Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Lenca, who number more than 450,000, are the largest indigenous community in Honduras and make up over 60 per cent of the indigenous population. Lenca live in the central department of La Paz, and the western departments of Lempira, Ocotepeque and Itibuca, as well as in some smaller communities in the northern part of the country.
There are about 612 Lenca communities, many in remote hard-to-reach mountainous areas that lack basic services such as running water, roads or transportation. Lenca men engage in agriculture including coffee cultivation. The increasing resurgence of Lenca traditional arts such as weaving and pottery by Lenca women is helping to generate income as well as to preserve cultural traditions. Although Lenca have not retained their language, traditional Lenca social structures remain strong. Lenca traditionally expect all members to participate in communal life.
In pre-colonial periods, Lenca controlled a large territory that extended from Guatemala to present-day El Salvador in the region of the Lempa river. During the Spanish invasion, the Lenca organized a decade-long war of resistance led by the warrior chief Lempira (after whom the national currency of present-day Honduras is named).
In 2010, the Law on the Promotion of Public/Private Alliances was passed, allowing for the privatization of forty-seven rivers. Lenca have been actively resisting the construction of hydroelectric dams on these rivers that are within their territory. In the same year, Lenca organized into the Movimiento Independiente Indígena Lenca de La Paz – Honduras (MILPAH).
One of the most high profile cases of resistance has been that concerning the Los Encinos Dam. Numerous Lenca leaders have faced threats and been murdered for opposing the project. In October 2014, 15-year old Lenca activist, Maycol Ariel Rodríguez García, was found murdered. It is suspected that his death was in relation to his defence of the Gualcarque River. In 2016, Ana Mirian Romero, a Lenca activist and member of MILPAH, won the Frontline Defenders Award for her work in resisting the dam installation. She described how her home had been the target of an arson attack as well as invaded by armed men while she and her children were sleeping; Romero has also been physically assaulted while pregnant. By 2017, four Lenca activists had been killed since 2013 for their opposition to the Los Encinos dam.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in