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News from the South: Focus on Honduras

Indigenous opposition to Puebla-Panama Plan faces serious repression

On July 21, leaders of indigenous, campesino and grassroots organizations from throughout the Central American nations and Mexico gathered in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, for the Mesoamerican Forum, fourth in a series of meetings discussing the defense of ecological culture throughout the isthmus. The groups gathered are directly opposing the Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP), an isthmus-wide mega-development initiative aggressively promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Meanwhile, in the Honduran countryside, three peasant ecologist leaders were assassinated just days before the Forum opened - casting the issues addressed at the meeting in a stark light.

In the southern province of La Paz, two Lenca Indian campesinos involved in an occupation of contested lands were killed in a dawn attack by presumed hired gunmen of a local landlord. In northern and remote Olancho province, a peasant leader who had been opposing illegal timber exploitation on communal lands was cut down at his home by an unknown pistolero. A banner above the check-in desk at the Forum read: Remember the Martyrs of La Paz and Olancho.

There was an irony that the Forum was held in a city dominated by the ubiquitous icons of corporate culture - Burger King, McDonald's and Pizza Hut. In contrast, the banner above the stage at Tegucigalpa's Universidad Pedagogica, where the Forum was held, pictured a traditional Maya Indian design of a maize god.

The first Mesoamerican Forum was held in spring 2001 in Tapachula, Chiapas, after the IDB and Mexican President Vicente Fox announced the Puebla-Panama Plan, which calls for new hydro-electric projects, trans-isthmus trade routes and industrial zones. The Forum convened again in fall 2001 in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala; and in July 2002 Managua, Nicaragua. At the Tegucigalpa meeting, the agenda was topped by the issues of breakneck resource exploitation privatization of national resources and infrastructure - especially water. A water privatization law currently pending in the Honduran national legislature would mandate that local municipalities allow private contracts to run their water systems. Honduras' second city, San Pedro Sula, already has such a contract with an Italian firm. Privatization of basic services is a heated issue across Latin America.

Such privatization moves are IDB and World Bank prescriptions - but, as representatives from throughout the Mesoamerican subcontinent pointed out, they are taking place in atmosphere of lawlessness, in which public oversight is meaningless and opponents are sometimes even targeted for assassination.

Heirs of Lempira struggle for the land

The two Lenca Indians killed at La Paz, Fabian Gonzalez and Santos Carrillo, were part of a land occupation led by the National Center of Rural Workers (CNTC), one of the largest campesino unions in Honduras. The killers opened fire with AK-47 rifles in dawn attack on their encampment July 19. In an eerie coincidence, the very next day, July 20, was Dia de Lempira, a national holiday commemorating the death in 1536 of the Lenca warrior who resisted the conquistador Francisco Montejo. The land in question had been first occupied in 1985, under a provision of the Honduran agrarian reform law allowing peasants to move on to unused private lands, and begin a process for their eventual expropriation and title transfer to the campesinos. But the agrarian reform law has now been almost completely repealed in Honduras.

Lenca leader Berta Caceres notes an irony that Lempira has become a symbol of national pride even as Lenca land rights and culture have been lost to modernization. "The indigenous context has been invisible in Honduras for too long," she says. "But there has been a new process of struggle since the '500 Years of Resistance' campaign in 1992 and the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas in 1994. We are organizing to defend Lenca territory." Caceres is the coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), representing 47 communities in the Lenca heartland of La Paz, Intibuca and Lempira departments. It was founded in 1993, and has been at the forefront of a Lenca cultural and political renaissance. The Lenca are among the northernmost Chibcha Indian groups, whose cultural sphere begins just south of that of the Maya and extends into South America. Their language only survives in some 45 words - mostly referring to animals and places, such as the local Sierra de Puca Opalaca, which means "high mountain" in Lenca.

Since 1993, COPINH has organized a series of 4,000-strong "indigenous pilgrimages" to local sacred sites associated with saints and virgins. Caceres says these pilgrimages "linked the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Lenca with our political demands." COPINH has also resorted to more militant tactics, such the 1993 occupation of local timber mills to protest deforestation. COPINH's demands have won some results - such as the redrawing of municipal borders to give local Lenca communities legal contol over their territories. In 1994, the first new municipality was created, San Francisco Opalaca in Intibua department - the only municipality in the country where all land is collectively owned and managed by an indigenous land council. Six other new municipalities followed in the ensuing years.

Under the Honduran agrarian reform, some national lands were transferred to campesino collectives, which held them privately, but not for resale. Under the 1992 Agrarian Modernization Law - known as the "contra-reforma" - they can now be resold. The "contra-reforma" also overturned provisions for expropriation of unused private lands for redistribution to peasant squatters. In addition, the National Agrarian Institute (INA) started privatizing national lands and even "ejidos," the traditional communal lands accruing to municipalities that had been protected since the colonial era.

The war actually continues, in lower and higher intensities, as indigenous leaders are still marked for death. On May 17 of this year, Teodoro Martinez, a Tolupan Indian leader in the central department of Fracisco Morazan who had been leading a campaign against illegal timber operations, was assassinated. Martinez had been a leader of another indigenous alliance, the Confederation of Autochthonous Peoples of Honduras (CONPAH) - whose founder, Vicente Matute, was assassinated in 1989, the year the organization was launched.

