The air in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was filled with fresh promise and passion for justice, freedom from oppression and self-determination August 29, 2023 as a sea of people, clad in red, waving banners and flags, and agitating with bullhorns, wove their way through the winding streets of the Capital on their way to the legislative palace where the National Congress was meeting to discuss of the fate of its attorney general. We had just begun our journey in Honduras as a small delegation of activists from San Jose, Calif., ranging from board members of Human Agenda, grassroots leaders and activists, academic researchers and hondureño citizens, when we landed into what turned out to be one of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history – the largest convergence of left-wing Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) Party supporters had come together to demand the ouster of the country’s attorney general and to denounce the corrupt system of impunity that has engulfed the country, which has long shielded organized crime, drug trafficking and violence against activists, journalists and everyday citizens from prosecution. Although it was the largest convergence of Libre Party supporters in the country’s history, with international and Libre Party estimates placing the number of demonstrators at 50,000, the mainstream media outlets grossly underreported the number, some reporting merely hundreds or thousands of participants. Regardless of the skewed numbers being reported, there were too many demonstrators present that day to be ignored and the message was clear – the people are united and would no longer accept a government that was not serving their interests.
The people of Honduras have had to overcome great obstacles to get to the place that they are at now. To give some background information to the situation there, the Libre Party had swept through the country in the 2021 general elections, winning a majority of seats in congress and electing Xiomara Castro as the country’s first female president, who happens to be the wife of former democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown in a 2009 military coup d’état.
President Castro has faced an uphill battle with multiple instances of U.S. and international interference in the country’s politics in order to undermine her progressive platforms, which saw her repeal legislation that had opened the gate to international, investor controlled Zones of Economic Development and Employment (ZEDEs), or model cities, and her attempts to address the country’s high poverty rates, energy prices and poor labor conditions with the passing of an Energy Reform Law and Temporary Labor Law. In response, a Delaware-based company has attempted to use the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement to seek $11 billion in damages from the country for repealing ZEDEs, while the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras has publicly stated, “Unfortunately, some policies are complicating your chances of success.”
On our delegation trip, however, we saw time and again that people were willing to give up their lives for what they believe in and to fight for social justice in order to build sustainable and just alternatives to the neoliberal Capitalistic policies that were put in place by the previous governments.
One such alternative is the system of cooperatives, which more than one million people are members of in the country. For instance, we traveled to the fertile area of the Bajo Aguan Valley, where campesino activists have struggled for decades against mining and corporate farming interests that have seen the large-scale production of African palm oil, an unhealthy ingredient found in many processed foods. We visited the farming cooperative of El Chile, where a group of 248 families has reclaimed land, which once belonged to their parents, from the Dinant Corporation, which has been implicated in violence against and the disappearances of campesino activists and their families. These families are now living off of the land and producing chili peppers and other produce for market. Even though Dinant has intimidated and terrorized them by flying drones over their land and hitting them with rubber bullets, they refuse to leave, and have plans to further develop the land and become completely self-sufficient. Where before they were living in shacks, they now live on communal land, send their children to school, and grow food to feed their families.
We also visited other cooperatives tucked away in the green, rolling hills of Santa Bárbara and Lempira. The Cooperativa Mixta Lempira Norte Limitada (COMIXLENL), for example, produces coffee and other products, and has established and is managing 10 farmer field schools that grow crops such as beans, soybeans, avocado, cardamon, ginger and cane sugar. They also shared with us that their members have never defaulted on any of their loans which they depend on to get through the growing season, and that they freely lend money to each other to help with the cost of fertilizer and tools needed to harvest their crops. They aim to be more independent and are looking for larger investments and microloans from external partners, as well as getting licensed to cut out the market’s middleman in order to directly sell their products to buyers.
We met with Afro-indigenous Garifuna community members who are part of the nongovernmental organization of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH). We visited La Mariposa women’s cooperative which produces and sells coconut bread, and also met with community activists who are working to protect their natural resources and reclaim their land from investors that have illegally taken their communal land to develop resort hotels along the northern Caribbean coast. Shortly after we returned home from our trip, on September 19, 2023, an attempt was made on the life of OFRANEH leader Miriam Miranda by five armed men in her home. Thankfully, Miriam escaped with her life due to the protective measures that were put in place due to the previous threats and attempts on her life in the past. These threats have not deterred her from being active and she continues to speak out against the injustices that her community is facing.
Another NGO that we met with was the Siria Valley Environmental Committee (SVEC). SVEC has been struggling for over two decades with the impacts of open pit gold mining in their community by a Canadian-based multinational corporation. Once a major supplier of food staples such as beans, milk, meat and other products, their community has experienced severe health impacts including cancer, birth defects, skin rashes, discoloration and lesions, hair loss, and gastrointestinal disorders caused by water contaminated with heavy metals and cyanide. Even though the gold mines have been closed, a geothermal project has been proposed on the site of the former mines. SVEC activists have met with the current government’s minister of the environment, who told them he was going to investigate the case of the geothermal project, yet they haven’t heard back from him in over a year, as the project is kept in bureaucratic limbo. SVEC is pushing for the state of Honduras to recover the 14,100 hectares given to Newmont, to halt the construction of the geothermal project within the area already damaged by gold mining, to protect the surface and subterranean water sources in the Siria Valley, and for national and international human rights organizations to use their leverage and energy to stop the threats against human rights and environmental defenders.
In 2022, President Castro was able ban open-pit mining in the country, and with the help of Congress, repeal ZEDEs. The previous president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was extradited to the U.S. that same year is currently awaiting trial, set for February 5, 2024, along with the country’s former head of police and a police official, for drug trafficking and weapons-related charges, adding some semblance of accountability to the country’s long history of narcotics trafficking and violence against innocent civilians. To be in Honduras at this time was extremely inspiring, as the people that we met were committed to working for social and environmental justice for their communities and families. It is a beautiful country filled with many natural resources and has a culture that is generous and community-based which is often absent in our Western culture. Most of the people that we met told us they wanted to remain in their country and for their countrymen to return home, however, the continued displacement of people from of their ancestral lands as well as the high poverty rates and violence were the driving forces which caused people to leave in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Whether the government will be able to uphold the progressive policies and reforms of the Castro regime remains to be unseen, however, the foundation has been laid for the people to build a better future for their country and their children.
There is an upcoming solidarity delegation trip being organized for January 2024 by Cross-Border Network for Justice & Solidarity crossbordernetwork.org/january-2024-honduras-delegation.html