|The verdant countryside of Central America|
Whatever else, at its best religion can be the savior of humankind, providing the motive, the means, and through adherence to a faith, a united mass of humanity to solve the problems of humankind. Surprisingly, in Latin America, it seems to be the Catholic Church, bolstered with the conviction of thousands of Central American martyrs, that has become the torch-bearer for environmentally enlightened religion. But just as the reformist priests gathered an irresistible momentum, civil war decimated their ranks, and into the gaps stepped fanatical right-wing evangelical missionaries from the U.S. The race is on, between the ineluctable reforming of Catholic doctrine, and the more seductive lure of the fanatics, the nihilistic evangelicals.
Central America in 6-98 was people standing crowded in the back of pickup trucks, flatbed trucks, dump trucks, racing along bumpy dirt roads or swerving through crowded intersections in cities like San Salvador. We rode in the back of the truck a lot since the alternative was three in the cab. We went to the lowlands of Guatamala, to the road junction town of Tiquasate, where there are endless fields of sugar cane, and it stays between 90 and 100 degrees sometimes all night with 100% humidity. Malaria carrying mosquitoes come out in force around 5PM and don’t go away till around 9AM. The sun seemed to be straight overhead all day.
The hillsides in El Salvador were being stripped bare, the last crucial watersheds being cut for fuel, the wells and springs were drying up. In a few cases, there were springs that restarted after trees were replanted. The equation that finds more trees equals more water which sustains more people is simple, but nihilistic evangelicals don’t care. Only their doctrine matters to them, not an evolutionary, ecumenical interpretation of religion. The equation’s converse yields stark realities: a 4% natural increase per year in the population of a country like El Salvador, where there are already over 500 people per square mile, is not sustainable.
In the highlands of Guatemala we visited nurseries in the hills above Lake Atitlan, where at lakeside the elevation was 6,000 feet, and the temperature was moderate. The steep peaks of volcanoes rose to 12,000 feet and higher all around the lake, and Mayan Indian girls sold us their jewelry and fabrics. Everywhere there were old Spanish churches and cathedrals. In Antigua, which from 1520 till 1773 was the capital city of the Viceroyalty of La Plata, the wealthy built cathedrals to receive absolution. When the earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of them, there were already around 30 massive cathedrals; all of them are now magnificent ruins.
Central America’s biggest urban centers are Guatemala City, with three million people, and San Salvador, with two million people. The civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador were brutal, both lasting over a decade and both ending only a few years ago. There are abandoned military checkpoints on all the roads, and many of the former soldiers and former rebels are employed as security guards. The banks and major office buildings all have at least a half-dozen guards, usually armed with assault shotguns, otherwise with automatic rifles. Large grocery stores and other stores invariably have two or three armed private security guards, always in uniform.
Honduras is the most undeveloped of the three countries we visited (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras). In the virgin forest that runs throughout the eastern third of the country it is believed many significant Mayan ruins await discovery. The capital, Tegucigalpa, has only 800,000 people living there, and does not experience the traffic gridlock that grips Guatemala City and San Salvador. The central square in Tegucigalpa at dusk is beautiful, with a huge equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar to one end, and a luminous Spanish cathedral on the other. In the middle of the square is an area of raised dirt where several giant native trees grow, and even in the middle of the day the sounds of the birds that sit there is by far the loudest thing you hear.
Tree plantings are well underway in these countries. The role of women is evolving. Slash and burn farming is slowly dying out. Watersheds are being protected. There are lots of reasons to be hopeful. One of the tree planting foundations that we visited early one evening in El Salvador had their offices in a studio apartment in a concrete building of 32 units stacked two stories high, eight in a row. The building was full of families with fathers and mothers and children, bikes and BBQs overflowing onto the walkways. Dinner smells and TV and fans and all the doors and windows open in the San Salvador heat.
The catholic church, massive, slow moving, and with a tradition of being subtly ecumenical, had incorporated Indian paganism, and in 1980´s Latin America, was beginning to embrace the total emancipation and equality of women. Nothing else can possibly accelerate the lowering of birth rates as fast as the emancipation of women. But the civil wars cost the lives of the boldest of the priests and nuns. Into the gap rode the American right wing evangelicals. Their well funded and seductively reactionary missionary efforts have now made evangelical adherents the fastest growing religious segment throughout Central America.
All the units in the immense apartment complex we visited in central San Salvador were single room cubicles, a door, a window, a sink and stove, a toilet and shower. A random few of the units were offices, in the one we visited they had a small round conference table, a few overturned doors on top of 2 drawer file cabinets, the walls fully occupied with shelves or maps full of pins. Still poor, but their country at peace at last, the people worked with a strange combination of resignation and joy. Only truth can unmask the fanatics. A rational and experientially derived truth that says to encourage everyone to have great big families is nihilistic.
We visited and ate lunch at a women’s coop where they manufactured solar stoves. In the eyes of a 40 year old Mayan women I saw wisdom coming not only from her ancient culture, but from the tribulations of her own time. Returning to the USA and watching U.S. television after not seeing any for nearly a month was amazing, scary, addictive, sensory-overloaded, hallucinogenic. Modern TV, after weeks without it, was an overwhelming bombardment of high opticality and captivating audio. Better than ever. But for a time the stealth was taken away from its subjugating impact, and the raw power of American media was naked to see.
Which is to say this: our mere TV preachers in America are Central America’s US donor funded pied pipers, hotter than the Beetles were at Shea. Pied pipers who tell their acolytes to write the earth’s environment off to the unstoppable and imminent apocalypse, and to concentrate instead on multiplying their numbers.