Pajuiles Resiste: Dignity, Water, and Life

A Pajuiles community member holds up a bag containing the discarded shells of tear gas rounds, August 15th, 2017.

In La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras, the hometown of the murdered indigenous, feminist, environmentalist leader Berta Cáceres, a slogan has taken hold in the 18 months since her assassination. “Berta no se murió, se multiplicó.” Berta hasn’t died, she’s multiplied.

There is maybe nowhere that the essential truth of this statement is as obvious as in the communities of Pajuiles, 135 miles to the north of La Esperanza, where the multiplications of Berta’s extraordinary work and life stand clear-eyed in the face of the same forces of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, criminalization, violence, and corruption that she lived and died fighting.

There are ways in which the reverberations of Berta and COPINH’s struggle are stark.

Pajuiles is a small place, defending its essential rights to water and, by extension, life, against a hydroelectric project that was imposed on the affected communities by powerful economic interests and corrupt political officials. The escalation of criminalization and police brutality in Pajuiles, much of which we described here, has followed a pattern that we and others recognize from Río Blanco. But there’s also a deeper way that Berta echoes in Pajuiles – in the incredible organization of the community by our partners in the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ, for its initials in Spanish), and in the often staggering depth of moral clarity present in the struggle.

In terms of our larger analysis of the situation in Honduras, and of the US role here, the situation in Pajuiles brings two things into sharp focus. The first is that the struggles–against displacement, so-called development projects pushed through with a lack of community consent, and environmental devastation leading to public health crises–are not unique to indigenous peoples in the country. There is, of course, something distinct in these crimes when they’re perpetrated against indigenous communities exactly because they’re indigenous. But the same insidious tactics are used against other people in Honduras, with similarly monstrous effects.

A source of constant inspiration for us, though, is that these tactics are also met with the same steadfast resistance, born of the same inherent dignity and the basic moral truth that human beings have not just a right but an obligation to defend their water, their health, and their lives. The members of MADJ, and of the community in Pajuiles have, for more than 160 days, been working tirelessly in an encampment they call the Campamento Digno por el Agua y La Vida – Dignity Camp for Water and for Life – to defend themselves against an increasingly brutal onslaught of economic and political interests. It’s tempting to imagine this as David vs. Goliath, but of course there are thousands upon thousands of Davids in Honduras. We stand in awe of them.

The second way Pajuiles fits into our overall analysis of Honduras is in the role that state institutions and security forces have played there. We’ll start with the Public Ministry (MP), the state prosecutors of Honduras, who receive ample political, technical, and financial support from the United States. For more than a year, MADJ, on behalf of the affected communities in and around Pajuiles, has filed complaint after complaint about the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the Mezapa River.

All of these complaints – filed over the course of 18 months and regarding everything from the illegal permit issued to the company, Hidrocep, to the environmental damages the construction has caused, to the threats and harassment against members of the camp – have been met with official silence. It’s equal parts revealing and unsurprising, then, that the moment complaints came from the political and economic interests behind the dam, the MP started judicial proceedings. There have been 18 months of complaints from MADJ and the community without so much as a response, but their members who were arrested on August 15th started their hearings less than two weeks later.

A Capacity Issue?

We hear constantly from the Embassy, in our own meetings with them and on official visits with delegations, about the capacity problems in the Honduran justice system. The support of the United States is necessary, their narrative says, because the root of the impunity in Honduras is that lack of capacity. But what we saw in Pajuiles is what we see time and again. Impunity is a one-way street, and capacity issues seem to magically disappear when the complainants are massive companies or municipal authorities.

This is also true with the police. When we last wrote about Pajuiles, the events of August 15th were occurring in real time, so we should fill in the details here. After the assault on MADJ’s General Coordinator, Martín Fernández, and Óscar Martínez on August 4th and the first wave of arrests on the 10th, members of the encampment were on high alert. At around 6:20 that morning, the first piece of heavy machinery showed up at the site of the roadblock. The community, as it has done for months, prevented it from traveling up the mountain. Less than half an hour later, a second piece of machinery arrived, this time with a police escort.

Stories told by the police and community members widely diverge about everything that happened next, but what is known for sure is that the head of the police in Tela, Alejandro Iglesias, ordered the community to let the machinery through, and they responded by demanding to see his warrant. At this, five people were violently arrested by police with guns drawn, including a woman who is 6-months pregnant, a man in his 70s, and a teenager. Police fired tear gas into people’s homes, and into the encampment itself, including the area where they cook. All of this was done in the presence of children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

When we arrived at about 10:30, there was still a massive contingent of police, including the riot squad, Cobras, and units of the preventative National Police. The atmosphere was tense, but the people we saw, as we’d seen them for months, remained in defiant and pacific resistance. The Cobra commander ordered us to stop photographing the scene there, and it seemed in the general interest to comply given the circumstances, but we did manage to capture a lot of how the scene looked when we got there. Representatives from Honduras’ Human Rights Commission, CONADEH, were on the scene, attempting mediation. We were invited by community members and CONADEH staff to attend an impromptu meeting with Hidrocep engineers, but nobody was at the Hidrocep office when we arrived. We left shortly after the largest group of police. The rest of the day passed without incident.

A Pajuiles community member after the arrests and police brutality on August 15th, 2017. His sign reads, “We don’t want a hydroelectric/Hidrosep out.” Cobras and national police in the background.

A group of Cobras with riot gear sit outside Pajuiles, August 15th, 2017.

National Police (left), Cobras (center), and community members (right), at the entrance to Pajuiles, August 15th, 2017.

“We demand the liberty of our compañeros” and “We don’t want a hydroelectric/Hidrosep out.” Signs held up by community members on August 15, 2017. The sign on the right-hand side in the background is from a USAID project in Pajuiles from 2004 – its last line says “Water is a human right.”

Cobras and National Police on the highway outside Pajuiles, August 15th, 2017.