“Up Against Power Itself”

“We, the environmentalists, defend this place and all of Olancho…I wanted to show you how the lands ended up and how many years they have been exploited, destroyed,” explained Father Andrés Tamayo to an international delegation in 2003, visiting the department in eastern Honduras in the wake of the murder of young environmental and community activist Carlos Reyes.

This same area, fiercely defended by the community-based Environmental Movement of Olancho (MAO), has been the subject of an intense conflict in recent months. On the one hand are the local inhabitants contracted to carry out the logging operation, Sansone—the powerful logging company, the mayor of Salamá, the police, the army and various national government institutions, including the Honduran Forestry Development Corporation (COHDEFOR). On the other are MAO and the majority of the 40,000 residents in the municipalities of Salamá, Silca and Manto who depend on this stretch of forest for the water sources it protects, flowing into the Telica River.

The lands in Salamá that Father Tamayo has shown to many visitors to illustrate the importance of community actions to defend their resources belong, in legal-speak, to Sansone, a powerful logging company that operates numerous sawmills which have devastated much of northern Olancho and the Siria Valley. The forest of this 80,000- hectare property is the only thing keeping the communities of the region alive.

Further down the Telica valley, the results of the past destruction are evident. Rainfall has diminished, as have the rivers, as have the crop yields. As with many regions where environmental destruction has direct effects on the subsistence and life of communities, many families are supported mainly by their men and youth who have migrated north in order to sustain them.

“This is not a purely environmental problem,” emphasized Father Tamayo over a month later in his parish in Salamá, “it is a social conflict.”

They’re Conflicts, Not Projects

At the heart of the current conflict in Salamá is a variation of a conflict being played out again and again on different levels throughout Honduras, Central America and beyond.

Communities live from their land and resources, which are increasingly being privatized, commoditized, individualized, controlled, managed, bought and sold by others. Faced with these policies, devised by international financial institutions in the interests of the companies that stand to benefit from them, often the only decision available to communities regarding their own lands, water, forests, minerals and other resources is how to resist and to defend them.

Faced with the overwhelming opposition of the local population to the company’s logging activities, Sansone switched tactics in an attempt to disrupt the widespread opposition to the project and discredit the environmental movement. The company, supported by local government officials, created the impression the May First Logging Cooperative was the actor involved, and not Sansone.

The May First Cooperative was founded by community members of Talgua and was active in the mid-1990s, both benefiting from and taking care of the forests of the area. Rational community-based forestry involving local control, protection and benefits is the kind of policy for which MAO, a community-based movement, has been struggling. Thus, the Cooperative was the perfect vehicle for Sansone’s actions, enabling the company to manipulate the public and pit one community member against the other. However, the May First Cooperative no longer exists, except in name only to serve Sansone and its contractors doing work elsewhere in Honduras, a reality that was quickly perceived by communities in Olancho.

“We organized ourselves here to manage the wood here ourselves,” explained Don Fernando in a meeting in Talgua between community and environmental movement members to discuss the situation. Don Fernando and over a dozen other original members of the Cooperative expressed their concern about what was being done in their name and the implications it would have, both for the affected communities and for themselves as the legally registered members of the Cooperative. They had been receiving advice from the current loggers to keep quiet.

On July 4, workers accompanied by police agents began to clear the way into the forest, cutting trees and brush to make way for the logging equipment and vehicles. Weeks later the tension between the “Cooperative” – led by longtime Sansone logging contractors Santiago Flores, Rafael Meza, Adonai Ramos, along with their active supporter, Salamá mayor José Ramón Ramos – and the opposition from the town, communities and MAO became so intense that you could feel it in the air according to residents who likened it to the electricity felt before a pending storm. Around the same time, paid space in national newspapers announced the ‘Cooperative’s’ intentions and rights to log, whatever the consequences, including bloodshed, a threat that was often publicly repeated by the contractors to the local residents opposing the logging.

On August 3, logging began. Then on August 8 the conflict became violent when the logging contractors aimed heavy weapons were aimed at the community and environmental movement activists who placed their bodies in the way of machinery headed for the logging site.

