Interviewees: COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: COPINH’s office, La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras
Date: 23rd September 2015
Key Words:peaceful resistance; indigenous rights; transnational companies; community radio; ILO Convention 169; Lenca people; CONATEL; repression; impunity; National Institute for Agrarian Reform.
Martin Mowforth (MM): Yes, it’s recording. Good, first, Marleny, what are your surnames?
Marleny Reyes Castillo (MRC): Reyes Castillo
MM: OK. So, Marleny, you are the coordinator of COPINH, one of the coordinators, is that correct?
MRC: The general coordinator is our colleague, Berta Caceres
MM: OK, and yourself?
MRC: I’m part of COPINH, a facilitator of COPINH.
MM: OK, and Selvín Milla also? You’re in charge of communications?
SM: Of course; in charge of communication and above all operations: organising security for the communities, in which right now there is a struggle and great risk. So we need – well, we aren’t trained 100 per cent but at least we have a basic protection strategy. Also radio training — a much needed alternative communication method. We train ourselves to use them, coordinating the 5 radios we have to tell everyone what’s happening and for training. Well, it’s not much; and we’re also working with young people with regard to training them on the protection of our surroundings and environment. And still, above all we’re working with women. As they say, without women, there is no revolution. So we’re with them right now.
MM: Yes, I was going to ask Marleny about protection for women. Can you tell me what you told me a few minutes ago about project ‘Focal’?
MRC: Well, first of all, thank you for the opportunity to speak; and especially for the solidarity between countries needing to know what COPINH is, what it’s doing and why it’s operating.
COPINH carries out several activities: opposition, training and public education for the indigenous communities. Amongst these is a project of facilitators, facilitating these processes particularly for women, directed especially at the communities. Where they can learn the methods of protection that COPINH offer, for example the [ILO] Convention 169, which they have to own. But in this, COPINH’s objective is to reduce risk, insecurity, intra-family violence, economic violence, sexual violence and the endless violence within these communities. This is the ultimate goal for COPINH, that this decreases, that it can’t keep happening – these women [in the communities] are the ones who are saying it – it’s they who denounce it and who have to act against this situation that they live with every day. Because COPINH is an anti-patriarchal organisation, without religion or politics. It has certain policies for popular education and training but not legal politics. So this project for the protection and for indigenous rights defenders of the indigenous people in the towns of Intibucá and La Paz is directed at different communities where COPINH has a presence and where women need help. At times, but not necessarily, you have to be in living in these communities but also they look out for you; COPINH is for everyone and we all fit in together.
So COPINH exists for this, to develop a process of education and training for women, where they get to know first-hand patriarchal domination – how to exclude themselves from this domination which has existed for years against women, this domination which exists because women haven’t had a voice. They’ve, well they’ve been cut off, they’ve been subjected to this situation because they haven’t been allowed out of the kitchen. Silent, blind and without power to confront the situation they live in. This then, is the work of COPINH – that these same women, when they enter the process, they break the ice. They know who’s with them, who’s there to protect them. COPINH can have an impact in protecting them, both through training, education and creating tools, and also by finding organisations to protect them. Because here it’s unbelievable the violence that’s imposed. This country, this country’s own government recognises the statistics of how many rapes occur, how many murders of women there are. That is statistically – but they don’t investigate anything: who did it or who organised it. And although, like COPINH, they file the complaint, these are filed away, they don’t follow it up and it goes unpunished. COPINH makes the denouncements and does this work, because we hope to achieve a reduction in risk, insecurity and women’s deaths. Above all, the protection of women’s territory, protection of Lenca territory, and if it’s possible then it can have the goal of national coverage. As we said before, COPINH is in more than 200 communities: it has a huge territory.
MM: All in Intibuca?
MRC: In Intibucá, Lempira and La Paz – all the Lenca people, and further still COPINH has a presence at national level. And if these women need COPINH to intervene to protect them, to reduce the insecurity and the risk, then COPINH is there. The same way they are now in Cortés.
MM: Ah yes? There too?
MRC: There are already women from Cortés included in the protection process. And from the moment they organise themselves – because the basic tool to be able to defend yourself, to protect yourself and realise your rights is to organise yourself. Then they enter COPINH and begin to train themselves. And when they enter this training, they quickly identify themselves as rights defenders. From the beginning they know that a person, a woman, a man, a child, the elderly, all defend a right, personally, collectively or in an organised way. This person then becomes a champion of indigenous rights.
