The nobodies: the sons of nobodies, the owners of nothing.
Who have no name, but a number. Who are not in world history, but in the red chronicle of the local press.
The nobodies, who cost less than the bullet that kills them.
Nearly every day, Carmen arrives at the Guapinol River to work. During the 10 hours it takes her to wash several bags of clothing, her daughters play in the water and dirt surrounding them. Her husband left in October with the first caravan that departed San Pedro Sula, headed to the United States.
“He found out on a Saturday from news reports,” she tells me. “Look, the caravan is leaving, get the boy (their 8-year-old son) because I’m going.” And the next day he left, Carmen recalls as she washes the uniforms of the local women’s soccer team.
For two months the waters of the Guapinol River have remained clean. This is due to an encampment that was set up to fight the mining operations by Inversiones Los Pinares, which have released sediment into the river after the opening of the highway.
This river is where Carmen washes the clothes of some of the families from the community in order to make 200 lempiras (8 U.S. dollars) a day. Even when the river was dirty it didn’t stop her. “Back then, white clothes would end up yellow and my customers would get mad, they didn’t like the way the clothes turned out, but it wasn’t my fault. Even from the faucets, the water came out like that, and I only had access to this water,” she said as she finished washing one of the sacks full of dirty clothes, her work for the day.
Currently, mining in Tocoa monopolizes a large part of the region — there are six approved mining permits in the municipality, with another 34 applications pending. On the national level, the situation is worse — in the past decade at least 300 permits have been approved and more than 600 await approval.
Los Pinares, which holds the mining permit impacting the Guapinol River, is owned by businessman Lenir Perez, son-in-law of the late Miguel Facussé — the president of the Dinant company, an African palm oil operation involved in the land dispute in Aguán.
In order to grant the permits to Pérez, the National Congress reduced the heart of the Carlos Escaleras National Park by 494 acres. . The park supplies 34 micro-basins that are part of the water system of six municipalities in Colón.
On his cell phone’s WhatsApp, Carlos keeps a photo of his wife Carmen and daughters. Communication is difficult, but, through voice messages, he explained that he decided to leave when he saw what was about to happen to his community.
“I want to arrive and ask for asylum because of what is happening in my community, send for my family, and see if I can get international help for Guapinol,” said Carlos, who left with barely 2,000 lempiras ($81.97 USD) as he made the trek from San Pedro Sula. He was fleeing poverty, land seizure, and repressive policies the state is implementing to protect the 300 million dollars generated by private investment in the country.
Guapinol is part of the Bajo Aguán, a region of more than 370,658 acres that surrounds the Aguán River in the department of Colón. The area is covered with numerous crops, including corn, beans, rice, bananas, coffee and African palm. For decades, the Aguán River has been the site of conflicts over land ownership. Recently, it has also been the site of a battle against extraction projects such as mining.
In Aguán, weapons seem to be the answer for everything. The Guapinol conflict reached its peak after a violent eviction left several people dead— including two members of the military.
This is what Carlos fled from.
“I couldn’t tell you how long, only that we walked so much that our feet could no longer take it because of the sun, because of the food,” he said, sighing. “No one would want to go through that.” Carlos is in Tapachula, having momentarily stopped his journey to the United States along with 3,000 other people, all waiting for Mexico to grant them asylum in order to get a job and continue their journey to the United States — their final destination.
Carlos said Mexican authorities made them wait 45 days for a permit that would allow them to stay in Mexico for a year, but they didn’t know these were business days, and that there was no guarantee they would receive the permit. In the meantime, they have to go and sign in every eight days with Mexican immigration authorities.
“If they had explained that from the beginning, maybe we would have continued onward, because the truth is we all have the illusion of having that piece of paper in order to continue,” Carlos said. “Many are feeling desperate because they treat us in an inhumane manner, as if they don’t want to see us, and it’s not something we asked for, but they practically forced us because either we stayed here or we would be deported.” Carlos explained that they have already talked about it and if everyone does not receive the permit, they won’t wait any longer and will continue on their journey.
For Carlos and his son, the days have been hard, the only support they have received has been from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which helps with money so they can have a place to sleep and some food, but no one fits in and they can’t get a job. “The first thing they ask is if we have papers, seeing as we are migrants they either don’t give us any (work) or they try to exploit us.”
Carlos is a mechanic by trade, and wants to work as such in the United States, but he said his priority is to put his son through school. He is afraid to go back to Honduras because, he said, he will return “with a record,” and everything will be much more difficult for him.
