As we celebrate Earth Day today, let us celebrate the Indigenous movements at the center of defending the Earth — movements like our partner COPINH, The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Their defense of the Lenca people and their ancestral territories are inseparable from their defense of Mother Earth.
“Our Mother Earth — militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated — demands that we take action,” our dear comrade Berta Cáceres told the Goldman Prize during her acceptance speech in 2015. “Giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet.”
A year later, she was tragically murdered — just one of the many Indigenous environmental organizers from both COPINH and other movements who have fallen in the struggle.
Honduras has been among the most dangerous countries for environmental and land activists since 2010, with more than 124 assassinations. There were at least 17 murders of land activists and environmentalists in 2020 alone, making it the deadliest year to date.
The 2009 US-backed coup deepened an authoritarian and militarized form of “free-market” neoliberalism. The Honduran government prioritized the wealthy elites’ interests — especially in land development for extraction, tourism, low-wage “free trade” zones, and energy infrastructure — over the heads of local communities. When communities like the ones Berta worked with challenged invasions on their homes and territories, the government backed the corporate offenders with military force and judicial impunity.
While Honduras represents one of the sharpest edges of this planet-killing corporatism, we must remember that Canada and the United States continue to commit their own share of brutality against Indigenous Peoples for their lands and territories. Just in the past year, militarized police have invaded Wet’suwet’en and Ojibwe peoples’ territories in Canada and Minnesota so fossil fuel corporations could construct pipelines like Enbridge’s Line 3.
Indigenous Peoples, Food Sovereignty, and Protecting Mother Earth
Yet despite intense repression in Honduras and internationally, COPINH and other Indigenous movements have won significant victories.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has finally acknowledged that colonialism is a major driver of climate change. At the same time, an analysis from our ally the Indigenous Environmental Network has determined that Indigenous resistance against pipelines and other extractive projects in the US and Canada has stopped 779 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere. So decolonization and Indigenous liberation are essential for saving our planet.
COPINH, for its part, has expelled 30 sawmills from the western region of Honduras to fight deforestation over the years. It has secured 200 community territory titles — the equivalent of more than 17,000 acres — for the Lenca people to protect against further land thefts.
Indigenous Peoples’ defense of the planet goes beyond defending their ancestral territories and waters, though. They have also implemented food sovereignty. At COPINH’s Utopia Friendship and Meeting Center, the movement has recovered the traditional Lenca identity, methods and culture of crop cultivation and combined those with the principles of agroecology. While more can be done in Latin America and elsewhere to link peasant and Indigenous movements’ fates together, COPINH has built important united fronts with peasant movements as they both organize to feed people and protect the planet.
Ending Impunity Against People and Planet
Since Berta’s assassination, COPINH has used every tool in its reach to bring global attention to the Lenca people’s struggle for their territory and to bring those responsible for violence to justice. They have exposed the Honduran government’s involvement in the assassination through the Inter-American Human Rights Court, among other channels. They continue to investigate the institutions involved in the assassination, tracing often convoluted money trails.
Together with other movements, COPINH successfully pressured the financial organizations FMO, Finnfund, and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) to formally withdraw from the environmentally irresponsible and ethnically damaging Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project. In December 2019, seven men were sentenced to prison for Berta’s murder. Last year, David Castillo, President of the DESA (Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima) corporation developing the dam and one of the key architects of the assassination, was convicted. Starting with these first convictions and the movement pressure COPINH has put to bear inside and outside the courts, the Lenca people are actively dismantling the system of impunity that protects the worst enemies of Mother Earth.
The Fight Continues
On January 27, 2022 the inauguration of Honduras’ first woman president Xiomara Castro, a reform-minded, self-described democratic socialist, created some optimism. COPINH met with the new government, and during the ceremony Berta’s daughter Berthita Cáceres passed the Lenca Indigenous baton of leadership, a sacred symbol, to Castro.
However, Castro’s agenda is ambitious. She’s promised to address endemic corruption and a deep wealth inequality in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, but her administration has yet to prove itself. COPINH, meanwhile, is far from ready to wait for this government. At the same time that they passed the baton, they also presented demands — and reaffirmed their continued resistance no matter the government in power.
Under one of the most corrupt governments in the world, COPINH has achieved so much both locally and globally. They are one of the many movements around the world raising a united voice for Indigenous lives and Mother Earth. We must continue to heed their call and join them in solidarity.