Six months after her murder, the Honduran activist has become a symbol of Lenca resistance to mining and hydroelectric projects in Honduras. But not all Lencas oppose the exploitation of their rivers and their lands. The temptations of the private sector and the government’s neglect have divided the communities.
A river died here. Only its carcass remains. A dry bed. A dusty trench with enormous boulders and rocks of all sizes, where fish once swam. Its gallows are a few meters above it, in the Jilguero mountains: a cement dam where the waters of the river Zapotal and all that used to inhabit it go to die. Crowning the dam is a big plastic banner with the still-recognizable face of congresswoman Gladis Aurora López, vice-president of Congress; president of the National Party, which is currently trying to re-elect president Juan Orlando Hernández; and wife of the owner of this dam, which bears her name: Aurora 1. Below the smiling face of the congresswoman, El Zapotal dies. From here, the water runs in tubes for a few kilometers and comes to an end further down amidst turbines.
Down below, we walk on what was once a river with Magdaleno Aguilar, a sturdy 61-year-old Lenca who fished here his whole life; who bathed here his whole life. Even though the law requires the hydroelectric plants to keep part of the river flowing to preserve the ecosystem, there’s no water here anymore. This is an arid ditch in the middle of the rainy season, except for one pool formed by the trickle of a thin waterfall that slides down one of the faces of the Jilguero mountain. “See,” says Magdaleno Aguilar. “There’s no river left. There’s no fish left. There’s no water left.”
This river dried up by decree. With a license from the Ministry of the Environment under the de facto administration of Roberto Micheletti, a license granted without doing any of the consultations or studies laid out by the law. With construction permits approved by the San José mayor’s office without the referendum required by Honduran law and international treaties. With a contract in which the government-owned National Electric Energy Company promised to buy the energy produced by Aurora 1 for the next half century. Though both the congresswoman and her husband have said that the project was approved during the administration of deposed president Manuel Zelaya, official documents reveal that the contract was signed in June 2010, a year after the coup d’etat, when Gladis Aurora López was already a national representative—even though the law prohibits state contracts with government officials.
El Zapotal lies in a protected nature reserve, in the Honduran department of La Paz, only a few kilometers from the border with El Salvador. This is Lenca territory. But not even a protected nature reserve could stop Aurora Investments, the company owned by the prominent Nationalist Party family, from getting authorization to construct the hydroelectric plant.
Arnold Castro is the owner of Aurora Investments and the husband of congresswoman López. Soon after receiving the permits, in 2010, he signed an agreement with representatives of five communities from the town of San José La Paz, which listed the projects each community requested in exchange for supporting the dam’s construction. This list helps put the poverty of these communities in dimension: plaster the walls of the school or the church, build access roads, assign a vehicle to evacuate sick residents during emergencies, improve the health center, provide electricity to the community, etc. There are others, like nets for the goals on the soccer field and the construction of a chapel. In return, the representatives granted Aurora Investments the use of their communities’ natural resources to produce hydroelectric power. For the next 50 years.
The agreement was reached behind the backs of residents, but it was enough for Aurora Investments to forgo the consultations the law required. When people demanded they be consulted, the congresswoman organized a rally with National Party supporters and collected their signatures. Problem solved. Then they killed the river. Aurora didn’t even follow through with the miserable promises it made to the community representatives. The roads leading to the dam are the same battered paths forged many years ago by a local organization of coffee producers. There’s no vehicle to evacuate the sick from this remote zone. Nothing. Just the dam.
This type of project has been booming in Honduras ever since the coup d’etat in June 2009. “The coup became a piñata,” said Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, the director of Radio Progreso, a station widely recognized as hub for popular movements and a platform for taking a stand against human rights abuses. “Everything collapsed. The multinationals allied with local companies and politicians. A wave of licenses were granted in the first few months.”
Micheletti’s government repealed decrees that prohibited the exploitation of water resources in protected zones; then came a massive privatization of rivers and licenses for dams. Forty new projects were authorized in a single year, among them, the Auroras. Since the 2009 coup, the successive administrations of Micheletti, Lobo and Hernández have granted 111 licenses for the construction of hydroelectric plants. Politicians also passed a law granting tax exemptions to the developers of such projects. Some of Honduras’s most powerful families rushed to create “green” companies to develop hydraulic projects in extremely poor communities. The government buys the majority of the energy produced.
They also granted hundreds of licenses for mines; for highways; for the administration of nature reserves; and, starting next year, for the private management of entire communities in so-called “model cities.”
In the northwest, the Honduran government has started leasing state highways to private companies. The experiment is so aggressive that it’s impossible to leave the city of El Progreso, the old capital of the banana industry, without passing through a tollbooth. From San Pedro Sula to Tegucigalpa, the only way to avoid the first of four tollbooths is by crossing the dangerous Rivera Hernández neighborhood, which is controlled by gangs. There’s no escaping the other three tollbooths. The highway that connects the two most important cities in the country was constructed with Millennium Challenge funds—funds from the U.S. government—, which were matched by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration and the World Bank. However, it has been contracted out to a private Ecuadoran business, which takes care of maintenance and charges tolls.
