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COPINH: Defending Lenca Lands

Cover Photo: Berta Cáceres. Photo: Prachatai via Flickr

By Nicole Tse

In the wake of the recent tragedies in Honduras, most people have heard of COPINH either through the media or from other sources. The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas en Honduras in Spanish) has traversed the borders of its country and become relevant in all parts of Latin America where activists face similar risks because of their work.

Based in the southwest of Honduras, COPINH is made up of 200 indigenous Lenca communities in the departments of Intibucá, Lempira, La Paz, and Santa Bárbara. The organization’s purpose is to improve the quality of life for indigenous people. For example, it actively works to strengthen indigenous communities in Honduras, pushing for recognition of their political, social, economic, and cultural rights.

COPINH was founded in 1993 by a group that included the late Berta Cáceres. In the department of Intibucá, the new organization fought against logging and involved itself in many other popular struggles. Many of these struggles were and continue to be caused by the presence of multinational corporations in Central America for the purpose of exploiting its natural resources: the land, the water, and so on.

Its main work centers around protecting the indigenous communities, their way of life, and the environment from destruction through industrial projects such as logging and the construction of dams. In 1994, the organization mobilized hundreds of indigenous people to pressure the Honduran government into ratifying the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989) by gathering outside of Congress and refusing to move. This Convention, also known as International Labour Organization Convention 169, requires the government to consult indigenous communities before implementing projects that directly affect them. Another way that COPINH pursues its goal is by obtaining titles for indigenous communal lands. This allows the communities to use the legal system to keep their territory and natural resources from being exploited by outsiders. Additionally, it has helped to create protected zones where logging is prohibited. Within the indigenous communities themselves, COPINH plays a large part in the creation and funding of health and educational centers.

In addition to defending indigenous rights in general, COPINH also focuses on women’s rights. It works to both uplift women in positions of leadership in Lenca communities and organizations as well as to combat the obstacles that all women in Honduras face, especially the ones that arise from the concept of machismo. Some of this is done through the Voice of the Lenca radio station, which analyzes social, economic, and cultural issues through a feminist lens; it also serves as a platform for discussion about women’s issues in the voices of those very women. With regard to the environment, one of the biggest challenges that COPINH pits itself against is the building of hydroelectric dams. More than 300 new dams are planned in the entire country, with 49 of those on land that belong to the Lenca members of COPINH. These dam-building contracts, along with mining, logging, and other types of projects, are all in violation of the aforementioned ILO Convention 169—that is, the Honduran government did not receive the consent of the indigenous peoples in whose territories those projects will take place.

Some of COPINH’s most recent maneuvers involve the DESA Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project. In 2013, the organization began protesting construction of the dam on the Gualcarque River, a body of water in the Río Blanco region that is not only culturally and spiritually significant to the Lenca people, but also supports diverse ecosystems, agricultural production, and medicinal flora in the area. While COPINH’s efforts were enough to cause several of the project’s investors to pull out of the country, construction—and support from partners such as the Dutch development bank FMO, the German companies Siemens and Voith Hydro, and even the United States government—continued.  In 2015, organization members planned a peaceful protest in front of the San Francisco de Ojuera City Hall. However, their transportation was stopped by newly dug ditches in the roads; they were also greeted with insults and armed attacks. Today COPINH continues its fight against the Agua Zarca project, arguing that even the plants that are not located on Lenca land are its concern due to their negative effect on the Gualcarque River, which does indeed flow through Lenca lands.

Photo by: fotomovimiento.org

Photo by: fotomovimiento.org

Just before the tragic assassination of Berta Cáceres, COPINH held a Forum on Alternative Energies from an Indigenous Viewpoint (Foro sobre energías alternativas desde la visión indígena in Spanish). This forum was centered around rejecting and overcoming “consumerist, privatizing, and predatory logic.” Instead, the aim was to provoke a debate about alternative energy, environmental sovereignty, and indigenous rights. Ultimately, COPINH hoped that the dialogue facilitated by the forum would result in the creation of a proposal for ecological and humane alternative energy based on the Lenca perspective.

Unfortunately, the heartbreaking aftermath of this hopeful event is nothing new to the activist community in Honduras. It is very likely that the 2013 murder of Tomas García, another one of COPINH’s leaders, the more recent murders of Berta Cáceres and Nelson García, and the earlier arrests of Cáceres and fellow members Aureliano Molina and Tomas Gómez were all carried out on the orders of the Honduran government. With the government backed by large companies that stand to benefit from COPINH’s defeat and the exploitation of indigenous resources, COPINH is reaching out to groups such as the nonviolent National Front for Popular Resistance (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular or FNRP in Spanish) in order to criticize and oppose the corruption and unjust policies of the current regime.

COPINH has also demanded that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights support a thorough investigation of the two recent murders, to prevent Honduran authorities from protecting the guilty parties. Because if the current impunity continues and COPINH ceases its work? Greedy corporations will exploit the land with no thought for its people, and the consequence will be destruction.