Honduras, Unimagined: The Lencas, COPINH, and the Militarization of Development

Written By Samuel Ropa

Rob Nixon, in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, remarks that: just as the production of national identity requires that actors visualize “imagined communities” to contextualize their own identity, the process of economic development relies extraordinarily upon “unimagined communities”—people and space existing outside the national consciousness.  Without voiceless, nameless populations of near-mythic relevance, massive agricultural projects, mining operations, urban modernization programs, he argues, would prove impossible. Beside proliferating expanses of GM soybean fields, beneath towering hydro-dams fueling “clean” growth, are communities disregarded by investment and state policy, whose claims to resources and rights have been supplanted in favor of growth figures and the stability of market indices.

The indigenous Lenca people of Río Blanco and northern Intibucá, positioned in the Gualcarque River watershed, are well acquainted with the “unimagining” process, for centuries subject to colonial invasion by Spanish and American imperialism. This particular unimagining begins in 2009 when a U.S. State Department backed coup deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who had previously blocked attempts at dam construction. In June 2010, 40 concessions for hydroelectric dam construction were made by the coup government, which often neglected to seek the consent of the indigenous or poor communities affected. Accompanying proliferating investment and trade opportunities was a militarization of U.S. policy towards Honduras, a process this article will investigate as collaborative in enabling violent suppression of indigenous claims, environmental activism, and the rights of the rural poor.

The infrastructural plan now dominating Río Blanco since the spring of 2013 is the Desarollos Energeticos, S.A. (DESA) Agua Zarca Hydroelectric dam. The plan operates in explicit violation of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Not only did DESA fail to grant the Río Blanco Indigenous Council (who represent the Lenca people) “prior and informed consent” to construction, but relies upon the Honduran National Police, National military and private sícarios (hitmen) to intimidate and attack anti-dam activists. It was during her activism against DESA and Agua Zarca that Berta Cáceres, an internationally-recognized environmental activist and leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH) was murdered. Between 2002 and 2014, 111 indigenous rights and anti-development activists were killed in Honduras. While none have been charged or suspected in relation to Ms. Cáceres’ murder, her sister, Agistina Flores believes it connected with Agua Zarca, citing multiple death threats related to her work Cáceres received before her assassination. Two weeks following Cáceres’ death, the cofounder of COPINH, Nelson Garcia, was murdered in a similarly violent fashion. [i]

COPINH activism is best characterized as intersectional environmentalism-the synthesis of feminist, LGBTQ rights, labor, indigenous peoples and anti-poverty agendas. When construction for the dam was announced, local activists formed a human barricade in defiance of a repressive state while COPINH led an international campaign of advocacy to highlight the dispossession of culture and community that the Honduran hydropower industry relies on. While many of the Lencas claims are to cultural space, the movement also highlights ecosystem management and conservation that has been disregarded largely by massive agricultural and infrastructural projects. While Honduran law mandates environmental impact analyses, the studies are rarely done, and never invalidate a project from continuing according to Peter Bosshard, an expert on dams and corruption at International Rivers. The Agua Zarca hydroelectric project is altering the natural course of the Gualcarque River, disrupting a water distribution system that affects local ecosystems and agricultural lands. While the neglect for social-environmental preservation is characteristic of the Honduran government and the U.S. policy apparatus, the violent targeting of environmental activists at this scale and frequency raises new concern. Last year, Global Witness named Honduras as the most dangerous place for environmental activists. [ii] [iii] [iv]

Complicit in this project are its investors, who include the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, providing a $24 million loan, the Atala Family Business Group, led by a Honduran oligarch, and the United States Government via the USAID-MARKET program through which the agency directly finances infrastructure development. Perhaps more powerful than any financing, the State Department’s legitimization of the Honduran state’s use of coercive force against unimagined communities, or inadequate prosecution of their abusers to protect international investment, indicates the collusive relationship between capitalism and global violence.[v]

The State Department’s instruments for this ‘militarized development’ have changed in recent years, and their use in Honduras has come to resemble previous action in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. In 2012 the Department allocated $26 million towards a USAID program called “Honduras Convive” with the objective to “disrupt the systems, perceptions and behaviors that support violence by building alliances between the communities and the state (especially the police and security forces)” according to the USAID website. The program, while not explicitly collaborating with Honduras’ military, has created a logistical framework for data collection and militarized surveillance of Honduran citizens that can be used by the State Department and the vast U.S. military presence maintained there (the largest deployment of Special Forces outside the Middle East). Training of Honduran military and law enforcement by the United States Special Forces has continued steadily under “Joint Task Force Bravo,” as have direct military transfers, in effect legitimating their strategies and actions as “in-line” with U.S. foreign policy and security interests.  Plans to double current assistance for the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement are included in the $1 billion “Alliance for Prosperity” Central America development initiative unveiled in January of last year by the White House. [vi]

This piece does not posit that the State Department, Office of Transitive Initiatives, or Department of Defense are explicitly engaged in the repression of human or civil rights of Honduran indigenous groups, or violently targeted Honduran environmentalists. However, it questions the pattern of violence against these groups by a regime supported by the United States. The habitual correlation of military security and economic investment by the U.S. in Honduras is concerning, especially when it relies upon the violent dispossession of poor, indigenous, agricultural communities and produces highly gendered impacts (according to Amnesty International Honduran women and LGBTQ persons are at highest risk of murder). It is beyond time for think tanks and security studies circles in the U.S., dominated by faith in “free trade” and “national interest,” to reimagine the violent, abusive reality of “stability” and demand collective justice for communities dominated by development. [vii] [viii]

[i] Danielle Marie Mackey, “Drugs, Dams, and Power: The Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres,” The Intercept, March 11, 2016. < The Intercept>

[ii] “Threats & Repression in Honduras: COPINH Struggles Against Privatization of Rivers & Privatized Hydro-electric Dam Projects With International Investors.” < Rights Action>

[iii] “Central American Bank for Economic Integration – Approved Operations – Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA). Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project.” BCIE

[iv] Peter Bosshard at International Rivers/Environmental Impact Analysis: The Intercept

[v] “Economic Growth and Trade – Infrastructure.” < USAID>

[vi] Tim Shorrock, “How Hillary Clinton Militarized US Policy in Honduras,” The Nation, April 5, 2016. < http://www.thenation.com/article/how-hillary-clinton-militarized-us-policy-in-honduras/?nc=1>

[vii] Alexander Main, “Will Biden’s Billion Dollar Plan Help Central America?,” nacla, February 27, 2015. < NACLA>

[viii] Amnesty International, “Honduras: Deep Failures in Investigation into Activist’s Killing Put Many at Risk,” news release, March 8, 2016. < Amnesty.org>


By English: Petty Officer 2nd Class Ricardo J. Reyes, U.S. Navy (www.defense.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *