By Jeff Conant
Like many nations with abundant natural resources, Honduras, in the heart of Central America, is a country suffering from the resource curse. Its forests call for logging interests to exploitation, its minerals are coveted by mining interests, its mighty rivers invite large dams, and its fertile coastal plains are ideal for industrial agriculture.
Honduras is also the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. The violence is largely linked to crime and to the fact that the political oligarchy maintains a large part of the country's wealth and power is in the hands of a few. When the country's rich resources are at stake, environmentalists are also often frequent targets of those same interests.
Some of the best preserved areas of the country are in the territory of the Lenca indigenous people, who built their culture around the land; forests and rivers were their livelihoods for millennia.
In 1993, after the 500th anniversary of the "discovery of America," when indigenous peoples of America began to create national and international federations to claim their sovereignty, the Lenca territory gave birth to the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).
In these 22 years, the leaders of the COPINH popular struggle have made it the engine of the conservation of the country's environmental and cultural heritage, which has earned it the ire of loggers, dam builders, oil palm interests and others. whose riches depend on the depredation of the environment and its defenders.
Since the 1990s, COPINH forced the cancellation of dozens of logging operations. It created several protected forested areas, developed municipal forest management plans, and secured more than 100 land titles for indigenous communities, in some cases covering entire municipalities.
One of the latest triumphs, the one that earned COPINH's founding member Berta Cáceres the Goldman Environmental Prize, was pushing until one of the world's largest dam builders, the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, withdrew from a dams known as Agua Zarca.
Berta became a well-known figure in her country in 2009, when she emerged as the leader of the movement that demanded the re-founding of Honduras and the drafting of a new Constitution, which obtained the support of then-president Manuel Zelaya, who proposed a national referendum to evaluate the affair.
But on the day of the referendum, June 28 of that year, the military surrounded and shot at the president's house, smashed the door and took Zelaya to a United States military base, where a plane was waiting for him to take him out of the country.
The United Nations Organization and the countries of the Western Hemisphere (except Honduras itself) condemned the military coup. All the states in the region, except the United States, withdrew their ambassadors, as well as all those from the European Union.
With the deposition of the elected president at the polls, Honduras fell into a spiral of violence that continues to this day. But the coup also gave rise to a national resistance movement that continues to fight for a new constitution. In it, Berta and COPINH are committed to a new Honduran society built from scratch.
Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has seen a huge increase in megaprojects that will end up displacing the Lenca community and other indigenous people. Almost 30 percent of the national territory is reserved for mining concessions, which creates a demand for cheap energy to power future operations.
To meet that need, the government approved hundreds of dam projects. Among them is that of Agua Zarca, a joint initiative between the Honduran company Desarrollos energéticos SA (DESA) and the Chinese company Sinohydro.
With the planned construction on the Gualcarque River, Agua Zarca was promoted without consulting the Lencas, who would be left without a supply of water, food and medicine.
COPINH began the fight against the dams in 2006. It took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, filed an appeal against the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank's arm for the private sector, which had agreed to finance the project, and carried out various non-violent civil disobedience activities to stop construction.
In April 2013, Cáceres organized roadblocks to prevent DESA from accessing the works. For a year, the Lencas maintained a strong peaceful presence, enduring several eviction attempts and violent attacks by militarized security guards and the Honduran Armed Forces.
That same year, community leader Tomás García, from Río Blanco and a member of COPINH, was shot dead during a peaceful protest. There were other attacks with machetes, arrests and torture. None of those responsible were brought to justice.
In late 2013, citing community resistance and the scandal after Garcia's death, Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA. Agua Zarca suffered another blow when the IFC withdrew the funds, concerned about human rights violations. Currently, construction of the project is on hold.
The award will focus much-needed attention from the international community on COPINH and Honduras, as the dispute over resources in the region increases.
"The award and the international attention coincide with a difficult time for us," Berta told a small group of people who gathered to welcome her to the US state of California, where one of the two award ceremonies is taking place.
"The situation in Honduras worsens," he warned.
“When I am in Washington at the end of this week to meet with US authorities, the president of Honduras will be in the next room hoping to raise more than $ 1 billion for a series of mega-projects promoted by the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and the United States, which increase the danger that our natural resources end up in private hands through mining, dam and wind projects, ”he explained.
"This is accompanied by a greater militarization of the country, which includes new ultramodern bases that are being installed at this time," he said.
All over the world, at the forefront of the environmental fight, there are people from visionary and courageous social movements, such as COPINH, and activists such as Berta Cáceres.
"To fight against the assault on dams, mines and the privatization of our natural resources, we need international solidarity," Berta stressed to her followers in the United States.
"When we receive their solidarity, we feel surrounded by their energy, their hope, their conviction that together we can build societies with dignity, with life, with rebellion, with justice and, above all, with joy," he added.
If the world moves towards reducing the destructive social and environmental impact that often accompanies economic development, we need to do everything possible to recognize and support peasants, indigenous peoples and social movements that every day put their lives at risk to stop the wave of destruction.
Inter Press Service - IPS Venezuela