Honduras’s social security program—which was nearly bankrupted by a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme by officials from the Hernández administration—has started giving out vouchers to hospital patients so they can buy medicine in commercial pharmacies. In other words, private pharmacies are guaranteed business by the government.
Mining is probably the clearest example of privatized Honduras. According to the Jesuit-led Team for Reflection, Investigation, and Communication (ERIC), Honduras has granted 155 mining contracts, encompassing a third of the country’s territory: 35,000 square kilometers, a landmass larger than all of El Salvador.
The mining law, approved in 1999, faced strong resistance from social organizations, who succeeded in getting a moratorium passed on new contracts until 2009, when the coup ushered in a de facto administration that caught contract fever and passed it on to subsequent governments.
The government of Roberto Micheletti gave mining companies permission to exploit all water resources in areas under their control, which effectively stripped 90% of nature reserves of legal protection. The next two governments dug deeper. Last year, Honduras hosted a global mining conference called “Honduras is Ready for Mining,” which offered nearly a thousand new mining projects to foreign investors.
Then there’s the displacement of rural peasants so agroindustry can use their land, another major source of social conflict.
Honduras has delegated the development of its poorest populations to the private sector. It appears the government has surrendered to the businessmen.
The Lenca leader Felipe Benítez has come to Simpinula, just a few kilometers from the Aurora dam, to lead a Mayan ceremony. He wears jeans, a long-sleeved, flannel shirt made in America, and a hat to protect himself from the sun. He’s 44 years old, with skin weathered from agricultural work and a smile that doesn’t fade even when he talks about the hydroelectric projects he sees as a threat to his people.
I’ve been following him around because today, August 21, 2016, a “guancasco” will be celebrated here: a Lenca ceremony that usually involves two communities coming together to reaffirm their friendship and harmony, and join in traditional dance. But today’s ceremony is not your everyday guancasco. Representatives of various Lenca communities from La Paz have made the trip to Simpinula, over a torturous dirt road on a steep downhill slope, to participate, they say, in an historic day.
Simpinula is in a small valley, tough to reach, hidden among hills and tall mountains. The entrance and center of communal life is an enormous, worn-down soccer field, composed of a few patches of grass and rusty goalposts without nets, that also serves as a parking lot for the trucks and buses that today have delivered dozens of pilgrims. When a game is underway, if someone sends the ball flying, it will need to be rescued from a neighbor’s cornfield. Facing the field is the hill where the guancasco will take place.
It’s been raining this morning and the clouds still shine with that dusty grey color that suggests they’re about to burst and let loose a tropical downpour, like they’ve done every day for the past two weeks. I mention this to Felipe Benítez, by way of warning. He looks at the sky, smiles, and tells me no. Rain won’t fall until late afternoon. The sun will come out soon.
The Lencas have come together today on a small plateau crowning the hill across from the soccer field. The women dug three cube-shaped holes in the ground, where they’ve started wood bonfires and are stirring big pots filled with salty corn gruel, corn on the cob, and beef stew with yucca. For a poor community, this luxury indicates the status of the celebration.
They’ve painstakingly prepared a small ceremonial rug made of sawdust, surrounded by pine needles. In the center they’ve placed a ceramic urn; a Mayan statue of the kind sold Copán to tourists; and a plastic bottle with two liters of corn liquor to thank the land for the harvest. Grains are arranged at the four cardinal points, according to Mayan tradition: at the north, white corn; at the south, yellow corn; at the east, red beans; at the west, black beans. The rug is surrounded by a circle of herbs and fruits and flowers and candles, of the same colors as the grains, which symbolize purification, fertility, the sun, and death. A cosmic cross. An offering to Mother Earth, our Good Mother, who has given them the corn and the beans. Who has given them the rivers and the mountains.
Benítez heads an organization called Milpah (Movement of Indigenous Lencas of La Paz, Honduras) that has taken a stand against hydroelectric projects in the department of La Paz.
Aurora Investments got permission to construct another dam, called Aurora 2, up in Santa Elena, where Felipe Benítez lives. The Honduran government had no problem with approving the contract even though it’s also a protected nature reserve. Benítez and the other Lencas did have a problem: a private company wants to appropriate their rivers.
A few months ago, Lenca organizations like Milpah took over the highway, blocking access to the company’s tractors and other machinery used in the construction of Aurora 2. While they resisted on site, they began searching for long-term solutions. Their mission seems titanic, given the political power of Aurora’s owners. This morning’s ceremony in Simpinula is part of their strategy, which explains the presence of journalists from various local media, including community radio stations, and a few academics, all invited by Milpah to cover the ceremony.
