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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.

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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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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.

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