It is reported that at least five people have been displaced in Guapinol as a result of the dispute with the mine — some because of death threats, others out of fear of the unknown future.
“They leave for the United States, for that American dream that Donald Trump is constantly destroying, but, what would happen if we all left? This battle is not won by fleeing,” said Victoria, one of the leaders in Guapinol.
With the river murmuring in the background, Victoria said, “I want my children and grandchildren to live here, I want to grow old here by the river.”
The people who live in Guapinol are encouraged by the fact that months of battle have yielded answers, and the river has become clear again, although its flow has decreased.
“The murmur of this river is what talks, the one that cries out, that it is being destroyed, those who are atop that mountain are monsters who are destroying our source of water,” she said.
However, the situation appears to be worsening with the passage of time. The Attorney General's Office has launched 18 legal proceedings against several community members who were staying at the encampment, and, about a month ago, Jeremías Martinez, a 65-year-old resident of La Concepción, was arrested and accused by Inversiones Los Pinares of being behind several crimes.
Currently, the community experiences ongoing threats, there is a military checkpoint at the entrance to the community and several patrols pass through on a daily basis, neighbors who previously spent the night talking and visiting now stay home once the sun goes down.
This information corresponds with the 286 reported cases received by the National Commission for Human Rights (CONADEH) in Tocoa, Colón, the majority of which are for threats.
“The latest is by the authorities, segments of the population that have recently been intimidated by the Military and National Police patrols,” said Janeth Lara, interim director of CONADEH.
In response to the conflict, the Municipal Corporation, under the authority of Adán Fúnez, mayor of Tocoa and member of the Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) party, proposed holding a referendum administered by the Supreme Electoral Court or by the National Congress. In light of the call for referendum, the people against the mine have organized meetings proclaiming they don’t trust either institution and are demanding an open and participatory town hall to declare the entire municipality free of mining.
Between a mined mountain and a flooded palm valley
The Aguán is home to the second most fertile land in the country, as well as the second largest valley. The majority of the population works in agriculture, or to a smaller extent raising livestock. Yet, in spite of the area’s productivity, the poverty rate is 50 percent, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE). Farmworkers consume part of their crops and sell the remainder as a way to cover their basic needs.
But El Aguán, in addition to being fertile ground for crops, has also become part of the drug route from the Atlantic. Los Cachiros, one of the drug trafficking cartels, which recently suffered a blow following the voluntary surrender of their leaders to U.S. authorities, controls much of the territory in the area and has ties to political powers.
During their testimony in the trial of Fabio Lobo, son of former President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Los Cachiros named several politicians who received bribes and participated in negotiations including former Colón representative Óscar Nájera; Ramón Lobo, brother of the former president; and even Tony Hernández, brother of the current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. According to the testimony, the politicians received economic support in exchange for protection and expediting the creation of companies they used to launder money. Los Cachiros also received at least six mining permits in the departments of Tocoa and Olancho.
Another politician named by Los Cachiros is the current mayor of Tocoa, Adán Fúnez, who they said received bribes in exchange for his support. Fúnez recently denied these allegations saying he did not know Los Cachiros. However, during a 2016 town hall meeting in the San Pedro area, Fúnez publicly acknowledged that the mining permit currently held by Inversiones Los Pinares was originally owned by Los Cachiros, whom he called his friends.
The situation was already known to most of the 16 communities in the San Pedro Sector, located 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Tocoa, when they began their struggle against the mining company prior to Guapinol. Since 2012, a large part of the sector has rejected the two mining permits granted to Los Cachiros, which were then transferred to Inversiones Los Pinares. The mining area borders two communities in the sector which are in the heart of Carlos Escaleras National Park. The source of the San Pedro River’s entire flow is in the park.
The communities are miles apart, and people travel on foot for hours or on motorcycles, horses, and cars outfitted for mountain use. They all share space with the San Pedro River, and that’s why, when it rains, some places are left isolated for days. In spite of the remoteness and isolation, news of the mine spread rapidly.
“The battle here began six years ago, but we became invisible, in government documents this area doesn’t even appear. I believe it’s a strategy by the mines, to make people believe that this area is unpopulated,” said Antonio, a resident of a nearby mountain range.
According to the residents of San Pedro, workers for Los Pinares mine attempted to infiltrate its residents, offering them a new highway, but the majority of the population rejected it. Later, they found out they had entered through another spot in the mountain, through a community called La Ceibita.
