Report from Honduras - Traveling in Honduras with Agricultural Missions, Inc.
"The fight for rights is a fight for life."
May 1, 2016
What I have learned from listening to COPINH activists is that their struggle is about land and water, yes, but fundamentally it is about dignity. That sounds abstract but it's really quite basic to being human. It is the right to have rights, and in the case of the Lenca, the right to self-identify as indigenous and to have their history and traditions recognized and respected.
Perhaps you recall the photo from the U.S. Civil Rights struggle: "Negro" men marching with placards reading "I AM A MAN." Not a boy, the usual epithet for Black males, but an autonomous individual deserving of recognition and respect. That's what came to mind as I pondered COPINH's struggle.
Here are more concrete issues they're grappling with:
100,000 indigenous Lenca live in west Honduras. They are the second largest indigenous group; the Garifuna, of whom I will have more to say as our journey continues, is three times as big.
The Honduran constitution provides no protections for indigenous; they're not even mentioned. Therein lies a root cause of the necessity for struggle.
Why COPINH opposes dams on the Río Blanco: 1) it's their ancestral land and no one consulted them; 2) the dams would flood Lenca villages and cut off water to others; 3) the dams would restrict access to Lenca sacred lands; 4) the project makes certain rich people richer.
COPINH doesn't oppose development per se, but the government wasn't interested in their alternative proposals.
If the Río Blanco is built, others will follow. The Honduran government has awarded 50 concessions for various projects.
The development company (DESA) offered Berta a blank check if she would call off protests. When that didn't work, they spread rumors that her Goldman Prize money had turned her head, that she no longer cared about the campesinos.
Berta's life had long been threatened. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered Honduras to provide protection. The government offered police protection, but police are part of the problem. Anything else was deemed too expensive, so nothing was done.
Gaspar told us that Berta's murder was an attempt to cut off the head of COPINH in the hopes that the organization and its bothersome protests would just go away. They aren't.
Since Berta's assassination, harassment of COPINH activists has increased.
The government has not responded to repeated requests for an independent investigation of Berta's murder. Rather, they interrogated COPINH members repeatedly as suspects.. This outraged Marleny. "She was our mother, our sister! How could we turn against her!"
Thousands turned out in Tegucigalpa on April 15 for a demonstration honoring Berta. Many internationals participated. When a smaller group traveled to the dam site, they were set upon by company-paid thugs while the police and military stood by.
Which is why Marleny said to us, "To fight for rights is to fight for life."
May 2, 2016
What we didn't do on May 1st: Drive four hours to Tegucigalpa to participate in the annual May Day march. It would have been a raucous and exciting event, but our purpose in going would be to accompany a COPINH delegation and, given everything else that they're is dealing with, they didn't organize one.
What we did do that was even better: Visit the grave of Berta Cáceres. It was a somber and moving occasion.
Berta is buried outside of La Esperanza proper, in a cemetery adjacent to a small Catholic church and within sight of the forested hills that she loved so much. Marleny, who, with her father Ramon, led us there, tidied the offerings on Berta's grave, discarded dead flowers, and wiped dust from the concrete surface with her scarf.
She also wept openly and spoke passionately. I didn't understand every word she said, but I didn't need to. She was demonstrating her great love for Berta, the cause they struggled for, and the Lenca people.
Ramon then spoke, more quietly though no less passionately, about the need to protect the earth, our mother. He called out the corporate and government thugs who were behind Berta's assassination.
We stood in silence for a very long time, each of us communing with Berta in our own way. Esteban had brought meal ground from his corn crop; he spread a small circle of it on the grave covering. Two indigenous members of our delegation knelt and prayed with tobacco, their sacred medicine, and one sang, calling on the ancestors to be with us.
It was quiet, peaceful and profound.
From the cemetery we drove back into town, past the plaza, then climbed up a steep hill reached by a massive flight of stairs carved into bedrock. Open before us was a panoramic view of La Esperanza, hedged around by forests and mountains. Again we paused for an extended period, a bit less somber now. In the distance, dogs barked and roosters crowed. This was the land that Berta loved, I thought, and I could see why that would be so.
Marleny led us onward, this time to a park-like area of the town where, for more than 100 years, people have come to bathe in water that gushes from a pipe set deep into the hillside. The four women of the delegation followed Marleny to the women's facility, a spacious, unroofed chamber built of native stone.
Taking the scarf with which she had wiped Berta's grave, she thrust it under the flowing water, speaking of how the water, which is forever, would wash away the pain, death, evil of Berta's murder. She had us all hold the scarf as water poured down before us and pronounced us linked together forever.
In contrast to her mood at the cemetery, Marleny spoke joyously, her eyes bright, weeping and grief behind her-for now.
Then we threw off our clothes and one-by-one, stood under the flood of cold, cold water, welcoming its cleansing. When I felt finished, I dried off and rested on one of the stone benches built into the walls, taking deep pleasure in being au natural in the natural world. Equally pleasurable was watching Marleny relish an extended frolic in the water.
Looking back on the day's journey from grief to joy, I saw how ceremony and community could sustain hard journeys. It was a privileged glimpse into another way of being in the world.
[Postings from the daily diary of the Agricultural Missions, Inc. delegation to Honduras.
We go to show our solidarity with the Lenca people, the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and the family of Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman and cofounder of COPINH who was assassinated March XX, 2016.
Agricultural Missions, Inc., is an ecumenical NGO founded in 1930 to:
* support rural peoples in their struggles to achieve justice
* better lives and communities, and
* to engage its North American constituency and general public on issues of importance to the rural peoples in the United States and other countries.