Unwanted ‘Development’: The story of COPINH

An advantage of studying International Relations is being exposed extraordinary issues around the world; issues you’d had no knowledge of prior to taking the course. As the course has continued I’ve learnt not to be surprised of stories of exploitation in places far away from our comfort. The beauty of our age is that sharing an issue, cause or message is the easiest it’s ever been. And the more issues we are exposed to, the greater the number of movements who react to them.  This article commemorates the actions of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), and aims to show the issue of insistent pressure for development by first world TNCs in lesser developed states.

First world corporations have been known to venture out in order to seek more capital, whilst also with the advantage that they’re doing a good deed setting up shop in an ‘underdeveloped’ country. What some may call ‘developed’ countries can have a tendency to see development differently. Capital, production and luxury services may be components of this definition; however what we see as ‘developed’ is completely relative. A story of a united and persistent community, dedicated to protecting their homeland would be heavily admired if it were in our country. The fact that the first world may have these luxuries is irelevent, however if the heritage and happiness is compromised by this development, then it would, and should be unwanted.

In June 2009 the Honduran Army carried out a coup against President Manuel Zelaya, by the orders of the Supreme Court of Honduras, following his mission for a constitutional change. The Honduran Congress remained and advertised contracts for the construction of hydroelectric dams, with the motive to use them to power future mining projects. The government also received funding from the World Bank to fund these projects. The country is home to many indigenous communities mainly in the rural areas of Honduras, who rely on their land for food, medicine and materials to survive. The Lenca community of the Gualcarque River is one of these indigenous groups. Located in Western Honduras, the river is considered sacred to the Lenca, and coincidently, is a target for Chinese hydropower company Sinhohydro.

As an environmentalist, I’ve been ignorant to think that any type of sustainable energy project is only going to bring a positive impact in that area. When people think of these kind of projects, employment and money to the local communities spring to mind.  In fact, the local community will inevitably suffer from the damages that dams brings; whether if that is from the removal of their homes and environment or the pollution that comes with the construction. Employment is minimal as most of the work is given to employees of the TNC. The degradation of the Lenca’s land started as soon as the contracts were agreed between Sinhohydro and the Honduran government. Vehicles destroying crops of the Lenca community sparked a response, initiating communications between the community and COPINH.

The Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisation of Honduras, original founded in 1990, is an organisation that exists to represent indigenous communities and make them aware of their rights. Founder of COPINH and member of the Lenca people Bertha Cáceres educated and lead the community in a fight to preserve their environment. The conclusion was made that construction would violate their human rights under the UN Charter, due to the concession sent by the Honduras Congress didn’t contain any  ‘free, prior and informed consent’ on behalf of the Lenca people. Cáceres filed complaints to the Honduran government. This started a string of protests led by Bertha in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.

COPINH represented the Lenca for over a year, in trying to halt construction on their land; through the means of a roadblock in Rio Blanco and anti-dam campaigns all over Honduras. This gained recognition for COPINH across the world. The World Bank eventually heard COPINH’s message, and withdrew their funding over possible violations of human rights. Soon after Sinhohydro stopped construction on the river. Berta and members of COPINH survived assassination attempts; hate campaigns across the country and the loss of organization members in the process. Cáceres was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize 2015 at the ceremony in Washington D.C. alone this was an example of community resistance, but this celebration happened to be short lived. Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), a Honduran construction company continued construction, and were much more persistent to complete the dam’s construction.  

Cáceres and COPINH remained active after the contracts were exchanged and pressed harder for their justice. Bertha was shot dead in her home on March 2nd 2016. The following months saw more terror as more COPINH officials were assassinated. Exactly two years later the executive manager of DESA has been taken in to custody. COPINH’s message has been heard all over the world and has continued to strive for environmental and indigenous rights, and is currently being led by Bertha’s 25-year-old daughter Berthita Zúniga Cáceres, and the organisation is growing and expanding each year.

By George Facey

Featured image: COPINH march in Honduras, from elmundo.cr

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