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This land is ours. Well, one day it will be!

4 March 2009

Paolo Gerbaudo, ex Production Coordinator at MRG, takes us back to his days as a media trainer with communities in Honduras and tells a story that is relevant for many indigenous people today.

“Our territory is under threat. Whoever lives here knows that they will have to live in a condition of permanent struggle”, says Marcelino Miranda, of Montaña Verde, an indigenous village in Honduras, after the INA (National Agricultural Institute) has once again turned down the villagers’ request for collective ownership of their land.

“We won’t stop now. We are used to this. It’s always the same old story. We will continue to fight.”

Two and a half years have passed since I visited Montaña Verde, an isolated village on the high-plains of the Intibucá region of Honduras and home to the Lencas, the largest indigenous group in the country. I was in the region working as volunteer media trainer for COPINH (Popular Committee of Indigenous People in Honduras) and was organising a journalism workshop for young people in the community. It took us over four hours of walking along narrow mountain paths to reach this remote land of lush woods and carefully cultivated fields overlooking the surrounding plains.

Montaña Verde has been home for more than a century to a settlement of Lencas. These indigenous people, who, during the 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, have been progressively chased away from more fertile low-lying areas, hoped to find refuge in remote locations like Montaña Verde. Unfortunately, the isolation of the region has not proved a sufficient obstacle to avert the greed of big landowners, who often continue to dominate the rural areas of Honduras as though nothing had changed since the colonial times.
Montaña Verde has become an area dominated by illegal logging activities, theft of agricultural products, and invasions by cattle. In particular, a powerful local farmer, based in the nearby city of Gracias, and well connected with the local authorities, has become a real problem for the community. Every year on Christmas day he pushes his huge herd of cattle into Montaña Verde, spelling disaster for the villagers. Their crops are eaten away, their gardens torn down and their houses damaged by the herd.

Cane Sugar
Lenca milling sugar cane

One day (or at least that’s how the story goes), inspired by the inflamatory sermons of a radical priest, the Lencas of Montaña Verde decided that it was better to expose themselves to violence and repression than to continue to live in misery and despair. They formed an indigenous council to manage their community and organise

self-defense. They dug a deep ditch at the narrow entrance of the valley leading to Montaña Verde and erected a fence on the inner side. They built a bridge and kept a continuous guard at the entrance, to prevent people and cattle from entering their territory without permission.

That winter the people of Montaña Verde could finally celebrate Christmas without the fear of a herd of cattle ravaging their land. Unfortunately, the days of quiet did not last for long. On the night of January 8th 2003, a troop of Cobras – the special forces of the Honduras Army – raided the community. They fired their machine guns against the houses of the village, and ferociously attacked anyone they encountered.

Marcelino Miranda
Marcelino Miranda

Before leaving the village they detained Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda, two brothers who had been particularly active in organizing the community against the land invasions. The two brothers were brutally tortured and almost drowned in the river which runs along the path from Montaña Verde to the city of Gracias. They were eventually jailed, with the preposterous charges of murder and land invasion.

The Miranda brothers remained in jail for three years and were soon joined in captivity by three other inhabitants of Montaña Verde, who were arrested in a following raid in April. It was only because of the unwavering support of COPINH and the resonance produced by a campaign for their release waged by Amnesty USA, that the judges would eventually be forced to admit the lack of evidence and release all the prisoners.

When I arrived in Montaña Verde, the community was preparing for a big celebration: the return of Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda from jail. When the local radio spread the news that the brothers had been released from jail and were heading back home, the people of the village decided to prepare a welcome parade. I joined them on their way to a mountain pass where we waited to greet the two brothers with traditional songs and rituals. The night was approaching and looking at the menacing sky we prayed that it wouldn’t rain. It didn’t work.

By the time Marcelino and Leonardo arrived, there was little time left for celebration. A torrential downpour suddenly kicked off and we were soon wading in water up to our knees. Only the light from the fires burning on our pinewood torches allowed us to continue walking through the night without slipping off the track. No amount of wind or rain seemed able to extinguish the flames.

When I think back to the time I spent in Montaña Verde, I am still astonished by the resistance of the torches that tempestuous night which somehow seemed to mirror the perseverance of the Lenca people. Threatened, beaten, unjustly jailed, discriminated against by an unfair bureaucracy; yet convinced that one day the land they inhabit will be theirs, not only symbolically but also “officially”, written in black and white on a collective ownership title sealed by the Honduran state.

The INA, which in Honduras is responsible for assigning land ownership titles, may continue for some time to pull bureaucratic tricks out of its hat and prevent the Lencas defending their land from the greed of big landowners. But the people of Montaña Verde are ready to keep up the pressure, aided and abetted by their proverbial indigenous patience, as well as pinewood torches to illuminate their path in times of tempest.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.