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Since a military coup in 2009, Honduras has become one of the most repressive nations in Latin America. The Honduran “oligarchy” of rich landowning families has extended its power throughout the corrupt government, and the country has experienced increaed militarisation as it cements its control.
COPINH – the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras – is one of hte cutting edge organisations fighting for human rights in Honduras. It works in the west of the country with indigenous groups such as the Lenca, who suffer constant marginalisation. COPINH supports direct action, legal battles, and crucial international advocacy to fight against the marginalisation of indigenous people.
COPINH is the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras – an indigenous organisation dedicated to fighting for indigenous rights in the west of the country. Honduras still has several indigenous groups, with their own communities and cultures, related to the Mayans whose impressive ancient cities are familiar icons of Mesoamerica. In COPINH’s area the main group is the Lenca, whose “campesino” farming communities have a spiritual connection to their land and environment.
These indigenous groups face a variety of daily threats, which are entwined with the social, economic and environmental problems throughout Honduras today. The country is rich in natural resources – especially mineral resources, forests and water. As in much of the developing world, these resources have become the target of exploitation by the wealthy elites within the country, and for international business – small communities having neither the means nor desire to sell off the resources in their land.
In Honduras the wealthy “oligarchy” landowners employ the police, army and private mercenaries to enforce their land grabs from poor campesino communities. Especially since the military coup of 2009, they have acted with complete impunity, against a backdrop of endemic corruption. Sometimes, these expropriations represent the theft of farmland. Increasingly, they are for large-scale projects – especially mining and hydroelectric dam building – which attract international investment and support from the World Bank and IMF. However, this “investment” does nothing for the wellbeing of the majority of the population, who do not benefit in any way from the swelling of the bank accounts of the oligarchy.
COPINH was founded in 1993, after the signing of El Salvadoran peace accords led to the demilitarisation of the area, and opened a space for community organisations to make their voice heard. Through COPINH’s organisational work, the Lenca people – long marginalised at the social and economic edges of Honduras – found a voice to promote their rights. COPINH’s initial marches brought masses of rural Lenca into the city of La Esperanza – COPINH’s main base – in support of their demands for improved environmental protection, roads and sewage systems.
Now, COPINH has grown to cover hundreds of communities, and fights for the rights of the Lenca through both political lobbying and grassroots development, often with international support. In the context of the extremely high level of violence and repression in Honduras, it is often a very dangerous struggle, but the results have been impressive. COPINH has programmes for women’s rights, tackling chauvinistic violence often carried out as part of political struggles. It has set up five indigenous radio stations – a vital form of communication between the isolated mountainous communities it works with – to help promote indigenous education and keep their movement strong.
Its early successes included helping two communities, San Francisco de Opalaca and San Marcos de Caiquín, attain their own autonomous governance. Today these communities have their own health centres and schools, and COPINH has opened three professional education centres in La Esperanza, training Lenca from the wider region in teaching, nursing and project leadership, so that they can take these skills back to their remote communities.
The two principal fights COPINH and the Honduran indigenous campesinos are engaged in are around environmental protection and land, and the two are intrinsically linked. As subsistence farmers, and with a history of marginalisation and lack of support from the government, indigenous communities rely on their land to support them. With the creation of the San Francisco de Opalaca autonomous municipality, COPINH successfully pressed the Honduran National Agrarian Institute (INA) to grant the municipality’s 22 communities communal land titles.
The land is now owned collectively, and the private sale of land is prohibited unless through community processes. These communal titles are respected under the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169 on Indigenous Rights, which Honduras signed on to in 1994. Communities with these titles have a stronger legal foundation to protect their rights. Since COPINH’s first success with Opalaca, COPINH has helped hundreds more communities gain this precious status, which protects them from exploitation by wealthy businesses, interested in buying up their land – and thus their livelihood – to extract its resources.
The Lenca’s connection to their land extends beyond its economic importance: their culture affords a genuine and profound spiritual connection to their land, their rivers, wildlife and their principal crops. Especially serious for COPINH have been the attempts to privatise water resources – which means taking water away from communities that need it – and a wave of hydroelectric dam projects. Far from being positive initiatives to obtain sustainable energy, these projects aim to sell electricity to the US, and to mining companies whose concessions now cover almost 30% of the country’s land area. While these companies use the energy to benefit other countries and big business, they dispossess indigenous people from their land and water resources, and fail to fulfil earlier promises of providing local investment and jobs.
COPINH has recently achieved some success in its campaigns. Berta Cáceres is co-founder and general coordinator of COPINH. In April 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize for South and Central America, as the representatve of COPINH’s successful campaign against the Agua Zarca dam. The Honduran government agreed the project without local consultations about the Lenca’s sacred Gualcarque river, with investment from the Chinese state-owned hydroelectric company Sinohydro, and the World Bank. COPINH members formed a blockade at the construction site, which survived for over a year, despite violent attemtps t dislodge it. In one such attack, COPINH member Tomás Garcia was killed by the Honduran military. The determined and courageous community resistance — and the murders and torture being used to try to break the resistance — finally led Sinohydro and the World Bank to withdraw their support.
ENCA has supported COPINH with small community farming projects in the past. I first visited COPINH in 2013, during the Agua Zarca protests, and travelled to the community blockade of the Agua Zarca site. There I met Berta Cáceres, and also Tomás Garcia, who less than two months later was shot dead at the site. COPINH’s struggles for indigenous rights and environmental protection, against Central America’s most corrupt and repressive regime, remained with me. With the opportunity to return this year, I have arrived, it turns out, in the middle of a completely new wave of popular protest (which gives us grounds of hope). Evidence has linked the ruling party to a multimillion-dollar scam that stole from the country’s health system, leading to thousands of deaths. As an important part of the resistance, COPINH is in the middle of this. I will report more fully in later blogs.