MM: OK, many thanks for the explanation. And would you like to explain something about your radio system? About radio communication.
SM: I already said radio is an alternative form of communication. In total there are 5 broadcasters operating at the moment. We have 4 FM stations, and 1 AM that is a modulating frequency. We began broadcasting by radio out of necessity to communicate with the people, to understand what is happening. As we said before, the communications media in this country has been controlled by a dominant government system. In the end we said to ourselves, the worst thing is that it was very difficult to get a media outlet.
It took us a lot of effort to get this means of communication, and after so much struggle we began transmitting the first radio broadcasts. Of course, this had already been started before under another radio programme that was played in a paid slot, a very expensive slot. And the public only had that to listen to, the only communication which promoted struggle. After this we began to look for events to broadcast. We began putting radios in the places where there had been the struggle was greatest so the people would know what was happening, and also those who did the communicating. Then the risk began; threats came because it was said that we were against the system, perhaps, and well …
MM: Is it a licensed system? By the government?
SM: Yes. The result after all this was that the government, over time, began a governmental network called CONATEL. CONATEL began to suppress media outlets trying to eliminate them, because they said they were pirate channels, or community radios. Then we were talked about by some international convention, Convention 170 of the ILO [International Labour Organisation]. Then we began to push back: the media has to be free come-what-may – it’s a human right. Then they began to look for alternative methods, emitting another signal on the same frequency to try and eliminate us. We knew about the options, so we just changed frequency each time they messed with us. When the public knew most of the frequencies, we began to transmit a loud noise so they knew that we were moving to another frequency.
All this went on and a new fight began to expand our outlets. Finally, we found an AM frequency that had a strong signal, but we had to work even harder. After a time, we began transmitting this signal. The people began listening to it more on the borders, further afield, then they began to know more about the organisation and that motivated us even more. So much organisation, and at last we now have 204 communities with us. Eh, the effort it takes to maintain connected communities, and much more between – there aren’t basic resources to begin buying transmitters or recycle the bad ones. Then we have to ask ourselves where – where needs a radio? In the beginning we said one here, where the office already is. Then we were emitting two frequencies: FM and AM along two channels. They interrupted the FM signal most because that was the easier than the AM. As soon as they interrupted the FM, we announced the swap to AM and changed straight away, so the public could change and continue listening.
This went on and then another struggle began in order to extend our means of communication at the end of which we got the AM frequency with a much stronger signal, but it meant we had to work harder. Well, after so much time broadcasting on that signal people began to listen to us more on the border, further away; and so they began to get to know our organisation better and to motivate us even more. The whole organisation, up to now, has 204 communities with us. We have to put in a huge effort to stay connected to these communities, and we’re missing even more because we don’t have the minimum economic resources to continue buying transmitters or to repair those that have broken down.
So, where are they, where do we need the radio? At the start we had one here where the office is. Then we said we were going to broadcast in the two frequencies, FM and AM. The FM frequency was interrupted more because it’s easier to interrupt than the AM. So they began to interrupt our FM signals; then we said we were changing to the AM frequency, and immediately people changed so that they could continue to listen to us.
Quite a time passed, and then we saw that Lempira needed a radio transmitter. We carried another transmitter that was also put in the same name, La Guenpica (?), and then we began to transmit from there. The people began supporting us even more because they had a media outlet and now they knew the truth of things. And well, after all this, they say there’s a remote mountain where there are indigenous people, where they are marginalised, where they have nothing, no education, no healthcare – they have absolutely nothing – they’re a really distant people. As an organisation we will go to work with them, working with them before establishing a media outlet, fighting because they made themselves an independent municipality. This was achieved after a lot of struggle, a lot of movement, a lot of protest, even a hunger strike. After that they installed a media outlet called Puca Hupalaca. After that they continued the struggle and saw another need, most recently – it’s a radio station called Radio Gualcate. It’s in Río Blanco and Tibuca and is one of the most recent FM stations – our fourth. There we’ve had transmission problems: the transmitter is small and the frequency is a little short, and well, we’ve had some difficulties.
Now everything is OK; despite all the problems, people are still following radio and are looking to protect and cement this radio communication from all attacks. Because it’s not just the media outlets that are attacked, but the people working within them: sometimes having to move all broadcasts for the day to a more secure location and make anonymous transmissions. Not having the Internet – that would make it simple to tell the people what’s happening abroad; having journalists and no one knowing who they are. These are the circumstances in which we have to operate. There you have it, this is a little of the alternative media we have on air, thanks to the public, thanks to their efforts, nothing more. It’s a little…
MM: Sure, but it’s important. Thanks to you both, and it’s Sara, right?
MRC: She’s our colleague, Liliam.
MM: Ah, Liliam. Thanks for talking and for having me. Thanks for all you’ve said, and we hope we work together a little more in the future – especially with James present.
Second recording (COPINH 2)
MRC: Against governmental impunity for the deaths of our colleagues who have fallen fighting to defend their territory, to defend the river; and against the arrival and international threat of the big companies; they died because they’ve defended their way of life, they’ve defended their territory, the river, and especially those that have defended control of the territory of the indigenous lands in the communities. Especially Río Blanco; Río Blanco has been one the communities to suffer the most violence. Thanks to the international companies, the government, so many have fallen and they don’t care. Although COPINH has collected lots of information on those cases that eventually come to light – who killed them? Who did it? They know the truth. These companies have a lot to answer for. These companies here …
MM: What’s the name of the company?
MRC: (?) In Río Blanco, it’s DESA.
MM: Ah, Sinohydro, yes.
MRC: They endangered the dignity and the stability of our colleagues in Río Blanco. Women have also suffered greatly: threats, psychological pressure and their lands having been taken from them. Now they’re there again. And they continue to threaten, to prolong an environment of intimidation, of threats and oppression against the people of Río Blanco.
MM: This is a Chinese company, right? But I thought I’d heard Sinohydro had failed, that the project had failed. Is there another company? Is that right?
Liliam (L): Yes, it was abandoned in the construction phase. But now about three months ago, another has come in through Santa Bárbara. This is something that’s going to affect part of Río Gualcal, because they’ve been felling to get the water there. So they’re always endangering the same indigenous communities of Río Blanco and Río Gualcal.
MRC: The conditions in the area of Rio Blanco – they’re bad due to the risk and the insecurity of the locals. COPINH has done so much, lots of work, and they’re our colleagues there, so this is a major worry in the fact of the threat of these companies coming in. They’ve come back again, more repressive, more militarized; there’s even more repression than there was before. For us that is a very serious and difficult situation faced with what might be to come and what might happen in Río Blanco.
MRC: We’ve also had deaths of our colleagues who have defended their land, who wanted to have and protect a plot of land just in order to subsist. So they’ve peacefully resisted. This is the case in Somolagua, Santa Bárbara. In Somolagua, Santa Bárbara, a land struggle has begun because another group of people from outside the struggle wanted to take possession of our comrades’ lands. So there’s a small group there doing a lot, issuing threats, and we’ve had the death of one comrade resulting from this situation. He died a short while ago simply fighting to retake his land. And the death of our comrade Moíses, he died defending his lands. And now the action is stronger because the intimidation is even greater. The Secretary of the National Congress, Mario Pérez, is there; this man has been directing actions against the people, actions against Berta [Cáceres]. Lots of repression, with lots of aggression against our colleagues simply for defending their lands – because it’s a universal right, to have land to be able to survive. So, …
MM: I imagine he wants to own the land?
MRC: Not him, or rather there’s a situation where he has a great deal of power, being Secretary of the National Congress. This gives him power relating to the indigenous peoples, but the only weapon they [indigenous peoples] have is our organisation, COPINH, and Convention 169. This is the power they use to come here, in their wish to take our comrades’ lands and kill them, intimidate them, and to send in the soldiers.
MM: I imagine he’s a hated figure?
MRC: Of course, it’s abuse of power. And here’s another case of impunity. Enter the Government: there are a lot of cases where they’ve oppressed and weakened the struggle. Although COPINH hasn’t been weakened. But it’s a great worry that our comrades are falling in defence of their lands, wanting to protect their environment, their common holdings, their natural resources too. They just want to defend their land. And this resistance spurs on the military repression from the Government. It directly threatens our colleague, Berta [Cáceres].
MM: Yes, of course.
MRC: Because our position is the direct defence of our people, and also to ensure they’re respected and are not continually repressed or killed as they are now.
