Archive for July, 2019

Ravaged by Drought, a Honduran Village Faces a Choice: Pray for Rain or Migrate

People in El Rosario live on the edge of hunger, not knowing if the next harvest will come. Climate change is a driving force of food insecurity.

Jul 8, 2019

A version of this ICN story was copublished with NBC News. NBC Senior Video Producer Mariana Henninger reported from Guatemala.

https://insideclimatenews.org/news/08072019/climate-change-migration-honduras-drought-crop-failure-farming-deforestation-guatemala-trump

EL ROSARIO, Honduras — On a late winter evening, the people of this remote village walked out the doors of their tin-roofed houses and headed to the local health clinic, a small, brightly painted building that has become a lifeline and a community gathering place.

Worry crossed their sun-worn faces as they crammed onto wooden benches outside the clinic, shoulder to shoulder, shuffling their dust-covered cowboy boots and plastic sandals.

They had come with questions.

What, everyone worries, will happen to them?

At a village meeting held to discuss climate change and the ongoing drought, residents listen to a presentation on potential solutions. Dionisio Cabrera (center with tan hat) says the only solution is more rain. Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

At a village meeting to discuss climate change and the ongoing drought, residents of El Rosario listen to a presentation on farming techniques. Dionisio Cabrera (center, in tan hat) says the only solution is more rain. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Some people here know about climate change, about the vast, complex forces of cambio climatico roiling the weather. Or they’ve been told the disappearance of the pine forests around the village is partly to blame for the rising temperatures and the diminishing streams, which once ran, clear and plentiful. The hillsides that surround El Rosario used to be covered in cooling swaths of pine trees, but logging has left giant patches of shadeless stubble and an infestation of beetles has destroyed much of the rest.

As their staple corn and bean crops shrivel and they face depleted kitchen pantries, everyone here fears something has shifted.

Ronis Martinez, a village farmer, says he doesn’t remember a summer when the critical August rains didn’t fall in El Rosario. But last year, amid the prolonged drought, even these never came. This year, forecasters say an El Niño weather pattern could mean another dry season. 

“If that is repeated this year, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Martinez says. “How are we going to replenish the loss?”

Nelson Mejia has lived in El Rosario all his life, save for a handful of years when he worked in a maquiladora — a textile plant — that made jeans in San Pedro Sula, about two hours away. Now, he’s back to farming in El Rosario, watching each growing season unfold with a new kind of dread.

Unlike many of his neighbors, Mejia has seen life in one of the world’s most dangerous, gang-ruled cities. He knows if he and his fellow farmers can’t figure out a way to grow crops and feed this village, some of his neighbors might be trapped there, and those who can afford to will flee toward an uncertain fate.

A big, soft-spoken man of 50-some years with a thoughtful pause in his speech, Mejia has become a community leader — a world-wise person who neighbors seek out for help. Standing at the health clinic as the sun slid below the distant treeline, he looked toward his neighbors, widened his stance and began to talk to the crowd.

“We know we have to find options,” he said.

Highly Vulnerable to Climate Change

Like so many developing countries, Honduras has contributed relatively little to the greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet. And yet, projections suggest it is especially imperiled by climate change.

Its rural farmers, innocent of the forces driving a global climate transformation, are especially vulnerable, mostly because they depend on the landscape around them. Tiny El Rosario and its 500 people only got electricity seven years ago.

Homes in El Rosario. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Nearly two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty. Homes in El Rosario, a town of about 500 residents, got electricity for the first time about seven years ago. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere — nearly two-thirds of its population lives in poverty. Its cities are ruled by violence, and its countryside, by vendetta. Police forces and government authorities are often corrupted by drug lords and gangs.

It is also among the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, because of its “high exposure to climate-related hazards,” says the U.S. Agency for International Development. For a period of 20 years, from 1998 to 2017, it was among the three most weather-battered countries in the world, a distinction largely attributable to Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country in 1998. The situation is projected to get more dangerous, especially in Western Honduras, which is predicted to become a climate “hotspot,” with greater temperature increases.

Climate change, when layered onto this mix of economic instability, violence and weak governance, can become fuel — a threat multiplier that could aggravate all of Honduras’ vulnerabilities, leaving people little choice but to leave their homes. The World Bank projects that nearly 4 million people from Central America and Mexico could become climate migrants by 2050. 

Some parts of the world have already experienced this kind of combustion. Researchers argue that drought in Syria drove internal migration that contributed to instability and, ultimately, the civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forcing millions from their homes or seeking refuge in other countries.

And, while the links among climate change, migration and security are complex and difficult to disentangle, researchers project this type of chain reaction could become more common.

“The physical impacts of climate change are set to become the fastest-growing driver of involuntary migration and displacement globally, beginning in the middle of this century,” wrote Robert McLeman, a Canadian researcher, in a 2017 report, adding, “States that are already politically fragile are the most likely future epicenters for climate-related violence and forced migration events.”

These flows are likely to destabilize entire regions and lead to conflict. U.S. national security officials mostly have been concerned about North Africa and the Middle East where extremist movements are thriving in drought-prone and impoverished regions. But Patrick Paterson, a professor at the National Defense University’s William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, said climate change may contribute to insecurity in Latin America, too. “It will translate into problems that will destabilize our partners in the region.”

In Honduras, agriculture employs nearly one-third of the country’s population, and immigration analysts point to the fact that roughly half the adults apprehended at the U.S. border work in agriculture, underscoring the precarious nature of their lives at home.

A farmer on a road near El Rosario. Credit: Georgina Gustin

Agriculture employs nearly one-third of Honduras’s population, and immigration analysts note that roughly half the adults apprehended at the U.S. border work in agriculture. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

In El Niño years, agriculture in the Dry Corridor — a large swath of Central America characterized by dry, erratic weather conditions — is especially stressed. The tropical dry forest belt that stretches from southern Mexico to Panama has experienced declines in rainfall of up to 40 percent and intense heat for long stretches. In other years, heavy rainfall washes out crops or makes it impossible to plant or harvest.

“The Dry Corridor is known for its irregular rainfall, and has become one of the most susceptible regions in the world to climate change and variability,” says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This could have “disastrous consequences on the cultivation of basic grain crops, such as corn, which are part of the region’s subsistence agriculture.”

As farmers battle weather extremes, food supplies could dwindle, shaking security both within and beyond Honduras.

“National security rests on economics as well as anything,” said Richard Holwill, who was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs in the 1980s. “The Soviet Union didn’t collapse because of a military threat, it collapsed because it could not maintain an economy.”

“We can’t just pull up a drawbridge, wall out the rest of the world and say, hey, we can survive here in this island that we call the United States,” Holwill added. “We are interconnected, and our security is enhanced by ensuring that their world is stable.”

Something Has Changed in the Village

The road into El Rosario in north central Honduras, about 175 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa, climbs through the scrubby hillsides for several miles, then slopes downward as it approaches the village primary school and a library with a hand-painted wooden sign above the threshold: “La Biblioteca Regional de Dr. Dean J. Seibert.”

Seibert is a doctor from Vermont who taught at Dartmouth College’s medical school for decades — and a veteran of humanitarian emergencies.

He’s traveled to trauma-sieged countries around the world, taking care of thousands of people suffering from physical and emotional shocks brought on by nature and man. He’s experienced the aftermath of wars in Liberia and the Balkans, natural disasters in Indonesia and Pakistan. He first came to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch decimated the country, burying villages in landslides and killing thousands in 1998.

He’s been returning to the country — to El Rosario — ever since. And, at the age of 86, each trip feels crucial.

Dean Seibert, a doctor from Vermont, sits with Narcissa Vieda and her son, who live in the nearby village of Los Planes. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Dean Seibert, a doctor from Vermont, has been bringing community development assistance to El Rosario for more than 20 years. Here he sits with Narcissa Vieda and her son, who live nearby in Los Planes. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

This winter, Seibert sat in the front seat of an SUV as it jolted along the winding dirt road leading to the village. Years ago, the road would get so rained out, it would become impassible, but today the SUV’s tires kick up a dust storm. After decades making the same trek, Seibert knows the road well.

He points out the lumber mill, the particularly dangerous curves, the trail in the hillside that leads to the simple home of Carlos Lopez. Paralyzed by polio, Lopez lives in a cluster of houses with no electricity. Without any family, he manages to get around by pulling himself forward on his hands and makes a few lempira powering people’s cell phones with a donated solar charger.

Seibert runs a small community development organization back home in Vermont called ACTS — Americans Caring, Teaching, Sharing — that has worked in El Rosario for 30 years. He came on board a few years after ACTS built the health clinic, and is now the group’s driving force, conscience and heart.

Dr. Dean, as everyone in the village calls him, persuades cadres of volunteers, mostly from New England, to travel to El Rosario five times a year. With each trip they haul giant red duffel bags, stuffed with supplies: ibuprofen, bandages, school books and donated clothes that a woman named Lillian Dominga Mejia sells on her porch. She sits in a wheelchair that won’t navigate the village’s rutted, dusty roads. She gives half her proceeds to a community group.

Dean Siebert has spent years boosting medical support for the community. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

The small community development organization that Dean Siebert runs has spent years boosting medical, education and agriculture support for the El Rosario area. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Seibert is relentless, lining up one meeting or project after the next. The only allowance he gives himself are a daily nap and a bed at the clinic so he can plug in a machine for his sleep apnea.

Some of the volunteers note  that he’s especially unflagging on this trip.

As a doctor and educator, Seibert has focused on growing and improving the medical facilities and schools in El Rosario and the surrounding villages. Now there’s a full-time nurse, pharmacy, visiting surgeons, a new dental office with big white teeth painted around the perimeter. His namesake library is stocked with books; the school has computers and an internet connection.

But a couple of years ago, Ronis Martinez, the farmer, delivered news that came as a shock to Siebert, who hadn’t visited the village since the onset of the drought: There had been little rain and crops had been failing for several years. Now Seibert is attempting to shift ACTS’ work toward agriculture, knowing that decades of progress could collapse if the people of El Rosario can’t grow their own food.

“Things have changed, and we’re really not geared for that,” he said.

Siebert realizes a huge challenge lies ahead, one that goes beyond corralling U.S. dollars to support ACTS’ modest budget or persuading volunteers to spend their vacation time schlepping to Central America.

So, he has combed Honduras for every agricultural expert or group he can find, and is trying to organize a local committee to tackle the problem — to find new varieties of drought-resistant crops, new ways of irrigating, new ways of treating the soil so it’s more resilient.

