“Our Mother Earth: militarized, fenced in, poisoned. A place where basic rights are systematically violated demands that we take action.”
These powerful words speak volumes on the character of Honduran indigenous and environmental activist, Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in her home in 2016. Co-founding the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993, Cáceres had been an active leader in grassroots land rights movements for indigenous peoples throughout the country. Her efforts were internationally recognized when she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her role in forcing Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam construction company, to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam project. Cáceres’ endeavors were but one of many in a popular movement of indigenous Hondurans who are defending their environment from capital exploitation.
As the most prominent environmental leader in the country, Cáceres’ assassination sent shockwaves throughout Latin America and brought greater attention to the indigenous plight from around the world. Since then, five other anti-dam protestors have lost their lives and her successor at COPINH, Tomás Membreño, was targeted in a failed assassination attempt. The problem is clearly systemic as over 120 Honduran environmental activists have died since the 2009 coup d’état at the hands of a corrupt and militarized state. The impact of external forces have done much to contribute to an institutionalized culture of violence with impunity and the destabilization of Honduran indigenous communities.
A staging ground for American policies to “contain communism” during the Cold War, Honduras has not developed as well as some of its regional counterparts. 63 percent of the nation’s eight million people live below the poverty line while one million of them additionally suffer from malnutrition. Elected as president in 2005 representing the center-right liberal party, Manuel Zelaya gradually abandoned the platform and veered toward a policy of leftist intersectionality. He joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a socialist alternative to the United States’ proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, and looked toward leaders like Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro for support.
He enacted a series of reform policies that looked to benefit the majority of Hondurans. The minimum wage was raised 60 percent to reach a total of $9.60 per day, subsidies were given to small farmers and free education for all children was provided. He promoted the involvement of citizens in local decision-making processes, lowered the cost of fuel, provided free electricity to those most in need, expanded social security programs to cover domestic employees, supported the rights of the LGBT community and attempted to legalize the morning after pill. His popularity stemmed from marginalized sectors of society and he supported indigenous rights movements in their struggle to resist extractive industries backed by foreign capital.
Zelaya was by no means perfect. His name could be associated in distaste with corruption charges and his father’s role in a series of murders but they didn’t stop him from getting elected. In office, his social programs were obviously a threat to the ruling elites of Honduras and the world’s economic hegemony but Honduran activist and school teacher Hedme Castro likely summarized his presidency the best: “Maybe he made mistakes but he always erred on the side of the poor. That is why [his supporters] will fight to the end for him. Many people gave their lives so that we could have a democracy. And we cannot let a group of elites take that away.” In a country where 90 percent of the wealth is owned by just ten families and media outlets are dominated by an elite, conservative core it’s not surprising that those who thrived under the status quo felt threatened as the government’s priorities changed.
Zelaya proposed a democratic referendum that would allow citizens to vote on whether or not an assembly should be called to make changes to the 1982 constitution. Though he claimed that he would not do so, one of the proposed changes would allow Zelaya to run for re-election. The Supreme Court ruled his proposed referendum as unconstitutional and his time left in office was not long. By 2009, his reforms had made him an enemy of the media, the military, the wealthy elite and citizens who succumbed to the sensationalized notion of a leftist dictator. On the day the referendum was to be held, the military captured Zelaya and forced him into exile.
A tumultuous period ensued with an end result unfavorable to Zelaya and his supporters. The United Nations immediately denounced his removal and continued to recognize him as the rightful president. The Organization of American States also showed their solidarity for Zelaya and suspended the membership of Honduras. The United States saw things differently and chose to support a more business-friendly form of government. The election following Zelaya’s removal was anything but “free, fair and transparent,” like Hillary Clinton and State Department officials claimed.
Police suppressed and murdered anti-coup protesters, media outlets favorable to Zelaya were censored and Honduran government officials gave different estimates on election turnout to validate the results. Further cementing their historical legacy as repressors of democracy in Latin America, the U.S. denied a plan from the O.A.S. that would make Zelaya’s return from exile a prerequisite for elections. Another key detail that emerged was that by not officially considering the events which transpired to be a military coup, the United States did not have to halt aid to Honduras as required by international law. This aid often ends up in the hands of paramilitary and police forces via the military and is used to suppress those who speak out against governmental policies.
The Nation reports that: Since Zelaya’s ouster, there’s been an all-out assault on decent people – torture, murder, militarization of the countryside, repressive laws, such as the absolute ban on the morning-after pill, the rise of paramilitary security forces, and the wholesale deliverance of the country’s land and resources to transnational pillagers. In 2011, the O.A.S. created the Honduras Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated the case of Zelaya’s removal from power and officially determined the acts which occurred to have been an illegal coup, instead of a constitutional transfer of leadership like his adversaries argued. This proclamation was two years too late however, as the National Party had already solidified power and was carving up land to capital investors. The party’s rise coincided with the designation of over a quarter of the country’s land for mining grants that subsequently created a demand for energy that the country was not able to produce. The government, in turn, chose to displace and destabilize indigenous communities through the privatization of land and rivers in order to construct the hundreds of dams necessary to provide ample hydroelectricity.