As a result, the communities of Las Mangas and Malafalda were directly impacted, their only source of water comes from the San Pedro River or from micro-basins that form there.
“Sometimes we go 15 days without water coming from the faucet, so we have to go directly to the river. During this time, the laundry would pile up because we couldn’t take it to the river to wash because if we put it in the river, we’d come out muddied up to our eyeballs. People were afraid to even cross it,” said Marcela, a resident of Las Mangas.
The majority of the communities rely on agriculture for their livelihood, primarily corn, beans, rice and coffee are grown. “We are farmers and that’s why we are committed to defending our land, if we allow them to mine our area, we don’t know where we’d go.”
The San Pedro River area has begun to suffer the initial consequences of mining. The volume of the water in the river has decreased and few fish remain, residents have seen the area become militarized. “Many times the excuse is that they are chasing criminals and drugs, but at the heart of it is the persecution of leaders and the residents who oppose the mining projects,” said one of the residents.
The area of La Abisinia, some 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Tocoa, is threatened by another mining permit close to where residents live. The permit was granted to the Industrial Mining Group S.A. de C.V. under the name of Minera La Bendición, although there are no public records listing the owners. According to residents, it is owned by the Valle Valle Cartel, some of whose members have been extradited and are facing drug trafficking charges in the United States.
Nearly 3,000 people live in La Abisinia, with more than 16 communities along the way. It takes an hour-and-a-half by car to arrive, driving over parts of the highway divided by currents from the Tocoa River. And when it rains, numerous areas are left isolated for days. Along some stretches, the highway cracks and even collapses.
The permit was issued for 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the center of town for 1,482 acres of land. The closest houses belong to an area of La Abisinia called Barrio Nuevo and are situated less than a half kilometer away. The mine not only threatens their homes, but also the Pinares and La Zumbadora gorges, as well as the entire Tocoa River which is the main source of water for the municipality of Tocoa.
The first time they learned about the mine was when the old board of directors signed the permits for mining exploration. The new board has said it is not in agreement, that it has offered to sign an agreement allowing the mine to proceed, but if the mine does not comply with the requirements, the permit would be revoked and the company expelled.
“We are united with the San Pedro sector and with Guapinol, we don’t want mines period,” said Gerardo, a resident of La Abisinia.
Although the center of La Abisinia lies up the mountain, its development is very different from other nearby communities: the houses are built with concrete blocks and have signs hanging out front , which according to locals, is for remittances — all the households have at least one family member in the United States. Although data indicating how many have left has always been high, it has grown considerably since the battle against the mines began.
“We feel all alone, we lack many things such as a permanent doctor, there are only nurses. The doctor who should be here is in Tocoa. Here, we’ve survived because of the people who live in the United States. The mayor at one point said we should just forget about receiving any type of help. A mayor shouldn’t answer to any party, but rather to the people,” Gerardo said.
The community maintains they are the ones who provide the maintenance for the highway, that sometimes there are deposits in the Road Fund that the governments allocate for infrastructure, but they believe that due to their fight against the mining company, they have been removed from the fund as a way to exert pressure and force them to accept the project.
Despite being abandoned by the municipal board, La Abisinia contributes 50,000 lempiras (about 2,000 U.S. dollars) in monthly taxes alone, 30,000 from the sale of livestock and the remainder from other business.
La Abisinia is convinced it can win the battle, those leading the fight against the mine at Grupo de Jóvenes Yo Amo La Abisinia, said they have attended meetings with the municipal board and the Honduran Institute of Geology and Mines (IHNGEOMIN). “But it’s like talking with the miners, they only want to negotiate for themselves,” said Antonio.
Fernando Erazo, IHNGEOMIN’s head of investigations, indicated that during the last International Congress of Mining and Geology, they served as mediators. “The relationship that should exist between the company and the community is something basic for every project in the country, it’s important to note that in the context of any company that wants to operate in the country, they should be doing so hand-in-hand with the communities. There is dialogue and round tables in which the government plays the role of facilitator and the projects should always have benefits for the communities,” he said.
However, on social media, their position is clear. During conflicts they make statements in defense of mining, including launching a marketing campaign for the approval of mining projects, pointing out that pacemakers, drinking water, or even music wouldn’t exist without mining.