And he worries about his friends in El Rosario. At home in Vermont, Seibert keeps up with the news about Central America and the plight of people in its Dry Corridor, where hunger rates are climbing, driving people to migrate.

He calls El Rosario regularly to check in.

Has the new community vegetable garden been planted? (No. Water’s being rationed.)

How’s the weather? (Dry and hot. A little bit of rain.)

Are people leaving? (Not yet.)

“For decades, everybody had a sense of optimism and progress,” he says, weeks after returning from his most recent trip. “Some of our accomplishments — their accomplishments — were terrific in terms of water systems, education, medicine. Real progress was being made. But now there’s a different feeling creeping in. They’re realistic enough to appreciate there may be no resolving this problem.”

Drought in the Dry Corridor Drives Migration

In Los Planes, where a smattering of mud-walled houses perch along a road to El Rosario’s north, Hilda Vieda depends on donated food and on the skinny chickens and pigs that roam into her one-room house. Her husband was shot and killed for his cell phone, leaving her to take care of their four children, two of whom have a genetic disease that blinds and kills at an early age.

The village school in Los Planes, north of El Rosario, on a recent afternoon. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

In the village school in Los Planes, north of El Rosario, a mural on the wall encourages young residents not to leave. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

A short walk away, there’s a one-room school with caged windows and a scattering of pastel-colored benches on a concrete floor. Faded pictures of the alphabet and math symbols are taped to the walls. In one corner hangs a map of the world. In another, a hand-drawn poster with pictures of children, walking in groups or talking to a police officer.

It says “Mural del Emigrante Retornado” — Mural of the Returned Emigrant. What it means is: Don’t Leave.

Migration to the United States from Honduras and from its neighboring Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador and Guatemala, has climbed in recent years. Apprehensions of migrants from these countries at the U.S.-Mexico border, a metric often used to track migration rates, have risen from about 52,000 in 2007 to 224,000 last year. (2014 had the highest number of apprehensions in the last decade, with a total of nearly 240,000. Of that number, nearly 91,000 were Hondurans.)

The reasons are complex, but the increase in migration coincides with the drought, which began in 2014, and the United Nations World Food Program says the drought is directly tied to higher migration from the region. In emergency surveys, people living in the Dry Corridor told UN officials that a lack of food was the primary driver. Poverty, unemployment and violence were also reasons people left the area — all three reasons being linked to drought, they said.

Last summer, the Honduran government declared a national emergency because of food shortages, joining governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, which issued similar alerts. Nearly 100,000 families in Honduras and 2 million people across the region lacked adequate food.

After that, conditions deteriorated.

In the Dry Corridor, there are two growing seasons— the first stretching from spring through summer, the second from summer into late fall. The second can help make up for crop losses in the first.

“They’re supposed to replace the food stocks with the second harvest, but they also had a crop failure in the second harvest” last year, explained Herbert Yanes, a Honduras-based program officer with the World Food Program. “And the situation is getting worse because we have a forecast for El Niño. It’s a very difficult situation.”

Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

“We know we have to find options,” says Nelson Mejia (second from left). He has met with agriculture experts in the country to learn about new ways to farm in the parched valley. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Many farmers from the Dry Corridor travel each year to work in the country’s coffee-growing areas, earning wages that are critical for their survival. But in recent years, a pathogen has damaged the coffee crop, Honduras’ biggest export. Some research has found that climate change has worsened the spread of the pathogen and will likely stoke its expansion.

“We need to pay attention to the coffee crisis, because, for sure, that’s going to increase food insecurity, not only in the coffee areas, but in the Dry Corridor, because a lot of people go to those areas from the Dry Corridor,” Yanes explained. “It’s their main source of income.”

Without income and food supplies, and with an uncertain outlook for this coming growing season, 2019 could see yet higher levels of food insecurity. The Famine Early Warning System says food shortages have reached, or will reach, crisis levels, mostly among poorer households across Central America.

In El Rosario, people know about the migrant caravans, which started last fall in San Pedro Sula, a city overrun by drug gangs and violence a few hours to the northwest. They also know that people in the Dry Corridor, just to their south and west, are going hungry, unable to produce or buy food.

Jacobo Suazo and his colleagues at Sustainable Harvest International are based in Siguatepeque, in the mountainous center of the country about two hours southwest of El Rosario.  Every day he hears about the struggles of farmers in the area and says he’s not just worried, but convinced that the region around El Rosario will be next.

“We haven’t felt hunger in the region, but we’re in a drought,” he said. “The small production and the bad crops — they are going to make the hunger season come.”

An Urgent Need to Aid Small Farmers

On a sunny morning, John Chater sat at a table with a view of Lake Yojoa in the near distance. A Vermonter like Seibert, Chater started coming to Honduras in the 1960s and spent decades with a non-profit development group called Partners of the Americas, mostly working on farming and conservation. He’s married to a Honduran and now owns a small hotel at the lake’s edge — what Chater calls paradise.

Chater’s been watching for years as the U.S. government wields power over its southern neighbor, sending millions in aid dollars over the past several decades to support its military and applauding a 2009 coup against the country’s elected leader.

Like many critics, he’s watched as aid dollars flow toward government, security and drug- and border-control programs, rather than programs designed to help small farmers cope with climate change

“Farmers are losing their crops,” he explained. “They need to learn new techniques for planting drought-tolerant crops, and very few organizations are providing that training.”

