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Confronting the Global Timber Barons | The Nation

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Confronting the Global Timber Barons

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Salama, Honduras

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

About the Author

James North
James North (jamesnorth77 at gmail.com) has reported from Africa, Asia and Latin America for thirty-seven years.  

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Father Andres Tamayo now gets company as he drives the church pickup truck around his rugged rural parish here in the frontier region of Olancho--four soldiers in battle dress sit in the back to protect him from being murdered. Father Andres is part of a grassroots environmental movement that's trying to stop criminal deforestation, and the local timber barons have already killed some of his friends. The environmentalists cannot trust the local police, so they, and their allies overseas, pressured the national government into assigning the young soldiers.

A couple of the soldiers are also posted on the front steps of the tidy, whitewashed church. Father Andres is in his mid-40s, short, with a firm, clear voice. Inside the simple parish hall, I asked him if he was afraid to die. He paused slightly. "I know that one day death could come for me," he said. "But that fact does not cause stress, or fear, or the desire to flee. I believe that I have to speak the truth up to the last moment. I need to remember that I'm defending the people. The people themselves give me courage. My conviction, which is shared by the people, and shared by God, gives me courage."

Luckily, there is a new source of help for Father Andres and his friends in the Olancho Environmental Movement, and for brave environmentalists all around the world who risk their lives on the front lines in the fight to protect the forests. A bipartisan alliance in the US Congress, supported by an unusually broad range of environmental organizations, is pushing for legislation that will for the first time enact penalties for importing wood and wood products that have been illegally cut down. The bill is called the Legal Timber Protection Act in the House, the Combat Illegal Logging Act in the Senate.

Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in Washington, DC, explained in mid-November that the alliance had just successfully rebuffed efforts in a House subcommittee to gut the legislation, but he emphasized that continued public support is critical. Besides the EIA, the alliance includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the United Steelworkers Union, as well as members of Congress from both parties.

The proposed new law will address an even broader moral failure. Globalization, in practice, often means that terrible crimes are committed in far-off countries, at the beginning of supply chains, but that the big multinationals that we eventually buy from can successfully disclaim all responsibility. In the past, Anaconda Copper Company and Standard Oil directly owned mines and wells, and they broke strikes, contaminated the air and water and helped overthrow elected governments. Today, Nike and Wal-Mart can plead they are not guilty for the compulsory overtime, low pay and environmental dangers in the subcontracting factories in East Asia that supply them. Nor are they often held responsible for, say, helping to sustain the one-party dictatorship in China. It may be a surprise to learn that there have never been sanctions against bringing illegal timber into the United States, except for mahogany and ramin, another luxury wood. If you had strong evidence that pine trees cut down illegally in Father Andres's parish and elsewhere in Honduras arrived in South Florida, destined for Home Depot or other retailers (which actually happened a couple of years ago), you would have nowhere in the US government to complain.

The environmentally minded consumer can ask for wood with the imprimatur of the Forest Stewardship Council, a partnership between environmental and industry groups that certifies that timber has been logged and processed legally. But FSC accreditation only applies to a small percentage of imports. The EIA estimates that US lumber companies lose $1 billion every year to wood that is logged illegally overseas.

Thirty years ago, when military dictators ruled Honduras and much of the rest of the Third World, big landowners and businessmen did whatever they wanted, and people like Father Andres and his friends would have long since been murdered. Now they have more space to exist. The return of formal democracy in Honduras meant that the Olancho Environmental Movement could carry out two huge Marches for Life, in 2003 and 2004. Some 35,000 people walked all the way from Juticalpa, the regional center, to Tegucigalpa, the capital. They walked twenty miles a day; it took them seven days. Along the way, they did not have to spend a single centavo on food; sympathetic onlookers provided.

Global Timber Barons

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.

Faith and the Environment

Here in Salama, Father Andres speaks out not with anger but with indignation, an important difference. You sense he has no personal hatred, not even mild hostility, toward the people who have killed or ordered the killing of his friends in the movement, and who may one day kill him. But he is vigorous, and loud, about the injustice his parishioners and neighbors are forced to live through, as their very livelihood is threatened and they are then murdered for protesting peacefully.

He walked back and forth in the church kitchen, explaining how deforestation is destroying his parish: "Because the trees are cut down, our people don't have water. Before, women may have walked two or three miles for water; now they walk seven or ten. Vegetable plots produce only one-third what they once did, due to the growing ecological imbalance. People who used to be able to work in the countryside year-round are reduced to three months. Sixty percent of our young people have already left, many of them North, to the United States."

Father Andres has been criticized for bringing politics into religion. The overflowing congregation at Sunday morning Mass suggests his parishioners do not agree. I asked him how he responded. He obviously has answered the questions many times before, but he was patient and engaged. "It is certainly true that God accepts both good people and sinners in his church," he said. "But God is not content with injustice, with exploitation. Our ministry is not just within the four walls of the church."

His voice rose. "There are those who speak of justice but don't confront injustice," he said with a sharp laugh. "To confront injustice is not just a duty; it is a demand. In my work in Olancho I'm not outside the evangelization; I'm within it. I am doing what God has ordered me to do. A priest who did not, who remained silent, would be merely an ornament."

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