The day they took everything
El Bajo Aguán not only lives under a threat to its water source, but for the past decade has experienced an ongoing agricultural conflict, according to community leader Adilia Castro.
“The history of Aguán is basically a history of displaced people, it is the continuous search by the poorest families not only from Aguán, but all of Honduras, looking for the opportunity to have a piece of land where they could grow their food and have their needs more or less met,” she said.
Between 2000 and 2010 land recovery efforts began after the children of the farmers learned of several irregular sales under the Agricultural Modernization Law in the 1990s, Adilia said. They were looking for compliance under the Agricultural Reform, which was passed before the modernization law, and whose purpose was to distribute land. Aguán’s agricultural conflict left more than 120 dead between 2008 and 2010, according to statistics from the National Police.
Since the conflict began, the valley has become an area where drug trafficking is conducted with impunity, resulting in physical violence, killings over territory disputes or trafficking routes. This is on top of the state repression from military surveillance operations, threats, persecution and intervening against the movements to force them out, amid an unequal disarmament that is taking place: the military and police, along with the landowners who employ security companies or guards, are heavily armed.
Luxón en Sabá, Colón is one of the communities that began protesting the mines in 2010. Its residents live in constant fear that the day will come when they will be evicted, after they, together with the farmers’ cooperative Unidos Lucharemos, recovered 183 acres of land that the cooperative Unión San Francisco Limitada had sold irregularly. They have farmed the land under the shadow of losing everything.
The first warning was received in February 2018 when an eviction order was issued but not executed since it included the destruction of houses. The Aguán Regional Agricultural Committee immediately filed an appeal with the National Agricultural Council challenging the order.
The men and women of Luxón never received a ruling on their appeal. On Nov. 28, the cooperative that had sold the land, accompanied by 300 officers from Los Tigres, a special forces unit within the National Police, and the military carried out an eviction. They destroyed banana, yucca and corn crops that had been worked for more than seven years. They hauled away the harvest.“The order said they were coming for 949 acres of land, when there are only 183 acres in the farmworker settlement. This time, the order said to take everything, except the homes,” one of the farmworkers said.
The eviction in Luxón went unnoticed throughout most of the country, but not by Esperanza, who has seven children and a grandchild who require food every day.
“We have nothing, the only thing we had were the bananas, the cornfields, and the palm which we also ate from. This Christmas, we probably won’t make tamales,” Esperanza said, barely able to speak as she sees the destroyed crop, but her expression changes when she talks about how they plan to regain the land. “If they kill us, then they kill us, but from here, we are not leaving.” She said with the look of someone who will not die from hunger.
The Unidos Lucharemos company is made up of 28 farmworker families, consisting of 140 individuals. According to the Plataforma Agraria, a national network made up of more than 30 organizations, during seven years the community invested an estimated 14 million lempiras (562,000 U.S. dollars) in their crops without any support from the government.
Although many of these men and women who work the land are willing to do whatever it takes to recover the lost acres, the eviction also forced other families to leave the area. As a result of the evictions, at least two families — one made up of about 15 individuals — left for the United States on their own.
The people here have no idea if those families made it, they only know that one day they left. The only person they have stayed in contact with is Jessy, who, at the beginning of the year, agonized thinking about the day they would come to destroy his community all because of an eviction. Jessy left before he could see his own crops destroyed, leaving one of his sons behind. He hopes “to send for him” soon.
Children — boys and girls — pick through the remnants of the destroyed crops, looking for anything that might be left that could be used for the day’s meal. The banana and palm crops are close to the homes in the community, but it is dangerous to enter. Luxón is practically surrounded. Although there are no fences or visible walls, the community lives under siege.
Jaime Cabrera, coordinator for Plataforma Agraria del Aguán, said he was not present during the eviction because they wanted to detain him in order to issue an arrest warrant with national jurisdiction and imprison him in San Pedro Sula.
Digna Perdomo, a resident of the area and member of the Aguán Permanent Observatory for Human Rights (OPDHA), said that during the eviction the community decided to intervene so that their crops would not be tossed out, and while no one was injured during the confrontation, the National Police and the military fired upon them.
“I don’t think the authorities have the jurisdiction to come and open fire on the people,” Digna said, and as if to affirm her words, shots are heard in the distance. It’s unknown where the shots came from.
The community points out that the farmworkers with the Unión San Francisco are armed, this in spite of the fact that in 2012 the National Congress amended article 37 of the Gun, Ammunition, Explosives and Similar Control Law to prohibit the “carrying in public places, transportation and vehicles” any type of firearm whether it is registered and has a permit or not, in the department of Colón.