John Chater, who has worked in development in Honduras for decades, talks to a group from El Rosario about how climate change is making agriculture a challenge for Honduran farmers. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

John Chater, who runs a small hotel on the shores of Lake Yojoa, has worked in development in Honduras for decades. Here he talks to a group from El Rosario and some of his employees about how climate change is making agriculture a challenge for Honduran farmers. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Under the Obama administration, Congress doubled funding to the region from $338 million in 2014 to $754 million in 2016, and began directing more funding to climate and agriculture programs, which critics said was a welcome improvement, though still inadequate.

“Central American governments, as well as the donor community, particularly USAID, have abandoned small and mid-sized agriculture for years,” said Geoff Thale, vice president of programs for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. “If you want to address migration from rural areas, you have to address livelihoods, and that means addressing sustainability of small-farm agriculture and rural development, and those are intimately connected with climate change.”

As the effects of climate change make farming more precarious and destabilizing, the need for support is becoming more urgent.

“You’re looking at countries that are extremely fragile, and they just don’t have the resources to help their rural farming communities,” said Oliver-Leighton Barrett, a research fellow with the Center for Climate and Security. “These farmers don’t have the kind of economic resilience to weather a season with no crops. They’re usually the first casualties. They can’t feed their families. They’re going to migrate.”

Since taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump has called for slashing foreign aid in general — proposals that Congress has rejected.

Honduran migrants from San Pedro Sula move north in October 2018 after crossing the border into Guatemala. Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

Honduran migrants from San Pedro Sula move north after crossing the border into Guatemala in October 2018. “You’re looking at countries that are extremely fragile, and they just don’t have the resources to help their rural farming communities,” said Oliver-Leighton Barrett, a research fellow with the Center for Climate and Security. Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

In March, Trump said his administration would cut aid to Central American countries to punish them for failing to stop migration flows. (The administration isn’t legally obligated to spend the full amount of aid approved by Congress and has wide discretion on how funds are committed.) In June, the administration made the cuts official, saying it would withhold some of the funds allocated by Congress for the 2017 fiscal year and would suspend all funds Congress approved for 2018. The administration said it would also make 2019 and 2020 funds conditional.

Critics have said that any suspension of funds will only stoke migration further.

“They’re focusing on the symptoms, not the causes,” Barrett said.

For small organizations, like ACTS, the administration’s moves send a signal: They’re in this alone.

But, Seibert worries: “Are we a realistic hope?”

Nobody’s Asking to See Permits

A few miles from El Rosario, a semi-truck with a Marvin Windows & Doors logo on its side idles at the edge of the road while men load logs into the back.

Whether it’s legitimate or legal hardly matters. No one’s paying attention to the forests around El Rosario, tucked away, miles from a paved road or any major city.

For the past 10 or 15 years, maybe longer, people here have watched as loggers cut down the pine forests around them. Under law, anyone who cuts a tree needs a permit and is required to plant a replacement, but nobody’s asking to see permits. If the loggers replace the trees, most of the saplings die in the dry heat anyway.

For farmers in El Rosario, the loss of the forests around them is as much of a problem as the lack of rain and heat. In fact, the deforestation, lack of water and increasing heat are inseparable challenges, bearing down on this area with equally unforgiving force.

Cattle in El Rosario. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

El Rosario was once surrounded by subtropical pine forests that helped lower temperatures and control erosion, but the forests have been diminished by logging. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

The vast subtropical pine forests surrounding the village, which are now seriously diminished, once helped lower temperatures, controlled erosion and created a natural irrigation system that kept rainfall from running down the hillsides and taking precious soil with it. 

When that soil slides down the mountainsides, it chokes streams and rivers, slowing them to a trickle. Temperatures rise when tree cover disappears.

Honduran pine forests are under pressure on all fronts. Massive logging of pine occurred decades ago. (The country lost an estimated 30 percent of its tree cover between 1990 and 2005.) And in the following years, the pine forests were so badly managed that the newer generations of trees aren’t as desirable, lowering prices and demand. As the value of Honduran pine has declined, so has illegal or unregulated trade, simply because there’s not as much at stake financially.

“Forestry isn’t a business right now because of the illegal trade,” said René Zamora-Cristales, a research coordinator with the World Resources Institute who specializes in forestry and Latin America. “So there’s no incentive to manage the problem.”

Drug traffickers are among the culprits driving today’s deforestation, cutting huge swaths of the remaining forest to create covert landing operations or to run cattle ranches, through which they can launder money.

Dionisio Cabrera stands at the doorway of the village's pesticide center, where pesticides are stored in lockers and farmers can take showers after spraying chemicals in their fields. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Dionisio Cabrera advocates for more tree planting, but he says new crops, diversity and technology are important, but they won’t mean much without rain. “This community lives because of water.” Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

“Honduras has had a serious deforestation problem,” said Andrea Johnson, a consultant with the Environmental Investigation Agency which published a report on illegal logging in Honduras. “It’s a result of both industrial logging, industrial agriculture and the expansion of the farming frontier as poor, campesino farmers get pushed out of better agricultural lands by palm oil, by large ranches, into virgin forests.”

In 2014, as the drought began, a bark-munching beetle — whose presence scientists have blamed in part on warming temperatures — ravaged the forests of Honduras. The president declared a “forest emergency” while the country lost a quarter or more of its pine trees.