MM: Yes, of course. Tell me about the importance and the need for your programmes and your SOCA project. It’s very important.
SM: Yes, it’s very important. Firstly, it facilitates our production of material and also the resources required. Although it’s only a bit, it helps us a lot. The detail is in the time that passes, upon doing this work we’re undertaking.
Marleny already spoke about all the killings, the impunity, and this goes on. It’s a struggle which never ends; well, it’s very difficult to bring it to an end. The people here won’t give up, come-what-may, despite the fact they kill more of our friends – it only infuriates people more. In the case of Río Blanco, it seems that people had heard that the company came here from other countries and were annoyed about it. And it started again – all over again. Today they started a committee here, the General Coordinating Body in Rio Blanco and Intibucá, doing more training with the people. Well, they had said this week that the Government was going to suspend the military support for the company. It’s not happened, there are more soldiers than before, more armed security guards; and they’ve already started making roads without asking the community. They want to divert the river, and the people don’t want that. The people have a right to control the territory and so they’ve held them up. Their milpas [corn fields] are going to be damaged – their river is sacred to them because that’s where their spirits live, where everything lives. For us it could be a myth perhaps, but for them it means defending their way of life and it doesn’t matter whether it’s with their own life. Yesterday we stayed the night in Somalagua, a place in Santa Bárbara where the land has recovered. A new landowner came along – these landowners take possession of the land – so as COPINH is the only organisation in the country, it doesn’t matter if the landowners have arms, we go in all the same. We make the effort because the people won’t give in, come what-may. And so we go in, and afterwards we’re all threatened. If she’s the first to enter, they put her in prison, and they know how it goes: here they kill people. They kill people because they know they’re indigenous – three times exploited. It’s racism, it’s based on class, and well also …
MM: Also because of their gender?
L: Yes, because they’re women.
SM: It’s also because they’re women. Then after all this struggle, not only in Bocallán, where these days they’ve been fighting. For example, tomorrow we’re going to Santa Elena, La Paz, there’s another hydroelectric project there financed by Congress…
L: Deputy Gladis Aurora López.
SM: Gladis Aurora López is a Deputy in the National Congress and a [Ministerial] Secretary, right?
L: Vice President of Congress.
SM: Vice President of Congress. Because she thinks she has money, because she thinks that the people are indigenous, and because she thinks that killing people is a game. She’s killed to build a hydroelectric dam no matter whether the people want it or not – and those that don’t want it she kills.
We’ll keep up the resistance as long as necessary, and tomorrow we’re going to carry on another check-up. Because on the riverbank there are recovered areas, areas where people have gone to stop them building the hydroelectric plant along the riverbanks. These are the efforts people are making every day.
More threats, in a place called la Dica del Pira (?). It’s threatened now with a military base, an opal mine, a rare precious rock. And also they want to build a hydroelectric dam – and they are trying to do so now; they already have permissions, and people have already been evicted, with everything. They began from a place you need a car to find, although people resisted: they walked for a full day to try and kick out the machines. So although the people do everything to resist, they are threatened every day, many in a place called Robuca, San Francisco or near where we have the radio. Now here is one of the most threatened places of all because it’s where the people put up the most resistance. More resistance, more oppression. And so, on the other side of the river we have other places of resistance which they’re using the chainsaw on: here is another place with a lot of involvement from the people. And now we’re waiting for them to arrive, the people are prepared, to fight back against this coup. There are still more places where they’re working and where resistance is more difficult. But the struggles continue in all the communities, but what concerns us most is that they’re killing more people. More killings, and more denunciations, but no response. Not one of them is in prison, not one, they say: tomorrow we’ll catch them. They don’t pay us any attention solely because we’re indigenous; they think this, right? They can do whatever they want to us, they can even kill us. And most of us are threatened. Perhaps today you see three of us; perhaps after the night you’ll only see one or two of us. Any of us could die and nobody cares.
Well no more. And does the world ask itself? I suppose sometimes; no one knows; the world doesn’t know who dies anymore. They only think of the city, where they write about if the child of a millionaire is killed; but killing anyone poor? That’s not important. And because of this we’re stereotyped by what we what we have in this country, well San Pedro, and it’s so sad. They kill less in the capital and in San Pedro than they do here. But only the indigenous, that’s how it is. And COPINH is one of the few organisations that have survived against all these attacks. We’ve survived because people like you have come, something I give thanks for every day, because you come but you also follow-up. You know it right? At least COPINH exists there. We’re going to offer resistance for our Mother Earth, since we the indigenous people have such love of nature, our Pacha Mama. Because we know that we have only this: we’re all in this boat travelling together. We have a saying that ‘the earth doesn’t need me, I’m the one that needs the earth’, therefore, I love it every day. I will fight from dawn ’til dusk for her, and if I should wake up and survive, well surviving for her doesn’t matter. And one of the types of training we give so that people can survive is that we do not train militarily, nor do we have arms, or anything like that. But what we train people in are methods of protection, how to hide, how to survive, how to know when you can go up to look out. Also we train them to know how to protect things, and how to at least protect our Mother Earth. We tell ourselves: when they kill us, we enter into the earth and from there our blood from the struggle will germinate to give even more support to our people. That is our saying, it’s not that of the hydroelectric companies; they chase the money and give little thought for what they exploit. No matter what they call us: stupid, guerrillas, troublemakers, that we don’t have training, or that we’re narrow-minded and oppose progress. For us, progress isn’t their economic development. For us, our progress is that the river runs, that it flows naturally and that we can support the river we have there. [Laughs], but that is our version of development, ours is that the indigenous people can continue as they are, because they lack for nothing. They don’t need anything, not even a mobile phone. They don’t lack anything between then. They don’t need anything because they live in peace. Ever since the arrival of the great civilisation, or the ‘progress’ of I don’t know what – for me it’s a step backwards. But come what may we’ll carry on fighting, keep searching for those community bonds in order to strengthen their groups and ensure they’re respected. Now it’s more difficult than ever, but there’s an organisation of the state that …
MM: What’s it called?
SM: INA [National Institute for Agrarian Reform]
MM: INA. Ah yes, INA.
SM: For me, our way of seeing as indigenous people is that we are just employees for the State where they spend money without it doing anything. Here there’s been many a year where they don’t give us anything, they don’t do anything, months go by with nothing happening. They don’t have anything to say in the whole valley, or it doesn’t matter to them what happens in the communities. Because they don’t live here, they don’t give a damn about it. Apart from that, what they mainly do is repress us, and come in to check our papers and telling us how much better it would be for the indigenous people to leave because there are fights you just can’t win. But the people aren’t disheartened, they come out of it more motivated. We say that we’re at least going to fight back. We live there all the time, and we spend all our time there. And because of this we have our communications outlets – I speak on the radio for instance. I’m one of those ….; we come and go, we spend time in people’s houses so that they aren’t detained or arrested. It’s a difficult situation and not at all easy to keep it up. To carry on – but this is life, right? It’s great you’ve come, because it gives us more to shout about. Although our voice is small here, it has reached the other side of the world – a part of the world I don’t [laughs].
MRC: Also as COPINH, it’s important to recognise that the strongest threat in Honduras, right now this year and especially from the beginning of August, is in the conclave of San Pedro Sula. The 12th and 13th, that’s when the international companies come in.
MRC: They come for the buying and selling of our land. That is one of the greatest threats for us the indigenous peoples. It’s because of this we’re organising ourselves in peaceful resistance, to stop these huge companies. Because the government is selling our lands to them. It’s offering it to the big transnationals. Faced with the entrance and threat of these big companies, the mass education directed towards the communities is even more vital to COPINH. Our people have to be awake, well informed about what’s happening. The people won’t allow them to take our lands, rivers, and resources – not for a second. They come to explore, with the only objective being economic ambition because they want to extract our greatest national resources, an absolute fortune, whilst our people remain in poverty. The only riches that we have as indigenous peoples are our lands; and that’s why we oppose them. Because the Government, President Don Juan Orlando Hernández, is offering any of our lands as business collateral.
MM: Yes, so many concessions for the hydroelectric companies, and the mining companies also.
MRC: Of course, it’s this we’re against.
MM: This is one of the main themes of this book. And the problems that are caused by the transnational corporations. In every chapter we describe the problems caused by these intrusions into all Central American countries. I have them right now in Honduras, due to the sale of land for …
MRC: Yes, they’ve taken almost everything.
MM: Yes, OK. Thank you very much.
MRC: You too.
MM: Many thanks to you all.