“Whenever they see our colleagues gathered around the plots of land they begin firing,” Digna added. Even with this scenario the men of Luxón — young and old — dare to go further in search of food. The shots continue, but they don’t stop, they walk until reaching the end of the farming area, which lies adjacent to the Aguan River.
Georgina doesn’t live here, she is from the community of Panama, but on this day she’s standing with the people of Luxón. She said she doesn’t want to leave, and, like others, she is willing to give her life to recover the land.
“What we are interested in is having the land for ourselves, to work it. We cannot leave our country, emigrate while having the riches we have in these lands, enough with so much conflict with the farmworkers, because this here is where we have our life, not in another place, we are native to this land and here is where we fight to survive.”
The residents of Luxón feel a constant threat. They say the military had their own house in the area of the Unión San Francisco and they intimidate the community. Just the week before, they detained a young man who they accused of illegally carrying a firearm, but before arriving at the police station in Tocoa, they let him go because they had no evidence. The community accused the military of abuse of power, but they haven’t received a response.
When the group of men return, the majority walk through the banana parcel. A young man of about 20 carries a handful of yucca, and the community greets him joyfully. He smiles and says that it is “another day of life,” but along the rest of his road he casts his gaze downward.
Meanwhile, another group returns to the community in the middle of the palm crops, where the military and residents from the Unión San Francisco enter.
Jose Garcia walks among the palms. “I have a small cornfield they didn’t touch, and I’ve been taking it out little by little in sacks. It’s not much, but for a couple of days we have something. It’s difficult, it’s sad what they have done. These days have been spent in a constant struggle.”
He barely finishes speaking when once again gunfire rings out, this time a few meters from the houses.
The African Palm, a looming threat
That palm that is so widely grown by the farmers of Aguán and which in many places has provoked conflict, is the same that sustains Julián Gómez, a member of the board of directors of the Cooperativa Agropecuaria Brisas de San Pedro. Every harvest season the cooperative hires groups of men who cut the more than 500 palm nuts, harvesting the fruit using a special machine.
Currently, a ton of palm sells for 1,600 lempiras (66 U.S. dollars), a price that keeps declining with each passing year, while the men who dedicate themselves to cutting palms barely earn 300 lempiras (12 U.S. dollars) daily for doing more than eight hours of work, but it’s double what a laborer who harvests corn or beans earns. But this salary is only earned during the cutting season. Palm fruit takes approximately three months to grow.
African palm is cropping up in more places throughout the country. In 2004 there were 170,500 acres; by 2017 the number multiplied to 370,600 acres. The majority of the product is concentrated among three companies: Grupo Jaremar owned by René Becerra; Corporación Dinant, which was founded by Miguel Facussé, and is now under the direction of his son, Miguel Mauricio Facussé; and Aceydesa, owned by the former representative Óscar Nájera.
According to data from the Honduras Association of Oil Producers (AIPAH), the country exported 469,000 tons in 2017, generating 364 million U.S. dollars, with Europe the main destination market, acquiring 85 percent of the crop.
At the beginning of 2019, the European Union announced a ban on the purchase of African palm oil beginning in 2021, arguing that oil production led to the deforestation of forests, but the ban was pushed back to 2030. Europe is the main buyer of palm oil in the world, and currently the only export destination from Honduras.
According to an investigation done by El Faro in Honduras, there are at least 17,297 acres of African palms planted in national parks.
A letter signed by 80 ecological organizations from 31 countries stated that the planting of palm “is one of the main causes of deforestation which leads to climate change; it destroys the livelihoods and food sovereignty of millions of small farmers, indigenous peoples, and other communities. They require the use of pesticides that poison workers and communities, contaminate soil, water and biodiversity, deplete fresh water and soil.”
As the palm grows nearby, Carmen’s daughters play in the sand along the edge of the Guapinol River, one of them has spots on her skin—a result of the time when the river was full of sediment. Both girls are under the age of 6 and as they build sandcastles, they look smaller next to the sheer scale of the dangers surrounding them. Carmen says she wants to leave with them as soon as possible. Carlos, still on his journey, says he misses them.
(This article was originally published in Spanish in Contra Corriente)
*Names of some of the residents of the community of Valle del Aguán have been changed for their safety.
*Translated by Vicki Adame