Everything is Legal

In late July the Director of COHDEFOR and other government representatives had promised to revise the ‘legality’ of both the Cooperative and the forestry management and operations plans. Throughout July and August, the government repeatedly kept coming back with the same response: Everything is legal.

“The problem is much deeper than a simple analysis of whether the management plan is being followed or not,” concluded a communiqué written by MAO. “We are not against the Cooperative,” they made clear. However, for MAO, the situation boiled down to a choice between the temporary well-being of the 300 people hired as day laborers and the rest of the 40,000 people whose lives would be negatively affected by the actions of those 300. The legal analysis offered by the government wasn’t seen as a solution for a social conflict.

It has since become increasingly evident that there were, and are, significant illegalities with both the management plan and the Cooperative. The map of the plan approved by COHDEFOR does not include municipal boundaries, and for good reason. Although the documentation of the plan refers to its location in the municipality of Salamá and is authorized by its municipal government (although without the consultation with the population required by the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment study) the management plan also includes a part of Manto and a significant chunk of Silca territory.

Courage in the Face of Repression

The communities of Salamá and Silca quickly began to organize themselves when the logging began and initiated a protest action the next day with participants from several communities. The police aggressively searched all of the environmental activists and community members for weapons, but found none. No similar action was ever taken against the ‘Cooperative’ workers and leaders, who were heavily armed. All throughout the conflict, the partiality of the police, army and municipal mayor – who even briefly shut down the town’s radio station for speaking out in support of MAO and the forest, causing an immediate reaction from the people of Salamá in support of their station – was evident.

When MAO and community members spontaneously blocked the advance of the logging equipment, they were met by dozens of ‘Cooperative’ workers armed to the teeth with pistols, rifles, Uzis and AK47s. Having no such defense themselves, the environmental movement placed their bodies in the way of the advancing machinery, while logging contractors Santiago Flores, Rafael Meza, Adonai Ramos and others aimed their weapons at the community and MAO leaders.

Although two residents of Salamá had gone to the police station to warn them about the potentially violent situation developing, the police responded ‘let them kill each other.’ The police and army arrived later and evicted the blockaders, harassing and searching them, while accompanying the loggers to “protect” them. When asked if they were going to search the loggers for the illegal weapons they were carrying, plainly in sight, the police responded that they did not have the capacity to do so, considering their number. One police officer nervously noted, “they’ve got a whole arsenal.”

“We were up against power itself,” remarked René Gradis, a MAO activist from Salamá, “facing the loggers, the government, the police, the army…”

René Gradis was present throughout the conflict and filmed the events as they unraveled, despite the threats and the gun pointed at him. Death threats, intimidation, insults and abuse by the logging contractors, the mayor of Salamá, and State ‘security’ forces were constant, especially against key MAO activists including Gradis, Macario Zelaya, Efraín Pagoada, Redin Hernández, Victor Ochoa, Noé Lanza and Father Tamayo.

Although agreement to a dialogue among the various actors was reached to prevent further violence threatened by logging interests, the results of this dialogue unfold with uncertainty as repression continues. For years, MAO community activists have been plagued by a series of fabricated criminal charges, a tactic used around the country against social movement organizations in an attempt to dissuade participation and to divert energy, time and money from the main struggles of the organizations and communities. In the context of the latest struggle in Salamá, new accusations have been made against some nine community activists affiliated with MAO.

“This is the third time I’ve been prosecuted,” said soft-spoken Efraín Pagoada, in his home in a small community in Silca.

He produced from his wallet a formal court letter that authorizes the “provisional freedom” he was granted in the ongoing case resulting from the last set of charges, which included “illicit association.”

The definition of the charge was reformed in 2003 as part of the Honduran government’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy in the “war on gangs”, leaving the definition vague and largely up to the judgement of police, prosecutors and judges. Aside from the part it has played in this draconian State policy criminalizing youth, poverty and unemployment and justifying militarization, two prison massacres and the ongoing extrajudicial executions of youth by Death Squads, ‘illicit association’ is also used to repress grassroots organizations and social movements.

Despite the corruption and irregularities in the justice system, the long process of defending the MAO community activists continues with some, albeit slow success. Although they have not been sent to jail for the duration of their trials, their ‘provisional freedom’ requires them to travel to the court in the department capital of Juticalpa every week.

