WikiCommons/André Schütte
House with family in a small mountain village in the mountains of Copan, Honduras, at the border to Guatemala.

Corruption, Land Takeovers Threaten Indigenous Hondurans

Barbara Fraser

Miners, loggers, industrial agribusinesses and ranchers are stripping Honduran indigenous communities of their lands, often abetted by public officials, according to Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Indigenous People.

“One of the most fundamental rights of indigenous people [is the] right to land and territory,” Tauli-Corpuz told Indian Country Today in a telephone interview after a nine-day visit to Honduras that ended on November 10. “It’s very much linked to their culture and life-ways. Territorial rights are really crucial.”

Particularly alarming, she said, is that people who defend those rights may become targets of violence. Between 2002 and 2014, 111 people were killed defending their land and resources in Honduras, according to the non-profit watchdog group Global Witness.

Tauli-Corpuz met with people involved in some of those cases, including Tolupán people protesting mining on their lands and Lenca who have been fighting a hydroelectric dam.

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The UN official’s visit was sparked by protests in March, when Miskito leaders in Puerto Lempira, on the Caribbean coast, detained 28 settlers who had been squatting on their lands.

To gain the group’s release, the government agreed to a series of demands, including a visit from the rapporteur.

Tauli-Corpuz said she “recommended strongly” that the government comply with the other demands, including returning the settlers to their places of origin, investigating the case and prosecuting perpetrators, and taking steps to avoid future squatting.

“According to the people I talked with, the only thing implemented was the invitation given to me,” she said. “There are other (settlers) coming, so they are gearing up for another confrontation.”

A similar situation in Miskito territory in Nicaragua in September left at least nine people dead and 20 injured. Tauli-Corpuz declined to comment on that case, saying she had not visited Nicaragua.

Land takeovers and loss of territorial rights lead to other problems for the Lenca, Maya Chorti, Nahua, Tolupán, Garifuna, Pech, Tawahka and Miskito people with whom she met, Tauli-Corpuz said.

“Corruption is a major problem that indigenous people have identified as a factor in their eviction” from their lands, Tauli-Corpuz said. Indigenous leaders also told her that violations of their rights tend to go unpunished.

Loss of land means loss of livelihood, and young people who cannot find jobs often end up migrating northward illegally in an effort to reach the United States or are pushed into the drug trade, she said.

Women sometimes fall prey to human-trafficking rings. If they remain in their rural villages, they face health threats that come with a lack of medical facilities, including reproductive health care.

In cities such as La Ceiba, on the Caribbean coast, or La Esperanza, west of the capital of Tegucigalpa, “there are people who are staying there because their lands have been taken away,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “They are the poorest of the poor. They are the most excluded and discriminated against.”

The U.N. official said she recommended that Honduras strengthen the government office that handles indigenous affairs and improve access to justice for indigenous people.

“Because judges don’t know about indigenous rights, they decide (cases) on the basis of individual rights, not on the basis of collective rights,” she said.

In the case of the Miskitos and the settlers in Puerto Lempira, a government prosecutor decided not to file a legal complaint against the indigenous leaders because he realized that International Labor Organization Convention 169, which Honduras has ratified, recognizes customary justice systems, she said.

“That shows how important it is for the prosecutor and judges to understand Indigenous Peoples’ rights,” she said.

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