As Support for Corrupt Dams Collapses, the Indigenous Movement in Honduras Rises For the Sake of Us All

The Guardian recently reported that all international financial  support for the Agua Zarca dam has been withdrawn — which is an important victory in the struggle against the dam and for life, peace and justice in Honduras! The Agua Zarca dam is particularly infamous not just because it was planned  without the consent of the local community and would disrupt the sacred Gualcarque River, but because it was over this issue and the intense resistance to it that the government murdered the well-known activists Tomás Garcia and Berta Cáceres. The announcement of the withdrawal of funding is just one victory on the road to complete justice for these two — which the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the indigenous right organization that Ms. Caceres founded, is now demanding along with the recognition that “[her] assassination is not an isolated incident carried out by individual interests but rather part of a systematic attack against COPINH and its general coordinator.” In other words, COPINH is trying to gain legal recognition of the fact that these murders are not isolated but are part of a systematic effort by the government to intimidate and stop the activities of COPINH, which has been active for over 20 years and has successfully opposed dozens of dam and logging projects (as well as won indigenous land titles and other victories). In this sense, Berta Caceres’ life, death and her life-after-death are really part of a much broader phenomenon whereby indigenous communities and their allies are demanding a more just, transparent and humane system that is respectful of the life of all people and the Earth both in Honduras and across the developing world. As COPINH recently stated in a blog post:

“…we re-affirm our struggle in defense of our territories and our resolve to continue building this political project known as COPINH to promote an alternative life, one consistent with the Lenca people’s worldview and in harmony with life, and to confront with more struggle and organization the process of criminalization, persecution and harassment promoted by the economic elite and the corrupt officials who serve the capitalist project of death that invades our territories and violates our sovereignty.”

Thus, what COPINH and Berta Caceres’ work represent is a struggle against an entire system that is corrupt, secretive, inhumane and exploitative, and it offers an alternative vision that is based on openness, deep-rooted culture, respect for human life and nature and respect for the rights of people, communities and their cultural-spiritual-ecological worldviews.

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Above: “Berta Caceres stands at the COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) offices in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras where she [and] COPINH have organized a two year campaign to halt construction on the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project, that poses grave threats to Rio Blanco regional environment, river and indigenous Lenca people.” Photo by coolloud and copyrighted under Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

As COPINH stated in another blog post about the life of Berta Caceras and the movement for political-economic-cultural-spiritual freedom that was in a way truly brought to life by her death, “As with Berta Cáceres’ life work, COPINH’s goes far beyond environmental defense. Its aim is to transform the political, economic, and environmental landscape of Honduras, and – in conjunction with movements elsewhere – of the world.” This type of effort to transform the system into one that is more transparent, based on law and respectful of people’s rights and their spiritual worldviews is happening not just in Honduras but across the developing world as indigenous led-organizations and their allies (often social justice and environmental groups) are demanding governments’ recognition of communities’ right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in development projects, recognition of their rights to their land, of the value of their traditional knowledge and of their ways of managing and stewarding ecosystems (which are often highly effective) and their systems of spirituality. At the same time, these networks of communities and organizations are challenging their political systems in ways that are highly beneficial to all of us — because we all benefit from free, open and just governments that act within the law and respect people’s cultures, voices and their right to shape the course of development. This work is also shattering old concepts of “the state knows best” and “progress can’t be stopped” and is bringing in new ways of thinking based on scrutiny, examination, openness, compromise, acknowledgement of others’ way of thinking and focusing first on how to meet people’s and cultures’ basic needs while respecting the Earth.

This is why what is going on in Honduras is important to the entire world. Honduras represents perhaps the most extreme example of a phenomenon that is happening worldwide — that of indigenous and other marginalized communities and their allies gaining in power and challenging corrupt,  often antiquated, colonial and totalitarian systems and demanding systems that are more transparent, based on law, centered on human values and respectful of people, cultures and the environment. The actions of the Honduran government (i.e. the murder and harassment of activists) are a desperate, flailing attempt to regain control over a situation marked by a widespread, deeply-rooted and unshakably motivated movement for change. The common narrative of the Western media that this as a story of indigenous people under siege by powerful government and economic interests is, at best, myopic (and at worst it tries to paint indigenous people into a position of powerlessness, which completely misses the bigger picture and feeds into our old stereotypes). It is really a story of the government, its corruption, its brutality and its inadequacy being under siege (or under pressure) by indigenous communities and other groups that are demanding change for a more open, healthy, life-affirming and just system for all. This matters tremendously to us in the United States as well now that we have the Trump administration in power and we are getting a taste of the self-serving, corrupt, inadequate and violence-based (or at least threat-based in Trump’s case) type of government that many developing countries experience and the U.S. has supported in Latin America for a long time. It is really one and the same system, and we have much to learn from Honduras’ indigenous movement to challenge and change its government into a real democracy.

COPINH has not been cowed by Berta Caceres’ death. Instead, this has only made its members look more deeply into themselves, declare at their 11th General Assembly that Berta Cacers is their “permanent General Coordinator and the guardian spirit of [their] organization and struggle” and reaffirm their commitment to transform their country’s system into one that is life-giving and respects their rights. May they have the best of luck for the challenges that lie ahead, and may they successfully change the way of being and of thinking not just of their own government but of all of us. Long live Berta Caceres, long live the Lenca people’s struggle for free and open government in Honduras and long live peaceful, open, life-affirming and just government on Earth!

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Above: Rio Negro, Montaña de Comayagua, Honduras. Photo by Joe Townsend and copyrighted under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

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