A man blows a conch shell toward the sky to announce the start of the proceedings. Felipe Benítez takes a microphone and explains the Mayan cosmic cross: “Here we have the food that Monsanto wants to take from us…” Next he reads a press release signed by all the Lenca leaders in attendance: “Starting today, this hill will be called Guastes Tupayca.” Since barely any of the Lencas speak Lenca, Benítez translates: “Hill of Our Lord.” Starting today, this hill will be a ceremonial center. Residents of Simpinula have promised to care for it, to keep the cosmic cross in order and keep out stray dogs.
He invokes the spirit of Lempira and that of the indigenous and environmental movement’s new martyr: “Berta Cáceres. May her spirit guide us in our fight to protect Maika Durra, Mother Earth.” Berta Cáceres, the environmental leader who dedicated the final years of her life to protesting these projects, who was murdered six months ago and is now cast in martyrdom together with Lempira, the chief who resisted Spanish colonization up until the moment an Iberian musket split open his chest. A bullet through the chest—one of three—also ended the life of Cáceres five centuries later.
Just before midnight on March 2nd, three men arrived in the city of La Esperanza, forced open the door of Berta Cáceres’s house, and murdered her. Gustavo Castro, a Mexican activist who was staying at the house, received several bullet wounds. But he survived.
Felipe Benítez says he talked to Cáceres the day before the crime. “We wanted to form an umbrella group of various indigenous organizations.” These organizations now face the ultimate challenge of surviving the death of their most visible member.
Cáceres was the most recognizable Honduran activist in the world, especially after having won, a few months earlier, the Goldman prize, known as the Green Nobel. Her murder filled the pages of international newspapers, bringing to the forefront the conflict between indigenous communities and companies profiting from privatization fever. Not to mention the risks faced by Honduran environmentalists and land defenders. Berta Cáceres died on the eve of her 45th birthday.
The daughter of a Lenca leader (her mother), she began her political activity as a 16-year-old in the Salvadoran civil war. She had followed her boyfriend, the Honduran activist Salvador Zúñiga, over the border into the Salvadoran department of Cabañas. They joined the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), El Salvador’s guerilla army, in 1988. “We were part of the National Resistance,” explains Zúñiga. “And not just in El Salvador. We were involved in with logistics in Honduras and Nicaragua, too. During the ‘89 offensive we were in Soyapango.”
After the signing of the Peace Accords in El Salvador, they returned to Honduras to found the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, COPINH. “Our revolutionary experience helped us mobilize the communities, and it gave us ideas for strategy, which we then adapted for peacetime,” recalls Zúñiga, who was the organization’s first coordinator. At a time when Central America was trying to move past its years of revolution and dictatorship, COPINH was already waving the flag of a new battle: defense of the environment and recuperation of indigenous identity.
After divorcing Zúñiga, Cáceres ended up alone at the head of COPINH. She proved skilled at organization and fit for leadership. She’d already proved tireless, frequently visiting places where access was extremely difficult, a habit that added to her legendary omnipresence. People she met along the way remember her as particularly insistent on revering nature, a belief inherited from the Lenca world view; and on recuperating indigenous dignity and pride. She did it all with tactics learned from revolutionary movements: by participating in regional networks, appealing to international solidarity, and exchanging experiences with other movements throughout Latin America.
Cáceres shut down several sawmills, one of the major extractive industries in Honduras, and the source of violence throughout the country. She marched to Tegucigalpa with other activists to protest development contracts (once they toppled a statue honoring Christopher Columbus and erected one of Lempira in its place). She started workshops for Lenca men and women. COPINH became an important meeting place for many communities.
In 2010, shortly after the coup d’etat against president Manuel Zelaya, the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti contracted the Energetic Development company (DESA) to build three dams in the Gualcarque River, which serves as a border between the departments of Intibucá and Santa Bárbara, both Lenca zones.
DESA is a private company co-owned by José Eduardo Atala and his brothers Pedro and Jacobo. Their family business, Jacaranda, imports and distributes machinery and construction equipment; represents the John Deere brand in Honduras; and has investments in real estate and energy. The Atala brothers also own the Motagua Soccer Club.
They financed Agua Zarca, their hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River, with $45 million from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, funds that were originally donated by Finnish and Dutch foundations to support the production of clean energy. Agua Zarca is a run-of-the-river project that, unlike the Auroras, plans to maintain the environmental flow; it’s projected to produce 21 megawatts in the Gualcarque. That’s why it qualified as a clean energy project in the eyes of international donors. Early on in the project, the Chinese dam-building giant Sinohydro was subcontracted for construction.
Agua Zarca initially set up camp in Río Blanco, Intibucá, on the east bank of the Gualcarque River. But COPINH, with Berta Cáceres at the helm, succeeded in getting rid of Sinohydro. DESA then had to set up on the other side of the river, in the town of San Francisco Ojuera, Santa Bárbara, where it remains now.
