Continuing Struggle and Solidarity after Assassination of Berta Caceres

Olivia Zuniga Caceres in center in flowered top with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Olivia Zuniga Caceres in center in flowered top with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Quito   A highlight of the Americas meeting of ACORN International organizers in Quito was a visit with Olivia Zuniga Caceres, the oldest daughter of Berta Caceres, the indigenous, land protection and environmental activist assassinated in Honduras hardly three months ago. Olivia was in Quito to give a talk about the ongoing struggle and accept an award in her mother’s name from a human rights organization in Ecuador. We were fortunate that she was able to sneak away for a bit to visit with us about the fight, express solidarity with ACORN’s organizing in Honduras, and receive the same from ACORN International in this difficult, deadly and continuing campaign.

In many ways Berta Caceres’ story is too common in Latin America still and almost routine in Honduras. As the New York Times noted:

Since a 2009 coup in Honduras, journalists, judges, labor leaders, human rights defenders and environmental activists have been assassinated in targeted killings, with their murders often going unsolved. Twelve environmental defenders were killed in Honduras in 2014, according to research by Global Witness, which makes it the most dangerous country in the world, relative to its size, for activists protecting forests and rivers.

In fact another leader of Berta’s organization, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, had also been killed by a Honduran solider during a peaceful protest in 2013. Various international commission’s and human rights organizations had demanded protection for Berta and in receiving the prestigious Goldman Environmental award in 2015 she had talked about the constant hiding and harassment she was experiencing.

The outline of the backstory for those unfamiliar was in her obituary:

Ms. Cáceres, 44, had led a decade-long fight against a project to build the Agua Zarca Dam along the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Lenca people. The campaign involved filing legal complaints against the project, organizing community meetings and bringing the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

That description is inadequate to describe the intensity of the struggle fought to prevent construction of the dam, which included blocking access to construction crews for over a year, sufficient to force out the Chinese partner in the project. Unfortunately, the Honduran business interests were adamant and shifted their work to the other side of the river, less accessible to the protestors, and work continues on the dam.

Olivia Caceres was clear that she and other members of the organization have not relented in the fight. International law requires indigenous interests be consulted before such construction. That was not done and is still being resisted. We discussed where we could assist on an upcoming visit to publicize the fight in the United States that she is making in July as well as where other ACORN affiliates around the world might intersect with her. Her remarks about ACORN and the work and support in Honduras were humbling and inspiring.

Our work is hard, but rarely in our daily labor to we have to assess the risk of life and death faced by this organization, its members and leaders in a seemingly lawless situation with government posturing and inaction, proving once again why we all so desperately need to support and stand with each other.

Olivia Zuniga Caceres with ACORN Organizers in Quito

Olivia Zuniga Caceres with ACORN Organizers in Quito



The Hard Nuts and Bolts of Organizing in Honduras

10293579_812218472164492_6052867961713463478_oQuito   Erlyn Perez, the head organizer in Tegucigalpa, Suyapa Amador, the head organizer and sparkplug of San Pedro Sula, Marcos Gomez, ACORN Canada’s campaign director, and I spent 3 hours trying to get our arms around the great progress of ACORN Honduras in the last several years, as well as the difficult question of whether or not the organization could survive long term in what might be a gold standard definition in organizing of a bittersweet conversation. The work is critical, the membership is now over 3500 in both cities, the victories are local and concrete, but the nuts and bolts of building sustainable membership-based community organizations means that even with great success, we are forced to constantly evaluate whether we can survive.

Looking at San Pedro Sula is almost a case study. We have seven community organizations in the city and the communities that abut the city, especially Choloma where we have worked the longest. Recently we have won some commitments from the Mayor of San Pedro Sula to make repairs on Street 27 there which has been almost impassable in some areas. More needs to be done and 300 homeowners along the street have organized with us to withhold their tax payments and pay them simultaneously when the Mayor agrees to finish the work. An interesting tactic! In some cases there’s just no money, no matter how hard we press. In Choloma where we have been in one campaign after another around potable water, we are now working with our members to put together the pieces to change the water collection system by building three cistern-style rainwater collection depots that will benefit 850 families. In San Manual, we have finally gotten support from the mayor and city officials around a public education campaign to stop the forced migration of children and gang recruitment. It’s good work with clear progress.

But even with 2400 members in San Pedro Sula, Suyapa reports only 380 are paying dues regularly on a monthly basis, and that’s at 20 lempiras monthly which is hardly 10 cents US or $334.00 roughly per month. Another $100 to $120 per month comes into support the office by selling coffee to allies, universities, and labor unions in the area for a cooperative in Marcala, which is affiliated to ACORN Honduras. $450 in US dollars per month goes farther in Honduras, but not quite far enough. ACORN International chips in $800 per month, split between the two organizers to keep things going from its own efforts, which aren’t easy either. It’s hard to raise the dues because membership projects like the water system in Choloma mean more business and family donations. In Tegucigalpa the story is much the same with the addition of a youth group that we’ve organized to stop migration chipping in more for the office there and free workspace in a community center we won in a neighborhood. The Mennonites recently decided to provide a grant to Honduras ACORN for the work that impacts migration, but that $10,000 has to get us closer to sustainability as well as almost an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, all good this minute, but our conversation in Quito was where would we be in 2 years, in 5, in 10? When would ACORN in Honduras be able to completely stand on the shoulders of its members in Honduras? What would happen if ACORN International couldn’t subsidize the organizers, where would we be and how would the members respond?

This is hard work done by great organizers with amazingly deep commitments from them and from leaders and members, but hard discussions even over pinchos, can’t be escaped, and require clear eyes about the future even as we twist the nuts and bolts into shape.