Their freedom may be provisional, but their courage and commitment are not.

Territorial Zoning – In Whose Interests?

A few MAO activists and a small team from the San Alonso Rodríguez Technical Center made their way from Salamá to the community of Mendez, which, along with neighbouring Jutiapa, was engaged in a participatory process of territorial zoning.

The pickup slowed down past the turnoff where another vehicle was parked in the middle of the dirt road. Scampering out from the forest and back onto the road came a man, appearing to be a foreigner, with a little geologist’s hammer in hand. The brief scene was a potent sign of conflicts to come and of the importance of MAO’s accompaniment of community processes to make decisions about the use, benefits and protection of their resources. Olancho is covered with concessions to transnational mining companies from Canada and the United States, presenting a threat particularly serious in this region near the headwaters of the gold-rich Guayape river.

As part of the uneasy truce with the Cooperative, MAO and the government, several agreements have been made: the Cooperative would be allowed to finish logging a considerably limited section of the forest; open municipal hall meetings would be held to consult the population before any further logging operations were approved; MAO would be included in the dialogue concerning environmental conflicts in all of Olancho; and a process of Territorial Zoning would be carried out before logging could commence in any given zone. It was in light of the latter that the group was making its way to Mendez.

At the very end of 2003 the Territorial Zoning Law came into effect in Honduras. The idea on paper is to evaluate, map and analyze the territory and resources – not only natural, but human, technical, infrastructure, registries, etc.—and their uses as a tool to guide State policies, plans, projects, regulations and future development. The process is to be carried out at the national, regional and departmental levels and calls for public participation. But the regulations guiding this imply that consultations will result in a few meetings in town with some invited members of “civil society” in order to record what they say as proof of “consultation” to legitimize their top-down decisions.

Considering the process to be a potentially valuable tool, some organizations have decided to pursue it, but with a radically different approach. Essentially, things depend on who is making decisions, who undertakes the work, how it is carried out, and most important whose interests are represented! The San Alonso Rodriguez Technical Center, based in Tocoa, is accompanying territorial planning at a level that does not even figure in the law—the community level—and is engaged in supporting and facilitating a truly participatory process at the grassroots, by and for the communities themselves.

Following the logic of community interests, the work of each community would be pieced together to collect the municipal, departmental and then national outcomes. Although it is rather unlikely that the government will adopt this method, the empowerment and involvement of communities who directly work through the process will make it much harder for business or government officials to ask them to validate decisions made without their consultation and consent.

Participatory Planning at the Grassroots

In Mendez, the schoolchildren gathered around a scale relief model of the community and surrounding region to see if the paper mache covering the layers of cardboard to form the contour of the mountains, hills and riverbeds had dried. Not quite, so the upper grade students spent the day finishing the job in the hot sun. The other half of the team from MAO and the technical center was in Jutiapa, facilitating the week-long workshop with community members, identifying community needs, priorities and problems and mapping them out.

The next day, a significant part of Jutiapa’s population piled into an old truck and a couple pickups to make it over to Mendez and, more specifically, to the finally completed (and dried) model covering the territory of both communities. As people quickly oriented themselves, some began identifying and outlining the different zones of resources and uses, while others engaged themselves in the numerous animated conversations around the small classroom, delving into different aspects of the deep community knowledge and history.

Later in the afternoon, gathering again around their community territory, brightly painted to distinguish the various urban, pine and broadleaf forest, agriculture and other areas of use, the community began to identify the changes and future development they wanted for their community. Could our activities in the shade coffee plantations on these mountainsides here be contaminating our water supply? What should we do about it? Where and how do we want our community to grow?

“We need to undertake territorial zoning,” explained MAO activist Victor Ochoa, “not in the interests of a State apparatus, but according to our own needs.”

The vision of the Environmental Movement of Olancho to both accompany community processes in determining their own development and to engage in actions to defend the natural resources that sustain them – in the face of ongoing repression – merits our respect and support.

Rights Action works to provide financial and other support directly to community based organizations in Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere to support locally controlled initiatives for healthy community development, natural resources, lands and rights. For more information, to make tax-deductible donations or to get involved, contact Rights Action: info@rightsaction.org, 416-654-2074, www.rightsaction.org