When the Chinese left, DESA gave the construction contract to Copreca, a company accused in El Salvador of defrauding the government for $12 million during the disastrous construction of the Boulevard Diego de Holguín (now called Monseñor Romero). Copreca, whose owner Jesús Hernández Campollo is wanted in El Salvador for fraud, embezzlement, and willful misrepresentation, is in charge of various hydroelectric plants in Honduras.
But DESA has not been able to build the Agua Zarca dam, despite what the company has already invested (road construction; hiring engineers; electric installations; construction materials; social workers; private security guards; etc…), because of protests by communities opposed to the project. The resistance against Agua Zarca was led by Berta Cáceres.
Three years ago, Cáceres started receiving threats, which she believed came from DESA and the Honduran security forces. The head of security for the company was a retired military officer, Douglas Bustillo.
The president of DESA, David Castillo Mejía, is also a military officer. He graduated from West Point and was sanctioned in November 2009 by the Honduran Court of Audits for receiving a double salary from the National Electric Energy Company (ENEE) and the Army, where he served as a second lieutenant of military intelligence. The Court ordered him to return the salaries. It also found him guilty of selling overpriced equipment from a business he owned to the Army.
Because of the threats, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission told the Honduran government to take precautionary measures to protect Berta Cáceres. In spite of the threats, COPINH kept up its resistance. In spite of the precautionary measures, Berta Cáceres was murdered.
The crime caused so much international outrage that it became the principal political problem for Juan Orlando Hernández’s government. In the following weeks, Honduran authorities made five arrests: the twin sicarios Edilson and Emilson Duarte, suspected of having been hired to commit the crime; and their accomplices: the ex head of security of DESA, Douglas Bustillo, whom Cáceres had previously reported to the authorities for assault; the engineer Sergio Rodríguz, who was in charge of DESA’s construction projects; and Mariano Díaz Chávez, an active military officer at the time of the crime. Two weeks ago, authorities arrested Elvin Rápalo Orellana, who is suspected of being the third man who participated in the murder. There’s one suspect-at-large, Henry Hernández, who authorities believe was the driver waiting in the vehicle while the assassins shot Cáceres and Castro.
Investigators assembled the case from wiretapped phone records, which must have revealed only the route and time at which the murderers entered and exited La Esperanza, but also an intense dialogue between them and DESA’s ex head of security; when police searched the house of the Duarte twins, they found the gun used to commit the crime. Later the Public Prosecutor’s office announced that the twin assassins had confessed their participation and, according to reports in the Honduran press, said they had been contracted by Sergio Rodríguez, the engineer employed by DESA.
The arrests took the pressure off the government. Since then there has been no news about the intellectual authors of the crime and no apparent line of investigation into the participation of military officials. In June, a Honduran soldier told the British newspaper The Guardian that he had deserted after receiving a list of activists his unit was supposed to assassinate. Berta Cáceres was among them. The army denied these statements.
Neither COPINH nor DESA is satisfied with the investigation. “It makes no sense for them to blame the engineer Rodríguez or DESA,” says José Eduardo Atala, the company’s main shareholder. “No one becomes a killer overnight. Rodríguez is a family man.” Atala insists that since they moved the project from Río Blanco to Ojuera, they’d been working without problems. “We had fifteen months of uninterrupted work. We’d entered into a dialogue with the señora Cáceres. It’s not logical. Now we have a $45 million project on hold that was going along just fine. You tell me if the prosecutors’ theory makes sense.”
Victor Fernández, an attorney who was a friend and legal advisor to Berta Cáceres for many years, will represent the victim in the trial. Fernández thinks the case was poorly assembled because the investigation focused on telephone calls—whose content hasn’t been publicly disclosed—and not on people. He hasn’t seen much progress in determining the intellectual authors of the crime, or will to investigate on the part of the Public Ministry. “The case is the same as it was back in May, during the initial hearings.”
Atala also wants an independent investigation. He claims to have already contracted an international firm to carry out an in-depth probe. “As long as Berta Cáceres’s murder remains unsolved, Honduras won’t get any international funds for hydroelectric projects. It’s in the country’s interest to figure this out.”
To get to San Francisco de Ojuera, the town that now hosts the Agua Zarca project, you take the turn-off to Santa Bárbara and continue into the mountains down dozens of kilometers of dirt and pebble roads. The central plaza bears the name of the mayor, Raúl Pineda, who painted and remodeled it. Berta Cáceres reported him for threats and for joining up with police, soldiers and private security guards to repress anti-dam protestors. Since the activist’s murder, neither the mayor nor the deputy mayor has wanted to talk about the dam. They say they don’t want any more problems. Instead, the deputy mayor offers to take us to the house of Ramón Rivera, a DESA employee in charge of community relations and, since the imprisonment of the engineer Sergio Rodríguez, of DESA’s office in town.
