Ten years ago, one of the projects I worked on as a Peace Corps volunteer in Olancho, Honduras involved protecting a watershed in the high mountains north of Manto (my site) that would serve as the water source for 11 communities spread out in the valley below. Another volunteer worked on designing and constructing the water system, and I worked on establishing the watershed as a protected area.
Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in October 1998, and consequently deforestation and working to curb it became the most prescient post-Mitch talk amongst politicians, government officials, academics and aid organizations. Unfortunately, logging and poverty-induced slash-and-burn agriculture in the higher more remote elevations of Central America’s most mountainous country continued after Mitch, and continue today.
Fast forward eight years. Over this past Holiday season, I returned to Manto for the first time since leaving in 1999. While there a teacher in town told me the story of the fight that took place between the people in the 11 communities and a logging company. The communities had had water available in their homes for a few years now, and were grateful for it beyond what we can imagine.
* * *
Logging, mostly illegal, is a major problem in Olancho, and all of Honduras for that matter. The Environmental Movement of Olancho (MAO being its Spanish acronym), led by Father Tamayo, a Catholic priest from the Olanchano town of Salama, has led the people of Olancho against the loggers for the past half decade. He was awarded the coveted and internationally recognized Goldman Environment Award in 2005 for his work to protect Honduras’ natural resources.
Assassinations of environmentalists in Honduras are not uncommon. From Jeanette Kawas to Carlos Luna to two MAO supporters (Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Murillo) gunned downed in Guarizama-the town next to Manto-and several others, working to protect nature in Honduras is a deadly vocation. In Guarizama, I saw the bullet holes in the wall where the two men were killed. A teacher friend of mine recounted the story as we drove down the dirt road:
“The police killed themone of them did not die right away. He was asking for help after the police left, but no one would help him for fear of getting killed themselves. He laid there for a few hours in his blood before he finally died.”
* * *
Back to the 11 communities. The story my teacher friend was telling me goes like this:
“The women armed with machetes stood on the front lines. Their husbands were behind them, armed with pistols, so that fighting, or worse, would not break out between the logger men and the village men. If the men were in front, probably there would have been fighting, or shooting. So the women were in the front. Imagine the courage to stand there when the logging trucks came.”
They blocked the entrance to the scrabble road that led up to their village. When the logging truck showed up, they wielded their machetes and shouted:
“We don’t want your new road, and we don’t want your new school. We want our water, and you are not taking one tree from us.”
They’ve heard all the false promises before, and they knew that cutting trees meant damage to the watershed, and the possible drying up of their water source. The community of La Boca del Monte, where the water source is located, worked closely with me and fellow volunteers. Together, we established the watershed as a protected area at the municipal and national levels, though admittedly, protection on paper does not mean real-world protection. With two other volunteers, they were able to design and construct the water system that would bring water to the homes in La Boca and 11 other villages in the valley below. The people of La Boca del Monte and the 11 communities know full well the value of water, and its connection to maintaining the forest resources.
After some tense attempts at negotiating a compromise, the loggers left. The people did not back down. My friend spoke of how the people know the importance of protecting the forest so that they will have water in the future.
He mentioned that at a municipality meeting a few years back, a similar occurrence took place:
“Women stood in the front outside of the municipal office with their machetes at their sides. A meeting was to take place to determine which areas of the forest within the municipality would be open to logging. They were there to voice their opinion against cutting the trees in their watershed. Also, they were there to rally the other communities.”
Officially, in May 2006, President Zalaya, a native Olanchano, imposed a ban on logging in 4 municipalities of Olancho, including Manto. When I asked if logging was still going on in some of the more remote regions of the municipality, my friend assured me:
“Not here. The loggers know to not come to Manto. If they do, they’ll face the women with their machetes! They are courageous women. And of course, the men are behind them with their guns.”
Poor. Armed with machetes and pistols. Fighting for water. Fighting for trees. Fighting for their livelihoods.
The poor won the battle. This time.
JAMES MURREN was a Peace Corps volunteer in Manto, Olancho (1997-1999). You can contact him and read more about life in Olancho at: www.vagoscribe.wordpress.com
To read more about logging in Olancho, an outstanding report put out by Environmental Investigation Agency, with support from the Center for International Policy, can be found at: www.ciponline.org/