The Hondurans that don't migrate: Indigenous communities face death threats to defend their land
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The Hondurans that don't migrate: Indigenous communities face death threats to defend their land

On an early June morning this year, retired Honduran general Finlander Uclés, armed and escorted by bodyguards, trespassed on the property of an indigenous Tolupan family in the northern Locomapa region. The family was ordered to stop working as the ex-general destroyed their banana and coffee crops, confiscated their tools and ruined their personal possessions.

Then he threatened to return the next day to finish destroying their home and property.

Uclés, a wealthy landowner, claimed the family was living on land that belonged to him — not the first time the military man had tried to assert ownership over property where other people were living. The ex-general has repeatedly intimidated the nearby community in an effort to amass more resource- and mineral-rich property in the Locomapa de Yoro area, on territory that rightfully belongs to the indigenous Tolupan community, under an International Labor Organization convention that outlines territorial rights of indigenous communities.

As a result of Uclés’ ongoing threats, the family has been forced to flee the community seeking safety, even though the father of the family is a beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). These measures are supposed to obligate the Honduran government to ensure the recipient’s safety and to provide protection from physical threats. In this case, as in many others, the Honduran government has failed to do its part.

Blocking the way

Recently, the Tolupanes of Locomapa de Yoro have confronted issues of illegal logging and mining on their communal lands. There is no record of a prior consultation process with the community — which would go against the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, since logging and mining activities began without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Tolupan community.

Community members in opposition to the logging and mining have attempted to voice their concerns to the local government, pointing out that local laws and processes have been either ignored or violated by allowing this activity to proceed despite the strong opposition.

In August 2013, community members opposed to the mining and logging projects on their lands formed a roadblock to block the passage of mining and logging vehicles (local traffic was still permitted to pass). On August 25, 2013, three Tolupan leaders – Armando Fúnez Medina, Ricardo Soto Fúnez, and Maria Enriqueta Matute – were murdered when two local hitmen working for the mining company opened fire on those involved in the blockade.

See also: Indigenous anti-logging activist slain in Peru

The two accused sicarios – Jose Carlos Matute and Selvin Fúnez Matute, who have been identified by witnesses – have yet to go through any judicial process for the murders they allegedly committed. They continue to live in the same area, still threatening residents opposed to these megaprojects.

Some community members fled seeking safety after the killings, only returning six months later with medidas cautelares, the IACHR-mandated precautionary measures. Honduran government officials present at the time of their return promised their full commitment to the community members’ security and the defense of human rights.

Local authorities and Honduran officials have failed to keep this promise, to say the least. Even with medidas cautelares, many community members still feel unsafe and continually report new threats. Locomapa area residents report “constant threats”: the sicarios maintain a strong physical presence in their communities, brandishing their weapons and verbally threatening community members, who say they live with a constant fear of death. The sicarios also regularly fire gunshots to intimidate people, creating a perpetual state of fear for those who have been vocal in their opposition to the megaprojects.

Looking out over one of the communities in Locomapa. Photo: Erika Piquero

Looking out over one of the communities in Locomapa. Photo: Erika Piquero

Institutional failures

The local police appear to have little interest in the situation. When asked, the police have stated that they “try to capture the sicarios every night” – although community members tell a different story. Those with the IACHR precautionary measures report that police do not visit them regularly as they should. The local police have even admitted that they do not have a full list of names of those thirty-eight community members with medidas cautelares — the very people they are supposed to be protecting. When pressed for more information to explain their inaction, local police provided excuses or simply did not respond.

Locomapa residents are simply trying to defend and protect the communal lands and natural resources that support their livelihoods.

“Nature needs us to defend her,” says a Locomapa community member. “We can’t let them take these natural resources for free and leave nothing for our communities.”

Unfortunately, this conflict is not unique to Locomapa. According to Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “this is a subject of larger projects of the United States and Canadian governments as well as part of the EU to make Honduras safe for transnational corporations to engage in spectacular levels of exploitation of Honduran natural resources and its people without any regard for the rule of law.”

This pattern is repeated across the country as indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities and campesinos are intimidated until they feel compelled to leave their land in order to save their lives and those of their families. And those who do remain to defend their rightful claims continue to face extraordinary violence and daily threats.

*For safety purposes, names and direct quotations that might serve to easily identify community members have been omitted.*

Erika Piquero was an international human rights accompanier with PROAH in Honduras from March to May 2014. PROAH provides international accompaniment to human rights defenders who find themselves under threat or harassment due to their individual and collective human rights work in an environment of repression and political persecution. For more information about the organization, please see their website.