Rivera is a thin man with greying hair that betrays his age despite his youthful look. He is 40 years old. Cloth wrist bracelets, glasses, and a way of speaking that’s more sophisticated than that of local residents make him resemble a university professor from any Central American city. He knows how to listen and when he speaks, he speaks with a serene voice flowing with arguments, aspiring to convince. On his desk there’s a model of the Agua Zarca project and various petitions with hundreds of signatures from area residents demanding the resumption of dam construction. DESA’s counter-attack, it seems, is being run by this man.
Despite his urban appearance, Ramón Rivera was born in this very rural zone, far from the rest of the world. When he was still a kid his family moved to Las Vegas, a mining town on the banks of Lake Yojoa. His father worked in the Mochito mine (owned by international mining companies since it opened in 1948), which extracts zinc, lead and silver. This early experience seems to have marked his view of progress: “The mine gave us a better house, with a hard floor and electricity. A better school. Better food. The mine gave us a better life. I learned about development there.”
Years later he won a scholarship and moved to Havana to study medicine. He spent four years there. He didn’t finish his degree, but he believes the Cuban revolution taught him something more important: “Everyone has the right to a decent life. Everyone has a duty to help his fellow man.” He thinks of himself as an environmental revolutionary and says this is why his relationship with the Agua Zarca project makes sense. “Producing electricity isn’t a crime in any legislature. This is a clean-energy project; it has created jobs, it has built roads, it will bring a clinic and a school. Why are the COPINH people against it? This is what we all want…development!”
I ask him if building roads and opening schools and clinics aren’t basic government obligations. “Yes. But it’s also true that the government has never met, and is in no capacity to meet, its duty to build roads and clinics and provide education and healthcare to all Hondurans. Why would we object to a private company bringing us these benefits?” Rivera isn’t the only one who thinks this way. On this side of the river, many peasants, many Lencas, are in favor of the Agua Zarca project. And Ramón Rivera is mobilizing them. He spends his days in communities that support the dam. He talks to them about the environment. Hydroelectric plants, he says, are the perfect balance between development and the environment.
Once the plant is finished and starts running, DESA is supposed to give the communities two percent of earnings from energy sales. But for now the project is on hold, because the international financial institutions suspended their payments after the murder of Berta Cáceres.
Last week, the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), one of the donors, published a report about the local situation, which was carried out by an independent international mission. The report is critical of the construction process and its effect on the communities; above all because there was no attempt to obtain free, prior and informed consent as mandated by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization.
Atala explains why: “The country is party to that convention but it never established a set of norms. And it’s the government that’s obligated to carry out those consultations, not the companies. But since the government excused itself from that responsibility, it asks us to do the consultations without even telling us how to do it.”
The then-Vice Minister of Natural Resources, Jonathan Laínez, is currently on trial for granting permits illegally—not only for Agua Zarca, but also for other hydroelectric projects, among them Aurora 2. A government official is on trial; but the companies aren’t even being investigated for benefitting from corruption.
The FMO’s report agrees with many of Ramón Rivera’s observations about the development possibilities the project opens up for communities in the area.
Rivera offers to guide us to the dam along dozens of kilometers of rural road that DESA built to get to Gualcarque. In a vehicle with four-wheel-drive, we head to the spot where the company began diverting the river; we make stops along the way to pick up peasants traveling from one village to another. Everyone greets Rivera with respect; everyone complains about COPINH. They say Berta Cáceres’s organization has robbed them of work; they accuse them of being violent. They blame them for the fact that the road is in shabby conditions; for the fact that they no longer have DESA’s services to take sick people to a clinic in an emergency. They accuse COPINH, in sum, of condemning them to underdevelopment. Of dividing the community. Of denying them the possibility of choosing a life like the one the Mochito mine gave Ramón Rivera.
We stop right where the river diversion starts. The company’s shovels have dug a canal and piled the extra dirt in a mound in the middle of the original Gualcarque riverbed. That’s how you divide a river: one of its branches will continue flowing down its natural bed while the other will be guided on a new course to the place where the company has decided to construct the dam, where water will start accumulating, waiting for someone to open the gates to let it run, in tubes for five kilometers, until from the top of a steep hill, it speeds up and plummets down, hard, into turbines that will produce the projected 21 megawatts; then that water will reunite with the rest of the flow. That’s what’s planned for the Gualcarque dam, but so far there’s only a small pile of dirt in the middle dividing the water, which comes back together on the other side because the rest hasn’t been constructed yet.
A few meters away there’s a hanging bridge, also built by DESA, that connects the two riverbanks. Crossing it takes you to the community of Valle de Ángeles, in the department of Intibucá. It’s one of five villages that make up the town of Río Blanco, and it’s the closest to the Gualcarque. Here, right on the riverbank, lives Lucila Mejía, a woman whose old age has given her a hoarse and blunt voice. The authority with which she talks contrasts Rivera’s soft drawl. “We have no problem with the project. Our problem is with the COPINH people. They’ve threatened us. They’ve told us they’re going to kill us.” I ask her how and when they said that. “Not directly. But everyone knows it. They tell us to be careful because the COPINH people want to kill us.”
