Defending Rio Blanco: Three Weeks of the Lenca Community Roadblock in Honduras

Source: SOA Watch

It is now evening and dark at the patch of earth where Rio Blanco community members have gathered to defend their territory from companies that seek to privatize and profit from the Gualcarque river. Children talk and giggle as they as they tell jokes in the dark at the edge of the woods where they will soon fall asleep. The adults, however, are alert and vigilant for whatever might occur, given the threats they are facing. Many gather around the open fire where the coffee is boiling. A group of them will stay awake all night to watch over the camp that prevents access to the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project, where private companies have started construction to build a dam.

The Indigenous Lenca community of Rio Blanco is isolated and hard to reach. Few vehicles travel the winding dirt roads to arrive here and horses are the preferred mode of transportation within the community. Community members survive by growing corn, beans, bananas of all sizes, yucca, coffee, and other crops. They have lived on this land for generations and wisely steward it; certain sections are designated for growing food while a large area of forest is carefully protected to preserve their water sources. By preventing deforestation they do indeed have water to use for living, drinking, and growing food. Now, however, companies want to restrict their access to the Gualcarque River by privatizing it with a dam to generate profit for wealthy, powerful Honduras and foreign investors.

The powerful interests behind the Agua Zarca Project include the Honduran Bank FICOHSA, whose president is Camilo Atala, an extremely powerful businessman identified as one of the “intellectual authors and financers of the [2009 SOA-graduate led] coup d’etat.” Just months after the coup, the Honduran National Congress passed a General Water Law enabling the country’s water resources to be concessioned to third parties.[i] At the same time, FICOHSA paid Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, to lobby Washington on behalf of the repressive, post-coup regime led by the former president of the Congress. The project has international investors from several countries and a Chinese state company, SINOHYDRO, has been contracted to work on the project. To round it out, the World Bank and Central American Bank for Economic Integration are involved.

However, what these interests and investors have overlooked is the Indigenous community in whose territory they planned this hydroelectric dam. In clear violation of ILO Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Lenca community of Rio Blanco was not consulted on whether they wanted this project or not. And when the Municipal Mayor finally did hold a town hall meeting about the project, he got up and left the meeting when the community voted against the project, refusing to sign the acta in an attempt to invalidate the meeting.

While the government failed to consult them, the communities consulted themselves and made their position very clear. They held Indigenous Assemblies about the project and clearly voted no to the project in their territory. Together with COPINH, an Indigenous organization that the Rio Blanco community is a member of, they filed complaints against the project with the Special Prosecutor for Ethnic groups, the Secretary for the Environment and Natural Resources, to the National Congress, and held public demonstrations against the project.

However, the project continued to move forward. Construction began, destroying community members’ crops that they depend on to eat. The community of Rio Blanco had had enough. On April 1, 2013, they began to block the dirt entrance to the Agua Zarca project to demand its withdrawal from their territory. They subsequently gave the company 72 hours to leave, which it failed to do. Instead, community members have received death threats and there is constant surveillance of the community and members of COPINH. They have also faced harassment and have noticed hitmen arriving in the region. On April 12th at 6:30am, they were evicted by police patrols, including riot police, who dumped out their drinking water and removed their banners, sleeping pads, and supplies. They couldn’t remove the people, however, who were on their own land after all, and their presence continued.

After 17 days of the blockade, a delegation of Rio Blanco community members and COPINH traveled 5 hours to the capital for a planton outside the Presidential Palace. In the late afternoon, Vice Minister of the Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources (SERNA) and the Minister for Ethnic Groups met with them but simply talked around the situation. However, once again, the community made their position clear. As one woman from Rio Blanco explained:

“What we’ve decided as the community of Rio Blanco, together in one voice, is that they withdraw those machines… Because we haven’t given permission for dams to be built. As the community of Rio Blanco, when the Mayor came for a town hall meeting, what we said was No and No. All in one voice, we said No. He got mad and he got up and left. He went to make a decision with those who like money under the table. That’s what they did. And today they have us oppressed. On the land where we harvest corn, beans, rice, yucca, coffee, they have buried the harvest with the dirt that they throw from the machines. Because of this, today, as the Rio Blanco community we have decided that the hydroelectric company will not continue working. We will not leave the blockade until they withdraw the machines. Because we are poor campesinos and there are about 300 children. Where will the children go? We have to pass this piece of land onto our children, each one of them, so that they can survive.”

In the face of the federal government’s refusal to cancel the concession, the delegates returned to Rio Blanco to continue the blockade. Two days later, they decided to exercise their sovereignty as Indigenous peoples over their land. Hundreds of women, children, and men went to the site of the hydroelectric project construction and demanded the machinery and company employees leave their land. They succeeded in expelling the machinery.

The next day, San Pedro de Zacapa, a town that vechicles must pass through to get to Rio Blanco, shut down the road to prevent passage of a tank belonging to the First Battalion of Engineers, which is working on the project. The community of San Pedro de Zacapa had decided in an assembly, together with the Mayor of Zacapa, to oppose the project and not allow passage of machinery to Rio Blanco.

The question remains for the federal authorities and investors: Will they respect the will of the Indigenous Lenca community and put an end to the Agua Zarca project in their territory? Or will they continue to violate ILO Convention 169 and the rights of the Lenca people? Will they continue to allow threats and repression of those who oppose the project or will they respect their right to life, water, and survival?

Contact the Honduran authorities and urge them to respect the rights of the Rio Blanco community.

Watch a video (in spanish) about the Rio Blanco blockade.