Around El Rosario residents say indigenous tribal leaders make deals with timber companies, who buy the trees at cut-rate prices. They never see any benefits, they say.

“The rule was simple: You cut a tree, you plant a tree,” said Gloria Castro, who has lived in the area since birth. “But now it’s only cut, cut, cut.”

Long before his stint at the textile factory in San Pedro Sula, Nelson Mejia remembers a river running through the village 35 or 40 years ago.

“We have only one-and-a-half inches of water now. In the 1980s, the river was full,” he said, explaining that tree roots hold water in the soil, which means more water in streams and rivers. “Before, people said: I’ll only cut this tree. Only this one. Then they started to cut it all.”

Dionisio Cabrera, another farmer, thinks he has at least a partial solution: Plant a tree on every child’s birthday. “After about 20 years, our community will be green,” he says, standing in the doorway of the building where the village’s farmers store their pesticides. “Plant a tree and keep track of your child and his tree. … Little by little, we will achieve it and improve the climate.”

But trees cost money, and so far no one’s planted any birthday trees.

A New Way to Farm

Inside a sprawling office space at the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation near San Pedro Sula, a handful of El Rosarians sit around a horseshoe-shaped table. They listen as the foundation’s experts present ideas on how they might find a way to farm — to survive — in their parched valley.

Nelson Mejia describes their challenges: lack of water, erosion, poor soil. “The land never rests,” he says.

The foundation, launched with money from American fruit companies and USAID in 1984, is sprawled across an old plantation that once housed a swanky club, with a massive mahogany bar, for the bigwigs of Big Fruit — the industry that turned Honduras into the original “banana republic” in the late 1800s. The legacy of those companies is very much alive. Critics say they took the best Honduran farmland, pushing farmers into the hills, to places like El Rosario where the soil is poor, sloped and difficult to farm.

Cacao pods on a table a the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation near San Pedro Sula. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Researchers at the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation near San Pedro Sula are working to develop new crop varieties, including cacao, that can help farms diversify and become more resilient to climate change. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Victor Gonzales, the organization’s head of research, suggests the farmers plant drought-resistant crops, like sorghum, or plant deep-rooted crops to control erosion. They can create drainage canals to contain water in the rainy season, he says. They can rotate crops, so the soil can recover from the continuous planting of corn and beans. He shows them a “water box” — a moat of sorts — that they can place at the base of trees.

He understands, he says, that farmers in the region might be skeptical of trying anything new. “When you have nothing, risk aversion is very high,” he admits.

Mejia listens especially carefully and takes notes. It will be his job to tell everyone what the group has learned when he gets back to El Rosario.

Hours later the group piles into a pickup truck, Mejia in the cab with the water box on his lap. They begin the trip back home.

A Changed World

Two days later, Mejia stands before his neighbors and friends outside the health clinic. He knows some of them will need convincing.

He talks about new cash crops like avocados and plantains, and about crops that can survive in the heat with less water. He mentions that farmers can plant certain grasses to hold the soil in place or trees to create windbreaks. He says they can do a better job of channeling and holding on to the little rain they’ve been getting.

Dionisio Cabrera, who advocates the tree-planting plan, says new crops, diversity and technology are important, but they won’t mean much without rain.

“This community lives because of water,” he says.

Nelson Meijia (left) talks with his neighbors in El Rosario after the meeting. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

Nelson Mejia talks with neighbors in El Rosario after the meeting. He has seen life in one of the world’s most dangerous, gang-ruled cities and knows the risks facing desperate people who try to find work there. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

After Mejia concludes, the crowd gets up and gathers into clusters, chatting and mulling what they’ve heard. Bony horses and cattle wander by. Chickens peck at the dirt. Their owners started rationing food a couple years ago.

Soon everyone leaves to make it home in time for the last of the running water, which gets turned off as a conservation measure around 6 or so every evening. Some people are talking about extending those hours because the spring was dry and hotter than normal. The drought is getting predictable.

El Rosario used to feel like a rainforest, with misty, cool nights and vapory mornings, everyone says. Now it feels like a savannah. This world has changed.

“I won’t say yet there’s a sense of hopelessness,” Seibert says. “They don’t ever give up.”

InsideClimate News reporter Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.

Jesuit Community of Honduras speaks out about the situation in the country

 

National Apostolic Council

Institutions of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) of Honduras

 “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they expel you and insult  you, and come to call you delinquents on account of the Son of Man” (Lucas 6, 22).