Olancho: Trouble on the wild frontier

The largest department in Honduras by territory, Olancho is largely inhabited by mestizo settlers from the central and southern zones of the country who were encouraged by the government to colonize the wild frontier to the north in the 1960s and '70s. But, as always, economic interests followed the settlers, and today the pine-clad mountains of Olancho are being rapidly denuded by local timber barons. On the road, you pass numerous trucks loaded with huge pine logs, heading south towards the Pan-American Highway and foreign markets. You also pass several timber mills cutting the big logs into boards.

On the night of July 18, Carlos Arturo Reyes was shot down by an unknown pistolero at his home in Olancho's El Rosario municipality. Reyes had founded the local Olancho Environmental Movement (MAO) in 2001, and had led a cross-country March for Life in June 2003, in which 30,000 marched from Olancho to Tegucigalpa to demand a crackdown on outlaw timber operations. MAO used marches, community meetings and finally - in February of this year - physical blockades of logging roads to press their demands for community participation in drafting what the group calls a "rational plan of exploitation." Twenty other MAO members are now said to be targeted for death.

Other peasant ecologists have likewise been assassinated in Olancho in recent years. On June 30, 2001, Carlos Flores of La Venta, a village in Gualaco municipality, was gunned down in front of his home by AK-47 fire. As a leader of the local Heritage Center of La Venta, Gualaco (CEPAVEG), he had opposed a hydro-dam being built on the nearby Rio Babilonia by the private firm Energisa under contract to the Honduran government. Two of Energisa's guards were eventually arrested in the case, but Gilberto Flores, Carlos' cousin, says "the intellectual authors remain free."

Gilberto, still involved in opposition to the hydro project, is now facing death threats himself, has a National Police officer assigned to protect him in La Venta. Gilberto reports that on June 14 he had an AK-47 leveled at him from a passing car in Juticalpa, capital of Olancho department. Gilberto emphasizes the necessity of halting Olancho's deforestation and fighting to maintain public control over water resources: "In many municipalities in Olancho, there is no water. We dig wells and we find none. The department is going dry. This has happened over the last 20 years, along with the exaggerated exploitation of our forests. There are around 100 trucks full of timber leaving Olancho each day for Trujillo," the northern Caribbean port.

Also apparently targeted for death is Rafael Ulloa, former mayor of Gualaco. Ulloa protests that the appropriation of the Rio Babilonia for the hydro-dam represents a reversal of national priorities. "Officially, water is to go first for municipal use, then for irrigation, and then for electrical generation. But downstream communities will lose their access to the river by this project."

Nearby is Las Delicias, in neighboring San Estaban municipality, where national police and private gunmen evicted some 20 families from 83 manzanas of land on July 23. Across the barbed-wire fence the remains of recently-razed homes. The families, settlers from Choluteca department in the south, had been on the land for over 20 years. They are now living in an overcrowded one-room schoolhouse and makeshift bivouacs on adjacent municipal land. They say that the courts ruled for the local Calderon ranching family in the land dispute despite the campesinos' title to the land. The case is pending before INA, but the families, who worked their land as a peasant collective, have little hope the decision will be reversed. They say their meager cattle were stolen in the eviction as well, and probably wound up on the already-expansive lands of the Calderon family.

The evicted campesinos point out a beat-up Toyota pick-up truck parked near their bivouacs. It is riddled on the driver's side with bullets from an AK-47 attack in the prelude to the eviction - allegedly by Calderon gunmen. The driver, Candido Cruz, lost his leg in the attack, and now hobbles on crutches.

On the road between Salama and El Rosario, Padre Tamayo draws attention to a large expanse of mountainous and forested land owned by a local "cacique" - a land baron and political boss favored by the corrupt bureaucracy. He says trucks leave the cacique's land hauling out timber frequently, and the mountainsides are rapidly being denuded. Across the road, more forested slopes form the opposite wall of the valley. These, Tamayo says, are the communal lands of local peasant communities. But they are also being denuded by the local timber barons, as campesino leaders are bought off with cash or alcohol. Tamayo asserts that 80 percent of the wood cut in Honduras is felled illegally.

On March 2, 2002, the Honduran daily El Heraldo reported that ex-head of the national forestry agency, COHDEFOR, Marco Vinicio Arias, faces corruption charges for illegally allowing the felling of trees in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, which stretches north from Olancho into the extremely remote lowland tropical rainforests of the Miskito Coast.

Tamayo says that six companies control the Olancho timber trade in a shady network that overlaps with that of the narco-gangs who use Olancho as an artery for U.S.-bound cocaine between clandestine ports on the Miskito Coast and the Pan-American Highway. Timber revenues are used to launder narco-profits, and both go to arming paramilitary-style mafia enforcement gangs. Tamayo refers to the timber gangs as "narco-madereros" or narco-timbermen.

Tamayo claims that the timber is largely resold to U.S.-based companies for export, and much of it is off-loaded in New Orleans and other U.S. ports.

Once again, some corporate powers appear to have an incestuous relationship with the criminal and paramilitary gangs that terrorize the isthmus. "This is the second conquest of Mesoamerica," says Tamayo.