Fear, courage and the perilous struggle for human rights in Honduras

Our driver from Tegucigalpa to La Esperanza needed nerves of steel as he swerved to avoid gaping potholes on a road banked by steep drops to the river below.

But any risks we faced on the journey to visit COPINH, the organization of murdered Lenca Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, were nothing in comparison to the ongoing dangers faced by her family and colleagues.

Our Amnesty delegation of campaigners from Canada, Spain, Sweden, Mexico and the United States arrived at COPINH’s office to find images of Berta everywhere.

While her assassination was no doubt an attempt to silence Berta’s powerful voice of opposition to a contentious hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River, sacred to the Lenca, it is inspiring to see a new generation of human rights defenders courageously step forward to continue the struggle.

Among them is Bertha Isabel Zúniga Cáceres, one of Berta’s daughters, now elected to the leadership council of COPINH.

In June, this determined, eloquent young woman testified to Canadian MPs, via video conference from the Canadian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, about ongoing threats against her organization.

Later that month, the vehicle in which she was travelling with two other COPINH leaders was blocked and attacked. Thankfully, the three were able to escape with their lives.

It was chilling to listen to their stories about being followed and watched from cars parked for hours outside their homes.

In a country with the highest per capita number of killings of land defenders, it is more than moving to witness that despite fear, COPINH’s new leaders continue to raise their voices for Indigenous communities and their right to make decisions about resource extraction projects that will impact the territory essential to their survival.

“It is so good to have you here because we know you have leant us considerable support,” Bertha Isabel told us. “We need you to continue to stand with us as we push for the killers of my mother to be brought to justice, along with those who gave the orders. Until that happens, none of us are safe.”

We left COPINH’s office after handing over dozens of solidarity messages hand-crafted with love by activists in Timmins, Ajax, Vancouver, Montreal and many other parts of Canada.

The value of such messages was never clearer than when our international delegation arrived the next day at the office of MILPAH, another persecuted Lenca Indigenous organization in the province of La Paz. Prominently displayed on their office wall was a solidarity banner from activists in Ottawa.

“We so appreciate your visit because you have shown us your solidarity and your willingness to stand with us,” MILPAH leader Martín Gómez told us with a smile.

Like COPINH, MILPAH members have asserted their right under international human rights treaties to be consulted about mining and dam projects that will impact the land and water on which Lenca Indigenous communities depend. In return, they have seen military incursions onto their land, unjust detention of male leaders and vicious assaults on women and children.

“We feel like we are living in a war zone,” Martín Gómez told us. “There are smear campaigns accusing us of being guerrillas and enemies of the state. They lead to threats and attacks. But thanks to denunciations by Amnesty International and other international organizations, we are alive. Without your support, I believe we would be dead.”

During the visit to MILPAH’s headquarters in Marcala, we heard compelling testimony about how Indigenous women defenders are targeted with threats of sexual violence against them and their children. The need for protection from such horrors has never been more urgent.

This was the message we brought to Honduran authorities on the final day of Amnesty’s mission to Honduras.

It was an honour to hand over more than 30,000 signatures collected in Canada on petitions calling for effective action to protect Indigenous defenders of territory, land and the environment in Honduras.

It was also heartening to end our visit to Honduras by hearing a genuine commitment on the part of officials at Canada’s Embassy to do more to make visible Canadian support for human rights defenders at risk.

It can’t come soon enough amidst an ongoing crisis of repression, injustice and denial of human rights in this troubled country.

But as our delegation sets off for Guatemala, I know hope lies in the many amazing defenders we have met, young and old, who refuse to be intimidated and are doing all they can to effect change in Honduras. The graffiti we saw on countless walls says it all: “BERTA VIVE! BERTA LIVES! ”