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Confronting the Global Timber Barons | The Nation

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Confronting the Global Timber Barons

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See a satellite view of the Olancho region of Honduras here.

Global Timber Barons

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James North
James North has reported from Africa, Latin America and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City and tweets at...

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Environmentalism in the Third World is not an imported Western fad. In Olancho the movement started from the grassroots up, after local people began to notice that the ferocious deforestation was threatening their existence. Victor Ochoa, a bricklayer and another leader of the Environmental Movement, explained, "The climate has changed violently here. In the 1970s high temperatures usually only reached 70 to 77 degrees. Now we regularly go over 85 degrees. Cutting down so many trees destroys the watershed; it fails to hold water. The rivers and creeks don't rise like before. Once, the water came up to your waist. Now you can cross on a bicycle. The rivers are dying."

"The way we live here has changed," he continued. "Before, we lived in poverty. Now we live in misery."

Victor Ochoa explained that the movement's success prompted the timber barons--a half-dozen or so big companies dominate the trade here in Honduras--to change strategy. They constructed a false "cooperative" to make it look like small producers were cutting the pine forests and, helped by the sometimes compliant Honduran press, created a new narrative: selfish environmentalists were preventing honest working people from earning a living. They paid off a few local officials to endorse the story.

At the same time, the violence is getting worse. Two Environmental Movement activists, Heraldo Zuniga and Roger Ivan Cartagena, were murdered last December 20. "We would hesitate to have another march, because it could end in a massacre," Victor Ochoa explained calmly. "They leave messages on my cellphone: 'How would you like to lose a loved one?' " The timber barons are cunning, he explained; they use middlemen to engage sicarios, hired killers, so that even an honest and efficient judicial system would have trouble convicting them.

As Victor Ochoa and I talked in the Environmental Movement's modest burnt-orange headquarters in the little town of Campamento, a truck loaded with lumber thudded by on the main highway just outside. The national government had declared a regional moratorium on logging, but you could see how weak it was in contrast to the timber companies.

The strategy of the Honduran timber barons illustrates vividly the larger point about how globalization often works today. Father Andres explained that on paper, Honduras has good environmental protection laws and a government agency, the Honduran Corporation for Forest Development (Codehfor), to enforce them. In fact, he explained, Codehfor is understaffed, lacks technical expertise and has become "a servant of the timber companies." He went on: "A river can disappear due to deforestation, and all the government will say is that everything is well. The big companies can say they have replanted trees, but the government cannot or will not point out they are lying."

Nearly 40 percent of Honduran wood and wood products are exported to the United States. And US importers have a dishonest but plausible alibi. They can point to Honduran laws and the official stamps of approval and not look too closely into the truth--particularly because, until the bills in the US Congress become law, they cannot be hauled into court even if their wood imports are illegal.

Honduras is typical of the moral failure in the global timber industry. Korean pine trees from Russia, teak from Burma and ramin from the Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia, one of the threatened homes of the orangutan, are being illegally cut down and laundered through China and Singapore, ending up as flooring and furniture in American homes. Andrea Johnson, a staffer at the EIA, points out that "a multibillion-dollar industry is almost entirely unregulated."

The timber importers are careful not to ask too many questions about where their wood comes from. At the same time, though, the growing worldwide pressure is forcing some corporations to recognize that doing the right thing may also turn out to be good for business, especially over the long term. The Nike brand name is still tainted, years later, by being linked to sweatshop suppliers. The EIA says that after its fifty-page 2005 report on Honduras revealed that pine products taken illegally from Father Andres's area had shown up in some Home Depot outlets in Florida, the company started to cooperate with them and did make some efforts to end the imports.

Honduras also proves just how indispensable environmental groups in the West are. First and foremost, they provide some protection for people like Father Andres and the Olancho Environmental Movement. In 2005 he won the prestigious Goldman Prize, sometimes called the Nobel for environmentalism, and the publicity both inside Honduras and worldwide is probably what is keeping him alive.

Also, groups like the EIA and Global Witness are extraordinarily effective at carrying out independent monitoring in places like Honduras to prove that environmental crimes are being committed. Von Bismarck, the EIA director, explains that the organization is a pioneer in working undercover, often in dangerous settings. "We understandably can't be too explicit about how we work," he said. "But I can say that we set up dummy cover companies and went to Honduras posing as importers." The EIA researchers probed successfully and reported in detail, using the actual false bills of inspection, just how the massive illegal logging was being concealed. "Once we even came across illegal loggers at work in one of the national parks," von Bismarck remembered. "But we were able to get away without being seen." With the investigators' help, the Olancho Environmental Movement has not had to rely on the compromised Honduran regulatory agency to make its case.

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