How did a clean energy project become a conflict between poor communities? Lucila points an accusing finger at the mountain behind her, at the village of La Tejera, the heart of resistance to the dam. “They’re fighting for their river. But it doesn’t belong to them. It’s true, it’s a fight between communities. But they’re fighting to destroy it. The river is never going to dry up and this project brings us benefits. You see, people say the rich live off the poor. But the poor also live off the rich. COPINH doesn’t want them to give us benefits.” Two of her sons stand behind her. They’re tall and muscular. Both look about 30 years old. One of them says that a few weeks ago, neighbors told them that every afternoon, COPINH members sat down a stone’s throw from here and recorded people’s movements in the village. Worried about an eventual attack, one of Lucila’s sons decided to go confront them. Lucila was nervous, thinking they could kill her son. He tells me what happened: “I showed up and no one was there. And they never came back.” I ask him how he knows they were there in the first place. “That’s what people said. But I never saw them.” The conflict in Agua Zarca is filled with ghosts.
There seem to be two elements common to all extraction industry projects: local community divisions as a result of benefits promised to whomever is in favor; and rumors that spread like snowballs, making the divisions worse. From outside the forest, it appears to be a conflict between corporations and poor communities; but once you enter the trees it looks more like poor fighting poor.
Víctor Fernández, the lawyer in charge of the Berta Cáceres case, believes that what has happened since the coup reveals a plan on the part of powerful groups to take strategic control of Honduras’s natural resources. “These companies that offer to invest in social causes in the communities are trafficking people’s dignity.” The FMO mission report recommends resuming payments to DESA for the Agua Zarca project, because, it concludes, there’s no alternate development project for the communities living around the Gualcarque. In other words, the Honduran government has no plan to promote the development of its most abandoned communities, other than delegating that task to private companies whose interest is not social but commercial.
The government, says the report, wasn’t even capable of mediating conflict in the area. On the contrary, it acted the way it has historically acted: by sending in soldiers and police. And that’s when everything fell apart.
Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. According to the organization Global Witness, 118 have been murdered since the coup d’etat. None as visible, none as recognizable, none as clear, none as loud as Berta Cáceres.
Berta Cáceres passed through many times on these clay paths leading to La Tejera. So did the teams from DESA who widened the roads; and the Chinese engineers from Sinohydro who set out to build the damn; and the financial supervisors; and the trucks with supplies to set up camp for the Chinese on the edge of the Gualcarque River. Since then there have been various deaths. Even before the Chinese headed out with their bags and abandoned the project.
Alan García was 16 years old in July 2013, when he marched with other villagers to DESA’s camp to protest the project. He went with his father, Tomás, a local leader. Upon arriving at the gates of the camp, the protestors clashed with Honduran soldiers who were watching over the Chinese engineers. Versions of the story vary, but not the weapons: Among those participating in the protest were unarmed senior citizens, women, and children; and some men with machetes. The only firearms visible were in the hands of soldiers and private security guards. One of the soldiers shot and killed Tomás García. Alan watched his father fall and ran to help him. He was pelted by two bullets, which left him unconscious. He managed to survive after being taken to a hospital.
Now, 19 years old and an orphan, he’s a young man who barely speaks. He’s slight and still looks as young as he was the day he was wounded. He lifts his shirt and shows us the scars from that ill-fated day when he lost his father. One in front takes up half his torso. Another in back…a crater on his shoulder-blade. “The fight started because they invaded our land. Our bean fields. They rode tractors. They didn’t ask permission. They didn’t accept any kind of dialogue,” he says. “They just shot.”
Hours after Tomás Garcías’s death, a boy named Christian Madrid, 14 years old, was killed while tilling his family’s land. His older brothers blame his death on Berta Cáceres and COPINH. They claim to know who the murderer is: “A friend of my father’s who hung out with the COPINH people”; and they accuse the environmentalists of protecting him. Two deaths. Enough to divide a community to the point that, even if the Agua Zarca project shut down tomorrow, the differences between people are far too wide to expect them to quickly return to being a single community.
“We’ve all ended up divided here,” says Juan Bautista Madrid, one of Christian’s brothers. “Fathers against sons, sons against fathers. Cousins against cousins. The government forgot about us, the mayor’s office forgot about us. Just the company (DESA) brought us the road and gave us electricity. The COPINH folks destroyed the project. They’ve threatened us. Now families are killing each other.”
There are five villages in Río Blanco. The Madrids’ property sits right in between two of them, in an area called La Caseta. A few kilometers up is La Tejera. We didn’t let anyone there know we were coming, but as soon as we reached the plain that serves as a plaza, a woman approached to tell us that Doña Mercedes was expecting us. They already knew we had stopped to talk to the Madrid family. When we entered the house, two other community women were already there. By the time we left there were seven. Convened by Doña Mercedes “to make sure you’re well-informed.”
