Berta Is Dead, But The Movement She Started Lives

Copinh Celebrates Its 24th Anniversary

 

By Beverly Bell

The Convergence of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) has defied all efforts over the past year, by the Honduran government and the DESA dam company, to destroy it. This past Monday, March 27, 24 years after Berta Cáceres cofounded the Lenca indigenous organization, COPINH hosted an anniversary celebration of rebellion and recommitment.

About 150 people from throughout Honduras and at least five other countries joined for a Lenca ceremony; a forum on challenges and advances; a concert; a film festival; and a humble feast of roasted pig, rice, tortillas, and birthday cake. The event closed late at night with an open-air performance of “Ancestras”, a new play by the Teatro Taller Tegucigalpa (Tegucigalpa Theater Workshop) about COPINH’s fight to defend the Gualcarque River, and structural injustice by the government and oligarchy.

COPNH has not only survived, it continues to serve as a source of inspiration for indigenous and other movements throughout Honduras and the world. As with Berta Cáceres’ life work, COPINH’s goes far beyond environmental defense. Its aim is to transform the political, economic, and environmental landscape of Honduras, and – in conjunction with movements elsewhere – of the world.

“Your bullets won’t kill our dreams.” From the 24th anniversary celebration on COPINH’s liberated territory, Utopia. Credit: Beverly Bell

Gustavo Castro Soto, the director of Friends of the Earth-Mexico and Otros Mundos who was shot and almost killed in Cáceres’ home the night she was assassinated, said, “The death of Berta has not been the death of the struggle. On the contrary, it’s been a wake-up call.”

 

Victories

COPINH’s work is not only that of resistance and vision. It has achieved tremendous changes over the past 24 years. A few of these include:

  • Forcing the government to adopt an international protocol obligating free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous peoples before development may happen on their land;
  • Obtaining more than 200 community territory titles on 17,000 acres. The titles guarantee – legally, anyway – protection of Lenca lands against privatization, extraction, and exploitation;
  • Stopping hydroelectric dam projects on nine ancestral rivers, including on the Gualcarque River as of April 1st, 2013;
  • Stopping 36 permits of lumber companies to cut forests;
  • Stopping construction of a wind farm;
  • Establishing six community radios;
  • Creating intercultural schools, and training Lenca professors to teach in them. Since 2002, three generations have graduated; and
  • Successfully lobbying the authorities for the construction of roads, and improvement of schools and health centers, in more than 30 communities.

A wall in Utopia shows a Lenca elder stopping a bulldozer. Message reads, “They will not pass.” Credit: Beverly Bell

In the past six months alone, COPINH has:

  • Taken up the case of about 15 communities – new members of COPINH – who are fighting illegal extraction and mining on their lands, as well as an unjust landholding law. COPINH coordinating committee member Gaspar Sanchez said, “The communities feel that joining COPINH is the only way to have their voices heard and their territories respected;”
  • Completed its first session of the Tomas Garcia Political Training School. Over eight months, 15 women and 15 men – most of them youth – from 15 Lenca indigenous communities learned leadership skills to continue building the movement. They also learned about structural injustice; just structural alternatives; and strategies for creating those alternatives;
  • Organized numerous national mobilizations in front of the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court, lifting up citizens’ voices for democracy and for justice in the case of Cáceres’ murder. People from at least 16 countries joined organizations from throughout Honduras at the COPINH-led actions; and
  • Begun creating a self-sufficient training and meeting center in Utopia. Each year, the old school building and surrounding fields host many thousands of guests (some of them repeat), for forums, assemblies, educational programs, cultural events, and ceremonies. COPINH’s plan is to turn Utopia – one of its three spaces – into an agroecology farm and source of income for the organization, renting out cabins and meeting spaces and selling food it has grown. COPINH has started construction toward this goal.

Repression

On September 30, 2016, the State Department certified that government of Honduras is making improvements in human rights, thus allowing 50% of 2016 US aid to be released. (Please ask your congressperson to support the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act, calling for military and police aid to be cut until the Honduran government improves its record.) That was a flashing green light for the Honduran government to increase its brutality. Predictably, more murders, assaults, and arrests of indigenous and rural activists have followed.

At the anniversary celebration, an altar to Berta Cáceres. Sand painting reads, “24 years.” Credit: Beverly Bell

new report by Global Witness shows that Honduras continues to be the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental defender. Another report by Oxfam International, released on March 28th, explains how the government continues to protect the intellectual authors of Cáceres’ slaying.

In the past 12 months alone, beyond their visionary leader, COPINH lost members Nelson Garcia and Lesbia Yaneth. Coordinator Tomas Gómez Membreño survived six assassination attempts. Dozens of other members and allies have been attacked. Mauro Gomez, of the embattled COPINH community of Rio Blanco, is in his fourth month of political imprisonment, under the trumped-up charge of illegal logging.

Over COPINH’s lifespan, says Coordinator Gómez Membreño, at least 93 members have been killed, and another 90 or so have been permanently injured.

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