The Struggle for Land and Liberty in Honduras

A visit with two political prisoners - and their community

By Paul Di Stefano

The guard at the entrance claims the prison in Gracias, Honduras currently holds 317 convicts. He confirms this by pointing to a white board a few feet away; the number 317 scrawled in red marker. Although he seems certain of the tally, there is evidence that suggests the number should read 315. Two young men, Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda have no reason to be there.

Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda are living proof that the justice system in Honduras is flawed. The two brothers have been sitting in prison for over two years, waiting out an appeal on a 29-year prison sentence. They are members of COPINH (Civic Committee of Popular and Indigenous Organizations), a group intent on preserving the indigenous Lenca culture, land, and environment by unifying the popular movement throughout Honduras.

Pattern remains the same

The struggle for land is an important one in Honduras and it is being waged from the mountains of the Sierra Madre to the beaches of the North Coast. Although the cases involving land disputes vary, the pattern of repression remains essentially the same. Powerful landowners with political and military connections, whose selfish desire for wealth and resources, seem intent on ignoring indigenous land titles and expanding their already vast lands. The cost is high for the indigenous people: Either they stay and fight or lose the land that sustains them. Salvador Zúniga, a leader of COPINH, explains, "If nature and land are destroyed, we will be destroyed too." Therefore, the Lenca see the struggle for land rights as inextricably linked to the battle between environmental sustainability and the exploitation of non-renewable resources.

Montaña Verde, a small Lenca community in the Sierra Madre Mountains, stands as the symbol of the repression being meted out by the wealthy upon the poor of Honduras. It is in this small community of about 500 that the Lenca's struggle against the avaricious landowners is being played out. It is there that Leonardo and Marcelino were taken from their homes on January 8th, 2003, tortured, beaten and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The brothers are believed to have been targeted because they were important vocal leaders in the struggle for land and resources in the region. "In Montaña Verde we started to look for support in the struggle to stop these landowners so we went and spoke with COPINH and got organized," Leonardo explains.

Where's the forensic evidence?

The evidence presented against the brothers is tenuous, at best. Amnesty International has received information that indicates due process was not observed during the trial of the Miranda brothers. There are claims that the evidence and crime scene were disturbed, that the testimony of ten witnesses who placed the brothers far from the scene of the crime was ignored and that the testimony of the witnesses on which the judge made his decision was flawed and inconsistent. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that no material evidence exists that links the Miranda brothers to the dead body of Juan Reyes Gómez, the man they are accused of murdering. Leonardo Miranda explains demurely, "We were not given a fair trial and we were accused of crimes we did not commit. We are now in prison for 29 years."

This is not the first time that members of COPINH have been targeted. Other members have been assaulted, have received death threats, had their homes fired upon and have had bullets left at their offices as a reminder of what is to come should they persist in their struggle. In the past, activists associated with COPINH have been killed. On December 31st, 2004, community land activist, Iginio Hernández Vásquez was assassinated at a health centre in the community of Planes, in La Paz. He was shot as he tried to flee. Later, he was caught and his throat was slit.

Despite the threats and possibility of death, the leaders of COPINH remain indignant and fearless. There is, evidently, some hope to be found in numbers. Marcelino Miranda has prophetically maintained, in a letter from prison, "They're rich, but they're few. We are poor but we are many, and one day all of us little kittens, united, will bring down the tiger."

However, the tiger remains strong.

In Honduras, about 60% of land is controlled by 20% of the population and close to 50% of Hondurans manage to live on less than one dollar per day. It is in the face of this inequality that COPINH maintains its struggle. It is, after all, "A struggle within the law," as Zuniga explains, clutching a copy of the Honduran Constitution.

According to Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, which concerns Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, the Lenca are supposed to be guaranteed rights that include "the right of these [indigenous] peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of...resources." However, the Lenca are not being consulted as to how the land is being used. In addition, Convention 169 assures that "the peoples concerned shall not be removed from the lands which they occupy."

