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HONDURAS: Fragile Truce on Deforestation in Olancho

Thelma Mejía* - Tierramérica

SALAMÁ, Honduras, Apr 21 2007 (IPS) - The unpunished assassinations of two environmentalists in the Honduran department of Olancho and the violations of a logging ban threaten a tenuous truce in this area convulsed by forest conflicts.

“This relative peace could be interrupted at any moment because impunity persists and the partial ban decreed to halt logging continues being made a mockery,” human rights leader Bertha Oliva, Olancho resident and founder of the Committee of Families of the Detained-Disappeared, told Tierramérica.

Since 1998, six environmental activists have been killed in this department which extends across the east, central and northern Honduras, covering an area about the same as neighbouring El Salvador, with about 2.5 million hectares of forest with tree species prized for their wood. More than half of the forested land has been cut down.

The elements that gave rise to years of protests by residents “are as valid now as they were then. People resent that there is no justice for the ones behind the shootings of two environmentalists, while illegal lumber trafficking continues,” said Oliva.

The activist pointed to the pact signed in February by anti-deforestation groups and logging cooperatives following the Dec. 20, 2006 assassination of Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Murillo, of MAO, the Olancho Environmentalist Movement.

The killings were attributed to four police officers, who were detained by authorities in March in the wake of intense pressure, including from abroad by rights groups like Amnesty International.

The lumber companies are associated in the Primero de Mayo cooperative, whose membership has maintained an intense battle with MAO leader Andrés Tamayo, who is also a Roman Catholic priest.

In February, members of the cooperative took control of the road that leads to Tegucigalpa, demanding the reversal of the 2006 logging ban that President Manuel Zelaya had declared for several municipalities in Olancho.

Faced with the incidents and protests that appeared to be on the verge of violence, the government set up a commission for dialogue amongst representatives of the military, the Environment Ministry, MAO and the Primero de Mayo cooperative. It was in this context that a truce was reached.

But if it fails, “we are assessing deeper measures to ensure complete peace” in the zone, Defence Minister Arístides Mejía told Tierramérica.

In May 2006, the Honduran government ordered a halt to logging in the municipalities of Salamá, El Rosario, Jano, Silca and Manto.

Tamayo told Tierramérica that the mobilisation of organised peasant farmers has achieved an end to cutting in Salamá, Silca, Manto, El Rosario and Jocón, but not in the rest of the affected communities.

Illegal shipments of lumber continue, according to a control operation carried out in the area by National Human Rights Commission.

The illegally cut boards are treated with a mix of water and quicklime to lighten the darker colour characteristic of recently cut wood, according to a Commission report.

In Salamá, where Tamayo lives, logging groups have organised residents in cooperatives that oppose the ecologist movement, says the report.

The 24,000 square km of Olancho hold a large part of the Río Plátano biosphere reserve, declared heritage of humanity by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

The area is part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, an initiative to restore the valuable forest chain of the region extending from southern Mexico through the seven countries of Central America.

In Olancho’s forests one finds species of pine like the ocote (Pinus oocarpa), mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), cedar (Cedrela odorata), oaks (Quercus sapotifolia, Quercus bumelioides, Quercus oleoides) and guava (Psidium Guajava L.).

The peasant-ecologists say logging is altering the water regimen of the area’s rivers and surrounding ecosystems.

Deforestation is a serious problem for all of Mesoamerica. Fires, illegal logging and unregulated exploitation of forest resources produce a 400,000-hectare reduction of forested area per year, and if the trend is not reversed, by 2015 the forests will disappear, according to scientific reports of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.

Olancho has faced recurring conflicts over natural resources, dating back to the Spanish colonial era.

In the mid-20th century, it was seen as Central America’s breadbasket because of its abundant maize, bean, rice and sorghum production. But as government incentives for agriculture dried up, output declined.

Olancho’s people – just under a half-million – make their livelihoods from farming, commerce, livestock and forest work. Poverty is very widespread. In recent years, many have emigrated to the United States. But the main business continues to be the forest.

In 1997, when he led a pastoral mission in the mountains surrounding the Jocón community, Tamayo witnessed an unforgettable scene: some labourers were preparing to bury a peasant farmer in a plastic bag because they didn’t have the money for a coffin, or the lumber to build one.

“Paradoxically, there were some sawmills there and the communities were surrounded by great forest riches,” the priest told Tierramérica.

Beginning then, Tamayo organised 23 communities in northern Olancho to campaign against illegal movement of fine lumber.

Among those communities, the defence of the forest “is an ardent spirit, just like the illegal burning for extracting lumber,” said Oliva.

Wood exports bring in more than 50 million dollars to Honduras. Most of it goes to the United States, the Caribbean and some European countries, including Germany, according to the Honduras lumber association.

Current forest legislation is considered outdated, but a new law on the verge of being passed has come under fire from ecologists, who say it provides no protection for the nature reserves. The government-run Honduran Forest Development Corporation, entrusted with regulating forest use, has been denounced for ties between some of its officials and the lumber companies.

Says Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, the power and influence of the “lumber barons” is such in Olancho that “most of the candidates for political posts in that department receive money” from them.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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