The most publicized case is the construction of the Agua Zarca dam that Berta Cáceres and community members protested vehemently against. The dam is to be constructed on the Gualcarque River which is considered sacred by the Lenca people. Locals were adamantly against the project when they first heard about it in 2011 and when the mayor called an assembly to vote on the project, the locals rejected it entirely. Despite this, the mayor still went ahead with the project and signed a contract with the dam’s primary developer: Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA). In response, the citizens maintained a roadblock which prohibited the company from entering the proposed area of construction. Since 2013, the peaceful protesters have faced intimidation and repression tactics from the military and DESA’s own paramilitary forces.
Members of COPINH, which Cáceres originally founded to stop logging and defend the rights of the Lenca people, have been targeted and often portrayed as criminals. Local leader Tomás García was killed and several others were seriously injured in July 2013 when soldiers fired from within DESA’s property into a crowd of peaceful protestors. In the face of violence, the organization did not back down and maintained their blockade through 2015 when the company adjusted their plans without notifying the local community and began construction along the opposite side of the river. Threats against COPINH members continued to escalate through May 2016 when an assassin entered Cáceres’ home and murdered her. She died protecting her people, her community and a sustainable existence. As The Nation states, these construction projects are “a violation of international treaties governing indigenous peoples’ rights.” If completed, the Agua Zarca dam would hinder hundreds of Lenca from accessing their traditional source of water, food and medicine. It would furthermore disregard international law that protects indigenous people’s right to sustainably live off of their own land.
The struggle against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam is but one of many being waged by the indigenous peoples of Honduras. In September 2016, Amnesty International published a report on the challenges facing communities across the country as they spill their blood to resist the economic pillaging of their sovereign land. Besides Agua Zarca, the Lenca are defending their rights to territory and water in the municipalities of Santa María and Aguanqueterique and against additional hydraulic projects such as La Aurora in San José and Los Encinos in Santa Elena. The Tolupán in the San Francisco de Locomapa region are combatting invasive timber and mining industries. The Garifuna are upholding rights to their ancestral land in the face of tourist developments. In Bajo Aguán, poor farming communities are demanding that their rights are respected as corporations plant non-native African palm plantations for the extraction of palm oil on land that the farmers claim was granted to them by government through various land reforms from prior decades. The Aguán region has been especially problematic as 98 people have been found dead since the 2009 coup.
So who is funding these confrontational projects and providing the means for these deaths to continue? Multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank deserve a portion of the blame for providing loans to corporations who use violence and repression as tools to defend their unlawful economic interests. One such example is the Dinant corporation who dominates the aforementioned Aguán region with their palm plantations and have become well-known for their repression of small farmers through paramilitary violence. Weapons that are only supposed to belong to the military have been found in the hands of local police and private paramilitary forces. Reports from several media outlets have shed light that the high-profile assassinations and killings of members from social movement groups like COPINH have ties to the Honduran police and military. The U.S. deserves blame for this as well because they continue to provide humanitarian and military aid as well as training to the country despite its ineffective legal system, poor track record on human rights and armed forces’ links to death squad activity.
In the year following the assassination of Berta Cáceres, unfortunately not much has changed. The majority of those who commit these violent crimes against indigenous communities and protesters in the name of capital go unpunished. The most recent killing came in late February as the leader of the Tolupán people, José Santos Sevilla, was assassinated in his home. In relation to the Agua Zarca dam project, the Central American Bank of Economic Integration pulled out of the project in early June. They served as the primary source of funds and were the only organization left funding the construction after two European firms stopped participating immediately following the death of Cáceres in 2016. DESA received less than 40% of the necessary capital to construct the dam and without any financiers left, it’s completion remains uncertain. U.S. military aid is still being sent to Honduras, though the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act was reintroduced to congress in March. The bill would require that the U.S. government halt all military aid to the country until the human rights violations carried out by private paramilitary forces are formally addressed by the Honduran government. Though this is certainly positive news, the struggle is by no means over.
As Berta Cáceres stated before her death, “Indigenous peoples are confronting a hegemonic project pushed by big national and international capital. The promoters of that strategy have imposed a profoundly neoliberal model based on invasion and militarization of territories, plunder, and privatization of resources.” Whether in Standing Rock or Santa María, that message rings out loud and clear to those who are willing to listen. Just how much blood remains to be spilt for the cause of neoliberalism?