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 Mayan’s 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, that 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. Invariably, the race to exploit these resources means the expropriation of land or water resources from communities.
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 economy of the majority of the population, who are completely separated from 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 organising 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 solidarity with demands for improved environmental protection, roads and sewage systems.
Now, COPINH has grown to cover hundreds of communities, and fights for their rights both in political lobbying and grassroots development, often with international support. In the context of Honduras’ violence and repression, this is often a very dangerous struggle, but their results have been impressive. They have programs for women’s rights, tackling chauvinistic violence often carried out as part of political struggles. They have set up 5 indigenous radio stations – a vital form of communication between isolated mountainous communities they work with – to help promote indigenous education and keep their movement strong. Their early successes included helping two communities, San Francisco de Opalaca and San Marcos de Caiquín, attain their own autonomous governance. These communities have their own health centres and schools, and COPINH have opened 3 professional education centres in La Esperanza, training Lenca from the wider region in teaching, nursing and project leadership, to bring skills back to their remote communities.
The 2 principle 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 private sale of the 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 out their land – their livelihood – to extract its resources.
The Lenca’s connection to their land extends beyond their economic base, they have their own culture, with a genuine and important spiritual connection to their land, their rivers, wildlife and their principle crops. Especially important for COPINH have been pushes to privatise water resources – taking water from communities that need it – and a wave of hydroelectric dam projects. Far from being positive pushes for sustainable energy, these projects aim to sell electricity to the US, and to mining concessions that now include almost 30% of the country’s land area. While they take the power to benefit other countries and big business, they dispossess indigenous of their land and water resources, and fail to fulfil promises of local investment or jobs.
Protesting against hydroelectric projects has brought recent successes for COPINH. 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 figurehead of COPINH’s successful campaign against the Agua Zarca dam. The Honduran government agreed the project without local consultations on the Lenca’s sacred Gualcarque river, with investment from Chinese-State hydroelectric company Sinohydro, and the World Bank. COPINH members formed a blockade to the construction site, which survived violent attacks for over a year. In one such attack, COPINH member Tomás Garcia was killed by the Honduran military. The intransigent 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 visited COPINH in 2013, during the Agua Zarca protests, and travelled to the community blockade of the Agua Zarca site. There I met Berta Caceres, and also Tomas Garcia, who less than 2 months later was shot dead at the site. COPINH‘s struggles for indigenous rights and environmental protection, against the most corrupt and repressive regime currently in Central America, stuck with me. With the opportunity to return this year, I have arrived it turns out, in the middle of a completely new and hopeful wave of popular protest. 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 soon.