his essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," Wendell Berry writes that our destruction of nature "is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them."
After I left Central America, the pope would strike a similar tone in Brazil, echoing remarks from his New Year's talk. He again criticized the socialism experiencing a resurgence in parts of South America, but he also blasted the environmental impact of unbridled capitalism and spoke specifically in support of people's rights to protect their water, timber, and land. He sounded, in short, like Tamayo, who in 2005 won the Goldman Environmental Prize.
I can't know for certain what prompted the pope to speak out so forcefully for stewardship. I do know what has driven Tamayo. One day, the priest says, he was passing through a mountain village during a funeral. A timber company had just secured a concession that allowed it to take massive quantities of wood from the area. The deceased's brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins were so poor they didn't have money for a pine box. They buried their beloved in plastic.
"This really touched me," Tamayo says. In a land so rich in natural wealth, in a village once surrounded by lush forests, "people couldn't afford a coffin."
Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's senior writer and directs the Sierra Investigative Journalism Project.
This article was made possible in part by a grant from Chuck and Debbie Frank. For more information on the project, go tosierraclub.org/sierra/investigative.
Photos by Marilyn Berlin Snell; used with permission.