Given the critical situation and deterioration suffered by the Honduran population and the loss of legitimacy that the various institutions of the State now experience, the apostolic works entrusted to the Jesuits of Honduras, now express our concern:

 

1.- We deplore the serious social and political crisis experienced by the Honduran population as a result of the historic violation of fundamental rights, the deterioration of the rule of law, and as a result of the erratic and corrupt practices of politicians and decision-makers in the public administration. 2.- We stand in solidarity with the victims of systematic repression by the various armed and security forces in their mandate to repress the social protests led by various sectors of the population demanding justice, respect for their fundamental rights that are violated, and to reject the government policies of concessions and privatizations of common goods and public services. This indiscriminate repression has left dozens of people injured and the murder of some citizens, including: Luis Antonio Maldonado; Erick Francisco Peralta and the teenager Eblin Noel Corea. We extend our sympathy in solidarity to their families and our commitment coming from our faith to remain faithful to the search for justice. 3.- We warn, call attention to and denounce the high risk to which the Honduran population are exposed when they take to the streets to exercise their right to peaceful protest when the National Council for Defense and Security, under the command of Mr. Juan Orlando Hernández, authorizes and sends the military and police forces to indiscriminately repress the protests of a population that demands justice, respect for the rule of law and the constitutionality of the country. This was most evident in the violation of university autonomy, when a squadron of the military police broke into the University City facilities, leaving at least four students injured … 4.- There has been a propaganda campaign filled with lies and manipulation to discredit defenders of human and environmental rights. The elaboration of profiles of people identified as leaders of the protests has the intention to criminalizing them and sets the context to justify repressive actions and judicial procedures against these profiled persons. The list of profiles includes Fr. Ismael Moreno (Melo), director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team and Radio Progreso (ERIC-RP); and Leonel George and Juan López, delegates of the Word of God of the San Isidro Labrador de Tocoa Parish, who are falsely accused of leading an armed gang that confront the  police and other accusations that only seek to discredit their struggle for social justice, and to create conditions that would justify actions against them.

 

5.- We highlight and subscribe to the last message of the Episcopal Conference of Honduras (CEH), based on an analysis, reflection and prayer concerning the roots and consequences of the current crisis in Honduras. Any effort to “correct the path of Honduras” must go through the “rescue of ethical values” and overcome the “moral decadence in which the country is falling.”  The country yearns for a just society in solidarity with just laws, “in accordance with the dignity of the human person and seeking the common good”. The country must be able to dialogue when it has the confidence in the institutionality of the state, with a healthy political ethic and the truth as a search and starting point. It cannot be a society that militarizes security and state institutions.

 

6.- We fully adopt the call of the Episcopal Conference of Honduras (CEH)  “We want to make a call to the whole society so that, from the reality in which each person and each group lives, we consider the need to join the search for ways to solve these problems in Honduras. This can come through accords, agreements, reforms, platforms, a plebiscite or a referendum, or citizens’ initiative laws, etc. Let us become aware that a change is possible to improve this reality and the commitment to achieve it in solidarity.”

 

Consejo Nacional Apostólico

Obras de la Compañía de Jesús en Honduras

 

National Apostolic Council

Institutions of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) of Honduras

 

June 26, 2019

10 years after the coup in Honduras, the US must reevaluate its policy

 
 
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Ten years ago, on June 28, 2009, a general trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas arrived with troops at the home of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, and forced him at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Costa Rica. An interim president was appointed by his political opponents who was quickly legitimized by United States.

The United States has continued to support successive administrations in Honduras, even though elections have been biased by vote buying, fraud, and assassinations. The United States sends the Honduran military and police aid even though these security forces have been ordered to beat and shoot non-violent protesters and there are credible allegations of death squads formed to assassinate journalists and citizens working for social change. One of these citizens was the well-known environmental activist Berta Cáceres. No one is held accountable for these crimes.

The 10 years since the coup have resulted in increasing poverty, privatization of social goods keeping services out of the reach of the poor, violence from both drug cartels and state security forces against Honduran citizens, human and civil rights violations, corruption, and a dramatic increase of refugee migration fleeing the country, many to the United States. Almost 70 percent of Hondurans live in poverty, and Honduras now has the most uneven wealth distribution in Latin America. A narco-government has been consolidated around President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has appointed a national police chief and national security chief with cartel ties. The president himself and his sister have been investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering, and his brother and other officials involved in the coup have been jailed in the U.S. awaiting trial for the same charges. Still, U.S. government support for the Hernández administration continues.

Since late April, widespread and ongoing protests by doctors, nurses, and teachers against the privatization of education and medical services have been taking place in Honduras. President Hernández has ordered his security forces to attack the protestors; some have refused to do so. Does the United States really want to continue to support a leader such as this?

Under the circumstances, it is shameful that our government continues to send aid to this corrupt and illegally-elected government in Honduras. The security aid in particular is being used to lift up a dictatorial president who abuses power and implicates our country in the human rights abuses of his regime. It is high time for my colleagues in the House to co-sponsor H.R. 1945, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which would cut off U.S. aid to the Honduran military and police until such time as their human rights violations cease and impunity ends for the crimes they have committed.

Schakowsky represents Illinois 9th District and is a member of Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

‘They put a gun to my head,’ says Honduran mother

 
Elquin Castillo is seen near Casa Betania Santa Martha June 29, 2019, in Salto de Agua, Mexico. (CNS photo/David Agren)

TENOSIQUE, Mexico (CNS) — Maribel — a Garifuna woman from Honduras and mother of six children, ages 6 months to 16 years — only wanted to work.

She baked coconut bread and sold it the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, until a gang started demanding a cut — roughly 20 percent of her earnings. After threats and violence and futile attempts at negotiating with the gang, she fell behind in her payments. Gangsters eventually showed up at her daughter’s school to send a message of intimidation, forcing Maribel and her family to flee the country.

“I was being pursued,” she said from a shelter run by the Franciscans in southern Mexico. “I’m scared they’re going to come looking for me here,” she added, noting that gang members were now threatening her sister in Honduras and asking about her whereabouts.

