Refusal to Submit: The Repression and Resistance of Indigenous Activists in Honduras

This article was originally published by ROAR Magazine.

Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.

These are the words of Berta Cáceres, the community organiser, human rights defender, environmental activist, indigenous Lenca woman, leader and rebel who was shot dead one year ago, on 3 March 2016, by unidentified gunmen at her home in La Esperanza, the capital city of the department of Intibucá, in south-western Honduras.

Berta was a co-founder of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), an organisation fighting neoliberalism and patriarchy in Honduras and working for respect of human rights, and the rights of indigenous peoples in particular. She was a long-term opponent of internationally funded exploitative development projects in indigenous territories in Honduras, such as the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, set to be built on the territory of the Lenca people in the Río Blanco. Her name had been on a hit-list of social and environmental activists given to a US-trained specialist military unit in Honduras months before her death. Recent information leaked from court proceedings suggest a leading role was played in her assassination by Honduran military intelligence services.

The killing of the celebrated indigenous activist led to wide-spread and sustained coverage in the Honduran, Central American, and international media. In its aftermath, eight people have been arrested, including employees of the Agua Zarca dam and current and ex-military officers, however, no convictions have materialised and the intellectual authors of her assassination remain untouched. Serious failings in the investigative process, including the failure to call on the sole eyewitness of the killing to identify suspects, have held back any movement towards justice for Berta’s family, community, or her colleagues in COPINH. Similarly, the wide-spread outcry of indignation at Berta’s murder has not resulted in any steps towards greater protection for the indigenous peoples in Honduras who are fighting for their right to exist and the safeguarding of the open, communal, sufficient and balanced nature of our environment.

In 2016, at least 281 human rights activists were killed worldwide as a direct result of their human rights-based work. Of these victims, 49% percent were working on issues connected to land, environmental and indigenous rights, such as illegal logging, water pollution, population displacement, attacks on self-organisation of agricultural labourers, and violations of International Labour Organization Convention 169, an international treaty specifically safeguarding indigenous rights to which the overwhelming majority of Central and South American countries are a party. In the same year, 33 deaths were reported in Honduras, an increase from the 17 killings reported in 2015, eight of which were directly connected with land, environmental and indigenous rights.

Repression of environmentally conscious, active and effective indigenous persons in Honduras is long-standing. It is now also systematic, with a wide-array of tactics being employed by State and non-State actors to obstruct, scare and repress activists. On 11 February 2017, an attempt was made to arrest Miriam Miranda, another community organiser, human rights defender, environmental activist, leader and rebel, an indigenous Garifuna woman, on arbitrary grounds, when her car was stopped in La Ceiba, northern Honduras. She was also verbally abused and threatened by police. Miriam was the co-recipient, along with Berta Cáceres, of the Óscar Romero Human Rights Award in 2015. She is the coordinator of the Organización Fraternal Negra de Honduras (OFRANEH), an organisation founded in 1978 to protect the territorial and collective rights of the indigenous Garifuna people, in the context of large-scale displacement of Garifuna communities to make way for tourism projects in towns such as Trujilo along Honduras’ scenic eastern coast. In her case, as in that of Berta Cáceres, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights had directed the Honduran government to take precautionary measures to ensure her safety. Such directives rely on the political will of the State in question, and often prove ineffective, as in the case of Victor Vásquez, President of the Consejo Indígena de Simpunla and the leader of the Movimiento Indígena Independiente Lenca de La Paz (MILPAH), who was shot by military personnel during an eviction of indigenous farmers in Santa María, La Paz, on 18 January 2017, or in the case of his fellow MILPAH member, Ana Mirian Romero, who suffered an arson attack on her home, and has received multiple death threats as a direct result of her work. On 18 October 2016, José Ángel Flores, President of the Movimiento Unido Campesino del Aguán (MUCA), and his fellow MUCA member Silmer George, were targeted and killed in a drive-by shooting in Tocoa, Colón, in the Aguán valley in northern Honduras. The Inter-American Court had requested the Honduran government to implement precautionary measures for José’s protection in 2014, but the State failed to comply. The list could go on; it is constantly expanding. On 20 February 2017, José de los Santos Sevilla, a community leader of the indigenous Tolupán people, who are fighting for their ancestral territorial rights to be respected in the face of industrial-scale logging and mining projects, was shot dead in his home in La Ceiba. These crimes are compounded by almost complete impunity.

The violations perpetrated against those indigenous peoples who speak out and take direct action to counter the dominating narrative of development in Honduras, unequal economic expansion centred around resources exploitation, monoculture, the development of tourism, and unregulated special development regions, have at times been directly linked to the right-wing Government of Juan Orlando Hernéndez and the ruling National Party, who came to power following the USbacked coup d’etat in June 2009, and defeated the popularly-formed LIBRE party in national elections dogged by killings of political figures and LIBRE activists in November 2013. The increase in the ferocity of these violations is occurring alongside massive US aid to the country, which amounted to US$98.3 million in 2016. The release of the aid money is ostensibly conditional on the country satisfying human rights standards, yet has continued unimpeded in spite of the verifiable increase in human rights violations and killings of human rights defenders in the country. A large portion of the financial aid, US$18 million in 2016, has been earmarked for the Honduran military and police services despite their repeatedly reported role in these human rights violations.

As the Honduran government steps up its programme of extractivism, (there are currently 411 granted mining concessions in Honduras, covering an area of 6,630km), and international investment in extractive industries under the guise of development-aid continues, indigenous groups and activists in the country find themselves under increasing pressure. Amidst attempts by the global tourist industry to exploit as-of-yet relatively untouched areas of the Caribbean coast gather speed, and the value of controlling ‘recession-proof’ resources such as water becomes more apparent, they will face further challenges.

Yet in spite of the violence that has been employed against them and the mounting risks they face, indigenous peoples and environmental rights defendersin Honduras continue to organise. Each killing, attack and threat has the potential to fracture links between their organisations and to undermine grassroots movements and activism, yet solidarity continues to grow. In Honduras, indigenous peoples are in revolt. They are fighting for their rights to exist in a system that has no part for them to play beyond subservience. When they refuse this role, they become targets, but they also expose a crack in the wall, because the rest of us can hear them.

Today marks the culmination of a week of action organised by COPINH to mark the one year anniversary of Berta Cáceres’ killing, and to signal their continued indignation at the repression of indigenous communities in Honduras, and intensifying human rights violations in the country. They ask people to join them in the use of the hashtags #BertaVive and #COPINHsigue, to show the perpetrators that this indignation is felt worldwide.