Defending Indigenous Lands in Honduras: A Photo Essay

All photos appear courtesy of the author, as well as another collaborator who cannot be named for safety reasons.

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For five months, Pedro Diaz and his daughter Iris—together with other members of the 400-family community of Rio Blanco, Honduras—have stood before this roadblock. The community in Rio Blanco, Honduras constructed it to defend their sacred Gualcarque River from Honduran and Chinese construction companies who want to build a dam on it. “The flag is mine,” Pedro said proudly. Pedro, Iris, and their neighbors are indigenous Lencas whose ancestral lands are supposed to be protected by national and international law. Like other indigenous peoples throughout Honduras, those in Rio Blanco defend their river and their land at the cost of their lives and liberty.

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At stake throughout Honduras—as throughout the world—are indigenous lands, rivers, knowledge (otherwise known as intellectual property), rights, and autonomy. Stacked against all these are extraction, “development,” and profit, with predatory businesses bolstered by the U.S.-backed Honduran government. Pedro and Iris’ home of Rio Blanco tells just one story of plunder, violence, and resistance. Above is an aerial photo of the illegal installation on the Lencas’ protected river. The community’s blockade has prevented construction of the actual dam.

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A tree at the entrance of Rio Blanco hosts the message, “God gave us this land and we will defend it.” In opposition, the Honduran government has ramped up its attacks here and in many other parts of the country. Together with company-financed goons and members of rich families in the area, Honduran police and soldiers in Rio Blanco have killed, shot, kidnapped, macheted, arrested, and threatened villagers. The government and the corporations are also using political and legal weaponry to try to break the resistance and gain control over the lands, forests, and waters.

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On July 15 in Rio Blanco, a soldier shot Tomás Garcia multiple times at close range. He died immediately. A member of the local Indigenous Council and of the Council for Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Tomás had been offered 20,000 Lempiras (U.S. $980) to support the dam project. Despite being extremely poor and needing to provide for his large family, he refused to sell out. Tomás was laid to rest in the community cemetery, surrounded by the riches of Mother Earth he had fought to defend.

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Seventeen-year-old Alan García Dominguez, one of Tomás’ children, was walking with his father when he was assassinated. Alan was shot twice, in his chest and back, both bullets striking perilously close to his heart. Alan’s mother has serious health problems and cannot work. The six children, as young as eight years old, are now solely responsible for planting and harvesting the cornfield that (barely) sustains their family. None is in school. The family cannot pay for the mother’s monthly medical expenses. Alan continues attending COPINH events to defend the land. When asked if he wanted to be a community leader when he grew up, he emphatically nodded yes.

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The indigenous movement in Honduras lacks the global attention of similar movements elsewhere. “Honduras is known for two things only,” COPINH leader Berta Cáceres said: “being the base for the contras” in the U.S.-led war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, “and Hurricane Mitch.” Here, a banner at the entrance of the community center in Utopia, a liberated autonomous community that COPINH created, shows Lempira, the Lenca chief who led the resistance to Spanish colonists in the 1530s. The text reads: “500 years of struggle, we will continue resisting. Lempira lives! The struggle continues!”

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Honduras hosts six U.S. military bases, and its police and military are heavily funded by U.S. aid. Last June, 21 U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing alarm over human rights abuses committed by Honduran police and soldiers. The House of Representatives held a hearing on the same issue in July.

Maria Santos Dominguez, the sister of the slain Tomás Garcia and the aunt of the twice-shot Alan, lives daily with the effects of those wrongfully spent dollars. Her husband Roque was slashed across his eye, face, arms, and hands with machetes by allies of the government seeking to expropriate her people’s land. When we told Maria we lamented her family’s suffering, she said, “Screw the company trying to take our river, and the government. If I die, I’m going to die defending life.”

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Alongside daily threats to their lives, COPINH leaders face serious legal repercussions. One of the many charges the Honduran government has brought against COPINH leader Berta Cáceres is illegal possession of a weapon “in contravention to the internal security of Honduras.” She and two others, Aureliano Molina and Tomás Gomez, have also been charged with “continual danger” to the security of the nation and “invasion of land.”

The goal of all this is to decapitate the movement so that the corporations can continue their extractions unimpeded. Here, the community turned out before the courthouse to support Berta during an earlier trial.

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One of COPINH’s slogans in defense of the three leaders is We are all Tomás, Berta, and Aureliano. Another is They fear us because we are fearless. September 19 marks an international day of action to demand that charges be dropped against the three COPINH members; that the dam project in Rio Blanco be stopped; and that the government respect all ancestral territories and stop the violence against indigenous communities. Sign a petition here.

Beverly Bell is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Coordinator of Other Worlds. She has worked with indigenous movements in Honduras for 15 years.