Maribel’s plight highlights the despair and desperation of many migrants, who flee violence, poverty and, increasingly, drought and the early effects of climate change in Central America.

Mexico has sent members of its National Guard to stop migrants at its southern border, and stories of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in U.S. and Mexican migration detention centers have surfaced.

U.S. President Donald Trump — who threated Mexico with tariffs on its exports if migration was not stopped — has praised Mexico for its increased enforcement, telling reporters July 1: “Mexico is doing a lot right now. They have almost 20,000 soldiers between the two borders. … And the numbers are way down for the last week.”

But the migrants streaming out of Central America seem undeterred due to deteriorating conditions at home.

Few migrants grasp the geopolitics at play, focusing instead on seeking safety or escaping hunger at home. Staff at shelters in southern Mexico say the flow of migrants has remained high.

At La 72, the shelter in Tenosique, director Ramon Marquez reported receiving more than 10,000 guests so far in 2019, putting them on pace to break the record of 14,300 migrants welcomed in 2013.

Militarization, however, forces migrants to take paths less traveled to avoid police and soldiers, and this puts them more at risk, say shelter directors.

“Migrants don’t come here because they want to. Migrants leave their country because they don’t have any other alternative,” said Franciscan Sister Diana Munoz Alba, a human rights lawyer and a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who works at a migrant shelter in Chiapas. “(There’s) a paradox of risking their lives to save their lives, and this militarization (of Mexico) is not going to stop migration.”

Maribel, whose name was changed for security reasons, fell victim to criminals shortly after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala in late May. Three hooded assailants spotted her and her family walking along a rural road and robbed them of their meager possessions.

“They threw us face down … the kids face down. They were scared, crying,” she recalled.

Maribel said she had never thought much about migrating, despite the difficulties of life in the Atlantida department on the Honduras’ Atlantic Coast — an area populated by Afro-Hondurans, who have been abandoning the country in droves.

“I can’t go back to Honduras. These gangs have people everywhere.”

After her husband suffered a disability in his construction job, Maribel started her own informal business, harvesting coconuts and baking coconut bread in Honduras.

She sold $60 of bread daily, but had to hand over 20 percent daily to the Calle 18 gang. There were other expenses, too, she said, such as the cost of sending her children to school, even though education is supposed to be free for children in Honduras.

In December, the gangs made greater demands, which she refused. As she worked one day, “They put a gun to my head and took all I had,” Maribel said.

She eventually stopped paying. Then the gang came looking for her 16-year-old daughter. Maribel saved her money and left Honduras with her family.

Violence has sent thousands fleeing from Honduras. But observers say other factors are driving migration, including poverty and political factors. Migrants speak of the sorry state of services such as health and education.

“That’s why we’re looking to migrate, because the economy is so bad,” said Elquin Castillo, 26, who left a fishing village with his pregnant wife, infant daughter and 20 relatives in June.

Javier Avila, 30, gave up after drought in southern Honduras wiped out his melon crop for the second consecutive season. He borrowed $82 to rent a small plot for his crop — which was lost — but could not find the funds to sow again in 2019.

“It used to be normal that it rained in the winter, but not any longer,” he said from a migrant shelter.

Maribel expressed similar pessimism over Honduras. She was hoping to receive a document to travel freely through Mexico, though she was uncertain how much longer she would have to wait.

Hondurans Are Still Fighting the US-Supported Dictatorship

Ten years after the coup, they have become the largest single Central American nationality in the refugee caravans fleeing north.

By James North

JULY 1, 2019

 

Honduras: Exercising the right to protest has a high cost for those who dare take to the streets

The government of President Juan Orlando Hernández has adopted a policy of repression against those who protest in the streets to demand his resignation and accountability for the actions of authorities. The use of military forces to control demonstrations across the country has had a deeply concerning toll on human rights, said Amnesty International upon presenting the findings of a field investigation.

“President Juan Orlando Hernández’s (JOH) message is very clear: shouting ‘JOH out’ and demanding change can be very costly. At least six people have died in the context of protests and dozens have been injured, many of them by firearms fired by security forces since the beginning of this wave of demonstrations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

In a desperate attempt to silence the voices demanding his resignation, President Hernández has used the armed forces to control the protests. According to information gathered by Amnesty International, during this period the security forces have indiscriminately used less-than-lethal weapons, such as tear gas or rubber bullets, causing injury to dozens of people. In total, six people have been killed in this context since April, four of them by firearms at the hands of the security forces.

The repressive policies of the Hernandez government in response to protests have previously been condemned. On 13 June 2018, Amnesty International published the report Protest Prohibited: Use of Force and Arbitrary Detentions to Suppress Dissident in Honduras, which documents how the authorities not only used excessive force to repress peaceful protesters immediately after the controversial elections of 26 November 2017, but also arbitrarily detained and held protesters in deplorable conditions for months, denying them their right to due process and an adequate defence.

Since then, the wave of anti-government demonstrations has been a constant in the country. According to the non-governmental organization Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre), from 4 March to 25 June this year, there were at least 346 protests across the country. The current generalized discontent of the population was provoked by the approval, on 25 April, of laws that transformed the national health education systems, which in the opinion of teachers’ leaders and the Medical College of Honduras, will lead to the privatization of these sectors and the massive dismissal of employees. Although these laws were repealed, protesters have continued to demand the president’s resignation.