When the police come to forcibly remove the indigenous campesinos they resist by staying on the land. Occasionally, out of desperation, the evictors face violent resistance, which often ends in the torching of indigenous homes by the police. The Honduran government, in ignoring the ILO Convention and backing the landowners, is violating its own constitution, which asserts in Article 18 that in the case of a conflict, international law will take precedence over national law.

Destruction and deforestation

As the laws continue to be ignored, the people continue to suffer. The COPINH coordinator for the Intibúca Department, Antonio Vasquez explains, "In the community of San Raphael de Jesus de Otoro the lands are being deforested by logging companies and the indigenous people are occupying the forest in protest."

It is this destruction of land that flies in the face of the ILO Convention. In Article 5 of the Convention, it states: "In applying the provisions of this Convention: (a) The social, cultural, religious and spiritual values and practices of these peoples shall be recognized and protected, and due account shall be taken of the nature of the problems which face them both as groups and as individuals; (b) The integrity of the values, practices and institutions of these peoples shall be respected...."

It is rather obvious that the practices of the Lenca are not being recognized or respected. If they were, the land would not be destroyed. The Lenca understand its value and see it as an integral part of their spirituality and identity, "An indigenous without land is not an indigenous. The land has a spiritual purpose. The land is our mother. If you can't sell your mother, how can you sell the land?" asks Salvador Zúniga.

Nonviolent spirit

In the spirit of nonviolence, COPINH's leaders and its members figure that the best way to solve the problems in their communities is through dialogue. In light of this, campesinos --who can hardly afford it -- travel from all parts of Honduras to ensure that their struggles are heard and recognized at COPINH's meeting hall in La Esperanza. It is here they hope to organize and formulate a plan of action to be presented to the Minister of Land Reform when he visits.

Despite the obstacles COPINH and the indigenous people of Honduras encounter, they remain defiant and optimistic that the struggle will bear fruit. While the Miranda brothers wait in prison, they understand that outside the prison, in the hills of Montaña Verde, the fight continues in their names. Marcelino Miranda firmly believes his time spent in jail will be worth it if it forces people to recognize injustice in Honduras and prompts them to work against it. "Our spirits are strong. We will eventually globalize the struggle," he states defiantly.

Indeed, the struggle will be long and hard but it is one that is born out of necessity. Marcelino insists it is much more than a simple battle for resources; the Lenca resistance is a fight for indigenous identity and survival; "It is a fight for the land and for everything that is me."

Let's hope this is also a fight that eventually manages to bring the Miranda brothers their freedom.

Paul Di Stefano is a teacher, writer and photographer from Montréal, Québec.

"Free trade" moves south

On March 3rd of this year, with little debate, the Honduran Congress ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States. Honduras became the second country, after El Salvador, to do so. Its ratification was followed by those of Guatemala and -- after some modifications to the original deal -- the Dominican Republic.

In Honduras, news of CAFTA's ratification was met with opposition. Thousands of Hondurans demonstrated their dissatisfaction by protesting in major cities across the country. On March 8th, thousands more took to the country's highways and set up blockades that effectively brought cross-country commerce to a halt.

Many view CAFTA as a logical extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the means by which the Bush Administration will ensure a hemispheric trade agreement in the future.

In Honduras, labor groups adamantly argue that CAFTA will endanger workers' rights and lower standards in order to attract foreign investment. Furthermore, critics claim that CAFTA only calls for the enforcement of existing labor laws which, for the most part, are severely flawed.

Small farmers are concerned that the reduction of tariffs, as outlined in CAFTA, will leave their farms more vulnerable to heavily subsidized American products and fluctuations in the global economy. They also fear that staple foods such as rice, corn and beans will come under the production and control of foreign entities, thereby threatening Honduras's food security. In short, CAFTA will increase dependence on the United States and harm local producers in the process.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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