Mercedes Pérez is the leader of La Tejera and the head of a matriarchal family. Towering and thin, with hair already streaked with grey, she would be the mirror image of Lucila, the grandmother from Valle de Ángeles, if Lucila had white hair. Mercedes talks with the same force, but from the other side of the wall the dam has built between the communities of Río Blanco.
Her house is that of a poor woman with a big family. Dirt floor and firewood stove. There are dozens of ears of corn stacked in the corner in a fan shape, forming a figure that’s balanced, geometric, compact. Beautiful. On top of the corn there are pungent herbs to scare away field rats. Opposite the corn is a small hammock where a two-year-old is resting. Three older children shout and run around the house. Another, a little younger, stares at us from the corner. A twenty-something-year-old woman washes dishes in the concrete washbasin. She has another baby hanging on her back. All are Doña Mercedes’s grandchildren. Children of her sons who accepted responsibility for them. Children of her daughters whose husbands abandoned them.
Next to the corn there’s a doorframe with no door, but a curtain, through which you enter a tiny room. “Here’s where little Berta slept when she came,” Mercedes says, with pride. “Here’s where she ate.” Behind her is another room that serves as a dining area. Its walls are covered in posters with the photo of Berta Cáceres. Entering this house means finding yourself on the battleground against hydroelectric industry. Grandma Mercedes raises her voice: “I am COPINH until death! We will never accept a dam here. Never! They have no shame.”
Everyone agrees on the origins of the fight, which are very simple: DESA tractors invaded a bean farm. People got mad at the company. They organized a protest and tipped over the tractors. The soldiers sprang into action to protect the Chinese. As the protest approached the entrance of the camp, the government used its iron fist. To defend the company. A shot rang out, ending the life of Tomás García, then two more, gravely wounding his son, Alan. Later, someone killed Christian Madrid. The snowball was growing. Afterwards there were other deaths. One from malaria. Another killed at a drunken party. A young woman died in a car accident. Each side of the community has found a way to blame the other for each of these deaths.
I ask Mercedes Pérez about the deaths. I start with Christian Madrid. “Look, his mother was a close friend of mine. We don’t talk anymore. That boy didn’t die for nothing. It’s his family that sold the land for the dam.” I press her a little more and she ends up blaming DESA for that death, too: “They killed him in order to blame COPINH.” Then she talks about the other deaths. The drunk’s murder seems suspicious to her, because the murderer acted with premeditation: “He took him drinking in order to kill him,” she says. The girl who died in a car accident was headed to the bean field the tractors were invading. If the dam weren’t under construction, if the tractors hadn’t trespassed onto the field, if the community didn’t have this problem…the girl would still be alive. So that death should also be added to the list of victims of the dam. And so on. And with every death she mentions, her eyes narrow and her jaw hardens. With spite.
The only thing about which she seems agree with her old friend, the mother of Christian Madrid, is that it will be very difficult to reconcile this community. It’s the same in all the communities divided by these projects, especially where there have already been deaths. Poor versus poor. Lenca versus Lenca.
Seated in his office in La Esperanza a few blocks from the house where Berta Cáceres was murdered, the interim coordinator of COPINH, Tomás Gómez Membreño, will later tell me: “These problems arrived with the contracts. The origin of these problems is in the contracts, not in the communities.”
Communities in La Paz are less divided, at least so far. There have been no deaths among those in favor of the Auroras, but there also hasn’t been much development or opportunities to defend. The greatest community-based opposition to indigenous groups comes from those benefitting from political patronage. Mayors, company representatives, National Party employees in the area. It’s through them that the government is pushing through its plan.
In Simpinula, there are cement posts, the kind that hold electric cables. But there are no cables. There’s no electricity. Just cement posts. It’s an absurd sight in the middle of the mountains. The government promised to connect the village to the electrical grid when the Aurora projects were getting started, but the community refused to let a catastrophe define it. Without a catastrophe, they were told, there’s no electricity.
There’s no electricity. The people of Simpinula found protection in ancient Lenca law, which states that land in the community is communal, not individual, and they used it to resist the catastrophe. This is part of their resistance to private contracts; their way of tying themselves to the mast to resist the siren’s song: If the community owns everything, a company can’t tempt a peasant into selling his land to development projects. But it’s only one part of their resistance. Refusing catastrophe also entails reaffirming the community’s indigenous roots.
Indigenous organizations in Honduras, which also represent other ethnic groups (the Pech, the Tawaka, the Misquito, the Tolupán, the Garífuna, the Chortí…), are well aware that Honduras is party to Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The convention establishes special rights for indigenous and aboriginal communities if and when their social, economic, and cultural conditions “distinguish them from other sections of the national community,” and if and when “their status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions…” For example: communal land ownership and a sacred hill for ceremonies, like the one they just proclaimed in Simpinula.
