The human rights page: It could have been me

A villager who just wanted to protect a small nature reserve in the forest faced intimidation and de

Victor Manuel Ochoa is an environmentalist on the front line. For environmentalists such as myself, enjoying the benefits of a prosperous economy as well as the protection of a functioning democracy and legal system, it is humbling to discover just what this kind of "green front line" really means.

With his wife and seven children, Victor lives in a small village in Olancho, an area of Honduras covered by 2.5 million hectares of rich forest. More than half has already been cut down. And, despite a presidential ban last year on logging from many parts of Olancho, it continues apace.

Victor started work on environmental issues in 2000, when he and other villagers in his municipality joined together to try to protect a small nature reserve called "La Picoña" - which he describes as "the lungs of the village" - from being razed to the ground to make way for new construction.

Over the past four years, he and his family have received numerous death threats by phone. In March this year, unknown individuals drove past his home at ten in the evening and fired gunshots outside the house.

These are not idle threats. On 20 December 2006, Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena, members of the Environmentalist Movement of Olancho (MAO), the organisation to which Victor belongs, were murdered. Reports say they were stopped by four policemen, who lined them up against a wall and fired 40 shots at them.

The MAO has complained of persistent intimidation and death threats against its members over the past year. Only its leader, Father José Andrés Tamayo, has received any real protection, after he was warned to leave the country or be killed. For activists such as Victor, "protection" comes in the form of the occasional visit to his home by the police, whom he has good reason to fear.

The rationale behind the threats, and these murders, is obvious. MAO members campaign against deforestation, logging and mining activity in Olancho. And there is big money in these businesses. "Lumber barons" have great wealth and political power.

And so the MAO finds itself threatened by criminal elements connected to the timber trade and by people in positions of power. The pattern spreads across Olancho, where six environmentalists have been killed since 1997, and across the whole of Honduras, where the timber industry is worth an estimated $50m (£25.1m) a year.

Numerous village communities have faced threats and intimidation after they highlighted the damage done by commercial interests to their local environment.

Victor and his colleagues have been forced to divert their attention from environmental campaigning to speaking out publicly against the murder of their colleagues and the authorities' failure to mount an adequate investigation.

After international attention on the case, four policemen were taken into custody as suspects in the murders of Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena. But a hearing scheduled for April simply didn't happen. And on 6 February, the Olancho regional police chief reportedly sent a team of police officers to the crime scene armed with spades, which they used to erase the dozens of bullet holes visible in the wall against which the men were shot.

To me, Victor's story exemplifies some of the very different pressures and motivations that compel people to stand up and defend the environment.

Many of us in the west wrestle with our conscience over our lifestyle, what we eat, how we get around, whether to take that cheap flight for our holiday. But day in, day out, Victor and his colleagues wrestle with life-threatening forces operating beyond the law. (A small irony is that Victor and his MAO colleagues can't take public transport in Olancho, because it would expose them to attacks. They have to change cars mid-journey to try to lose potential attackers who may be following them.)

We must all do what we can to ensure that the authorities in Olancho and Honduras start to see that the "cost" of having Honduran citizens threatened and murdered outweighs the profit generated by the "lumber barons" behind these attacks. One way is to kick up a stink about it - which anyone can do at

We can also draw hope from the story of Victor and the thousands of others like him who are willing to stand up for what they believe in. Victor says: "The commitment to defend life is what nourishes us, what gives us hope to carry on with our struggle, and to believe that things can change. We're being threatened constantly, but if our struggle is to be worthwhile, it depends on us carrying on. I have small grandchildren - I want them to be able to live in a healthy environment."

Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror