Opinion: Berta did not die, she multiplied

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Poster of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres

We honor International Women’s Day.

To mark the occasion, various women’s organizations and the Federation of Indigenous Mayan Women (Consejera Mujeres Maya Chorti & Red de Mujeres) held a women’s march. The women and their allies marched from the ancient Mayan ruins in the outskirts of the town of Copan Ruinas to the center of the town. Fists raised in defiance, the women were making known their unanimous opposition to economic imperialism, corruption, exploitation and the violence and abuse that has plagued their communities for far too long.

Unfortunately, the story of exploitation and violations of fundamental rights in Latin America traces back to a long history that has its roots in a tradition of colonization and slavery. Despite popular belief, the culture of slavery and colonization has never really left this continent and many local indigenous communities and campesinos (rural workers) in Honduras continue to suffer from systemic economic and political oppression. With wages under $1 a day, modern hyper-capitalistic economy, as espoused by the United States throughout Latin America, resembles a system of resource extortion and wage slavery.  

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Mayan women’s indigenous march takes control of the city hall. Photo: Josselin Casselman

Women are often most affected

Women are often most affected by the exploits of the prevailing system that has sustained, and in many instances, increased poverty levels throughout the global south. Unpaid labor among indigenous women and in rural communities is a common reality. Indigenous women are disproportionately victims of abuse, harassment and assassination. Oftentimes in these communities, the perpetrators of violence are never prosecuted because the authorities and systems of justice are unresponsive to the plight of the poor and the marginalized. Violence and abuse is part of the normalized experience of indigenous women, not only in Honduras, but throughout Latin America.

The same systems of oppression that saw indigenous nations of the Americas enslaved, massacred and marginalized by the millions during European colonization, very much continues to this day with a modern makeover. Forces of exploitation and colonization today march under the flag of multinational corporations, big business and oligarchical elitist regimes that rarely represent the interests of the common people.  In Copan, where I work, just down the road from where some of the local indigenous communities are located, hydroelectric projects and mining operations are already busy at work extracting precious resources from the rivers and the lands that are part of indigenous peoples’ territories. In the aftermath of their activities, the local populations are left only with pollution and degradation to deal with on their own.  After all, the sickness and infected bodies of the exploited Indians in far away lands are out of sight and out of mind for the average North American consumer, who is solely concerned with the availability of cheap products.

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Mayan women march under the banner of Berta. Photo: Josselin Casselman

People are mobilizing and responding

Fortunately, in the face of ever growing economic, social and political challenges, the people are mobilizing and responding. Women, especially, are increasingly becoming a beacon of hope and leading the way for a brighter future. Yet, women activists here in Honduras are more and more at risk of abuse, murder and violence. The march organized for International Women’s Day by the Mayan women of Copan coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of the world renowned environmental activist, indigenous leader, and human rights advocate, Berta Cáceres. The activists, almost entirely composed of women- mothers, sisters, grandmothers- walked in unison under the banner that read: “Berta no murió, se multiplicó” (Berta did not die, she multiplied). Many of the women present at the march are risking their lives.

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The activists, almost entirely composed of women- mothers, sisters, grandmothers- walked in unison under the banner that read: “Berta did not die, she multiplied.”

Many of the women present at the march risk their lives.

The women of the communities are fundamentally engaged in the fight for the preservation of the environment, sustainability, human dignity and improvement of living conditions for their communities. Women are often concerned with the wellbeing of more than just themselves; they are far more dedicated to also assist their communities, their families, their daughters and sons. Without them and their selfless dedication, the grassroots struggle for justice and human rights would not be nearly as active or effective.

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Berta Lives On, an artistic expression by the local Honduran artist: Andrea Fonseca Cahin

It is the women who are often on the frontlines of the social struggles against oppressive systems and injustice against their communities and their families. It is no exception that in the district of Copan, Honduras, it is the women’s organizations and women leaders who are the most active advocates in defense of fundamental rights.

Suffice to say, it is a sacred duty that we owe to honor the women of our own communities, not just on any particular day, but over and over again every day. For it is through the women’s continued struggle for equality and justice that the spirit of dignity and resistance is kept alive. I am truly inspired by them. To the extent possible, we must all march with the women of the communities side by side, in the same footsteps of Berta Cáceres, if we are to honor our own humanity and the planet – Mother Earth. #BertaVive

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Indigenous People Battle to Counter the Effects of Climate Change in Honduras

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Recently, I was introduced to the organization CONPAH, the federation of indigenous nations of Honduras.  CONPAH provides a collective front to deal with some of the most pressing issues facing indigenous communities throughout Honduras.

Climate change is an issue of concern to indigenous communities. This is because land and the environment greatly influence the culture and spirituality of many indigenous people. Most indigenous communities make their living off of the land and their spiritual traditions and cultural outlook are closely tied to the land. As such, these communities are often disproportionately affected by climate change.

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Currently, CONPAH is working with the Honduran government in coordination with the United Nations to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on a national level. As part of these efforts, many international organizations as well as non-governmental organizations have been mobilized to carry out the objectives of the UNFCCC agreement. The UNFCCC entered into force on March 21, 1994. Today, it has near-universal membership. Honduras is among 197 countries that have ratified the Convention, meaning that they are held accountable to implement the goals of the convention within their national framework.

The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement both built on the UNFCCC to bring all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.

The latest push by the Honduran government to implement measures to deal with the effects of climate change is part of these continued efforts. Honduras is reaffirming its commitment to reduce carbon emissions and develop a national strategy to implement measures against deforestation and environmental degradation. Honduras, in consultation with the international community, has empowered the secretariat of energy, natural resources, environment and mining, to develop a program, REDD or REDD+, for reducing emissions caused by deforestation and environmental degradation.

In order to realize the objectives of REDD/REDD+, the Honduran government, UN agencies, NGOs and other international organizations have rightly realized that they will need to work closely with indigenous people. It is among these communities that climate experts and environmental activists find their greatest allies, since they have a rich history of traditions that honor and intimately care for the environment.

Many indigenous communities have long adopted practices and cultural norms that tend to be in harmony with the environment. This is exactly why many environmental organizations have set out to incorporate these communities’ traditional knowledge and practices in the process of fighting deforestation and environmental degradation.

It was in this spirit that on July 4-7, 2017, the UN, government representatives, and various NGOs held a conference in collaboration with leaders of various indigenous communities in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. The purpose of this conference was to initiate a dialogue regarding the implementation of REDD/REDD+ as a means of facing the challenges of climate change. This process of consultation and direct communication with the indigenous communities and seeking their participation is essential to develop a lasting alliance with the indigenous nations to help prevent deforestation and environment degradation.

I also joined the conference as part of the Maya Ch’orti’ delegation, braving the nine-hour drive from Copan Ruinas with enthusiasm. After two days of intensive discussions, presentations and negotiations, CONPAH and the government agreed to adopt the objectives laid out by REDD/REDD+. It was decided that the communities would participate in the creation of a national strategic plan to help preserve the forest and cut back emissions to help Honduras meet its obligations.

Throughout the conference, leaders of the communities were among the most vocal advocates for the protection of the environment. The resilience and resolve of indigenous nations to preserve their territories really came through strongly in the meetings. The conference served as a powerful reminder of the connection indigenous cultures share with the environment.

Truly, international organizations, NGOs and governments can learn a great deal from indigenous communities, for they retain a wealth of wisdom and information regarding sustainable resource use and management. Likewise, indigenous territories can serve as a bastion where sustainable development and conservation can be practiced and implemented in keeping with indigenous peoples’ rights. Indigenous peoples’ territories are by law considered to be protected areas and are meant to be kept safe from exploitation at the hands of foreign companies and mining industries.  Although enforcing territorial rights has been a difficult process, at least recognizing them is a step in the right direction. 

DSC02259The struggle of indigenous people to gain recognition for their traditional territories in accordance with Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (ILO No. 169)  is highly relevant to the conservation efforts undertaken as part of REDD/REDD+. It is hoped that by making an alliance with the indigenous communities, community members may be empowered to carry out conservation efforts on their own territories to help respond to the effects of climate change. The UNFCCC and REDD/REDD+ may also give further credence to the indigenous peoples’ right to communal territory. The need to reduce emissions and preserve the environment will give authority to indigenous peoples’ struggle to secure and preserve their communal territories. Therefore, an alliance with CONPAH through REDD/REDD+ may offer a win-win situation to all parties involved.

The process of consultation and participation is a key aspect of the ILO No. 169. The conference in Tegucigalpa incorporated these two very essential elements. The event was a success because the authorities included an effective mechanism for consultation and incorporated the participation of indigenous nations. Due to this inclusive and participatory approach, the leaders of the communities felt comfortable to adopt the objectives of REDD/REDD+ and have agreed to help develop a comprehensive strategic plan to meet the goals of conservation and emission reduction. I am excited to be a part of this historic process.

In the near future, the National Council of Indigenous Ch’orti’ Maya of Honduras (CONIMCHH), the governing body for the Maya Ch’orti’ nation of Copan, will focus on the development of a plan for the preservation of the forest on their indigenous territories. I will also be involved in this process and will continue to advocate for indigenous rights. The best interest of CONIMCHH and the Maya Ch’orti’ nations is my priority, and If REDD/REDD+ can help reinforce indigenous peoples’ authority over their territorial lands, I will be very content. Any initiative or process that concerns indigenous communities and their territories must be entered into with the informed, prior consent of the community members and must incorporate their decisions and participation. All projects that deal with indigenous peoples’ territories must use a participatory process and take into account indigenous costumes, cultures and traditions as a way of developing a strategy that primarily meets the needs of the local communities.

I will end by presenting the following: Historically, in areas allocated as protected indigenous peoples’ territories, forest regeneration tends to be far more rapid, deforestation ceases and cases of extreme exploitation are far less likely. If nations and companies can learn to respect indigenous peoples’ right to their traditional territories, forests would have a chance to regenerate on these very same protected lands and exploitation would be dramatically reduced. It is with this intention that CONPAH and indigenous nations of Honduras moves forward with the program of REDD/REDD+. I am honored to be of assistance in this process.

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