The convention also grants them the right to decide any issue that affects their culture, their social customs, their beliefs, their spiritual wellbeing, or their land. And it obliges signatory states to respect and protect their social organizations and their way of life. But one of the most important requirements, naturally, is that indigenous people self-identify as such. This explains their transcendental effort to recuperate their identity. It has taken them many years.
Convention 169 cemented a good part of Berta Cáceres and COPINH’s strategy, and with the convention in hand, they were able to pressure the government to comply with its international commitments. In July 2011, Cáceres signed an agreement with then-president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, in which he promised not to authorize any contract without “free, prior and informed consent,” for which a special set of rules would be drafted in coordination with COPINH. Moreover, Lobo’s government recognized indigenous communities’ right to communal land ownership.
The convention had two problems: the majority of contracts had already been granted, and the Lobo government was on its way out. Incoming President Juan Orlando Hernández shelved the agreement. These days there’s no special set of rules. Instead, the Hernández administration has promoted a policy of unprecedented contract bequeathment, including for the creation of “model cities” in which foreign corporations enter a bidding process to operate with tax exemptions and a distinct set of laws in vast geographic zones—in effect, the model cities will be privately managed. The first will be inaugurated at the end of this year.
Donald Hernández, a lawyer from the Honduran Center for the Promotion of Community Development (CEPRODEH), and one of the principal advocates of Convention 169 as a tool of resistance, often visits La Paz to meet with indigenous residents, inform them of the ILO treaty, and hear their concerns.
When I met him, he was giving a presentation in the local branch of the National Center for Fieldworkers to 40 indigenous residents of the Marcala area. His language was clear: “They want to force us to immigrate and leave them our land, our mountains, and our minerals. They want us to feel embarrassed for being indigenous. But we are indigenous! Just ask our grandparents. Get them to tell us their stories. We won’t bow down to anyone, anymore. We have many stories; and many deaths.”
One of the attendees asked how they could stop corporations from seizing their land. Before explaining Convention 169, Donald Hernández answered: “Let’s rescue our culture! They call us land robbers, but we’re not robbing anything. We re-cu-per-ate land. It was always ours. Communal indigenous land. The fact that some mayor gave a deed to a foreigner doesn’t make it his land. It’s ours.” Then he told them about the ILO treaty.
Also at the meeting was Margarita Posada, the co-founder of COPINH and a very respected local activist who was close to Berta Cáceres. She’s been following the construction process for the Aurora dams and carries a folder, which she opens to explain the irregularities in how permits were granted. I ask her what’s wrong with producing clean energy from a river. “We have no problem with that. The problem is that instead of consulting us, instead of giving our communities the tools to produce our own clean energy, international financial organisms are giving money to private businesses with no need for it, just so they can get rich off our rivers. Which they control. Which they destroy. That’s the problem. We, the communities, should decide which rivers we want to use for these projects, how we’re going to manage them, how we can use them to produce our own energy instead of paying these companies to control our rivers.”
I tried to speak with Arnold Castro, the owner of Aurora and the husband of the Vice President of Congress, but at the last minute he cancelled the two meetings we had scheduled in the city of Marcala, and then claimed to be in business meetings, unable to speak over the phone, despite repeated attempts over the course of more than a month. I wanted to ask him how Berta Cáceres’s murder has affected his company; inquire about the allegations of irregularities in how he obtained his government contracts; I wanted him to explain to me why a business owned by the family of Gladis Aurora López hasn’t been fined or punished for violating the law. Why it didn’t respect the environmental flow. How it has benefitted the communities.
I also tried to speak with the Minister of Natural Resources, José Galdaméz, but he warned me that what I wanted to discuss was “very sensitive.” He offered to discuss it with me in his office, after I submitted a formal interview request that listed the questions I wanted to ask. I turned in the request. I have yet to receive an answer.
On the hill in Simpinula, Lenca leader Felipe Benítez reads the declaration that’s been signed by all the community representatives present at the guancasco. In it, Lencas from the surrounding area declare themselves in a permanent state of alert due to the “threats, such as laws that violate our indigenous rights.” Protected by Convention 169 of the ILO, “we give the order to continue the process of defending and organizing the Lenca people.”
At the end of the ceremony, I sit down with Felipe Benítez under a tree at the top of the hill that he’s just made an official ceremonial center. How many ceremonial hills do the Lencas have? This, he replies, is the first. For the first time, his eyes fill with tears when I ask him about Berta Cáceres and what has changed since her murder. “It’s hard,” he tells me. “We were on the verge of doing great things.” He asks what I thought of today’s ceremony. I tell him it’s a beautiful attempt to revive their traditions, whose purpose is political, not cultural. Benítez turns to look at me and starts smiling again. “You understood.” He picks up a bit of beef with yucca, prepared by the village women, and eats with pleasure. “But on the way we’re going to recuperate much of what we’ve lost over centuries.” He looks at the sky. The clouds have gone. It didn’t rain today.