President Juan Orlando Hernández’s (JOH) message is very clear: shouting ‘JOH out’ and demanding change can be very costly. At least six people have died in the context of protests and dozens have been injured, many of them by firearms fired by security forces since the beginning of this wave of demonstration
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Amnesty International’s Americas crisis team conducted a rapid response mission during the first week of July, following the upsurge in violence during demonstrations of the last few weeks, which left a toll of six people dead and almost 80 injured. The organization documented a total of eight cases, two of which involved people killed by the army and military police, and six that involved people who were injured, four of them by firearms. In addition, the organization analyzed more than 60 pieces of audio-visual and photographic material to identify the weapons and ammunition used, among other things.

DEATHS DUE TO THE USE OF LETHAL FORCE

On 20 June, Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga, a 17-year-old student, was killed by the army in the town of Yarumela, La Paz, where hours before a road blockade had taken place as a form of protest, before finally giving way. Despite this, an army convoy arrived moments later, fired on civilians and chased several people, including Eblin and his father. Although they were unarmed and attempting to take refuge in an alley, witnesses report that an army officer took position, aimed and shot the teenager, who fell into his father’s arms after being hit in the chest.

In another case, on 19 June, Erik Peralta was trying to cross an avenue blocked by a protest in Tegucigalpa’s Pedregal neighbourood, after returning from work, when soldiers arrived and, without a word, began to shoot. According to the forensic report, a bullet pierced his chest and killed him almost immediately. Erik was 37 years old and had four children.

INJURIES FROM USE OF LETHAL AND LESS-THAN-LETHAL FORCE

Another case that Amnesty International documented of the excessive use of force was the incursion into the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) on 24 June, when Military Police officers entered the compound and shot at dozens of people demonstrating in the entrance. In a press release, the government said this was justified by the need to rescue an officer who was abducted by students, as well as by the use of Molotov cocktails and other devices launched against security forces, and the need to “repel the attack”.

While Amnesty International was able to document the use of stones and, in some cases, handmade mortars by demonstrators, the organization believes that the use of lethal force was excessive and unnecessary. The fact that some groups or individuals use violence in a demonstration does not make the whole protest violent per se.

That said, the organization could find no evidence of the alleged abduction of the military official, and the university rector himself confirmed to Amnesty International that no evidence of this had been presented, nor that there had been any negotiation process prior to the use of force. Likewise, the authorities violated the principle of exceptionality of lethal force, which can only be used in cases of imminent risk against the lives of agents or third parties.

As a result, at least five people were shot, including a 25-year-old student, whose identity has been omitted for security reasons, who was shot in the arm, and Elder Nahúm Peralta, another 21-year-old student, who was hit by a bullet impact that entered and exited his right buttock. In an interview with Amnesty International, Elder said that while running to protect himself, he was struck by a bullet and fell to the ground. He was helped by university security personnel and students, who took him to the Hospital Escuela, where he received medical attention.

On 30 May, a young teacher participating in local protests was shot by National Police officers after they fired into the crowd. The shot to his back caused the loss of a kidney and damaged his large intestine, transverse colon and lung.

Violent police repression also affected people who were not participating in the protests. In Tegucigalpa, National Police officers assaulted two members of a family who had reprimanded them for throwing tear gas near their home. Feeling suffocated, the family left their home to demand an end to the use of tear gas and were beaten with clubs, punches and kicks. As a result, one of them required immediate medical attention, included stitching of head wounds.

IMPUNITY 

Impunity, which has been continuously denounced in the country in recent years, remains endemic in Honduras with regard to human rights violations, and this encourages further violations.

“The Honduran justice system has demonstrated once again that human rights violations in the context of protests continue without proper investigation, nor are people suspected of criminal responsibility brought to justice. The facts of these last few weeks demonstrate how impunity is a constant that fuels the repetition of serious human rights violations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

In two of the eight cases that Amnesty International documented, families did not file a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office for fear of reprisals. In the remaining six cases, although they filed complaints, they did not trust in the impartiality or efficiency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and in at least three cases they claimed that the steps necessary to ensure a thorough investigation had not been taken in time.

The president must urgently demonstrate that he is willing to use all the means at his disposal to stop lethal repression, otherwise there will be compelling reasons to consider his responsibility for each of the deaths and attacks against people exercising their legitimate right to protest
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

For example, Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga’s family did not allow the autopsy to be performed for fear that the authorities would “misplace” the bullet that was lodged in his body. Considering it to be a key piece of evidence for the solving of the crime, they requested an exhumation with the cooperation of trusted forensic personnel provided by the family. However, the Public Prosecutor’s Office denied their participation and they are still waiting for this to happen. Such was the family’s distrust of the authorities that they installed a light bulb to be able to watch over his body 24 hours a day, for fear that someone might tamper with the corpse and steal the bullet.

In another incident, on 29 April, a public official, dressed in civilian clothes and operating in conjunction with the national police, fired on a person whose identity has been omitted for security reasons. Despite it being clear from testimonies and images of the event that the official was carrying a semi-automatic weapon consistent with the caliber of bullet that the victim has lodged in their chest, no one has been prosecuted so far. Although a complaint was filed immediately after the incident, as well as requests made to the prosecutor’s office soliciting information on the proceedings, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), the organization that accompanies victims, has not received a response.

In this context, Amnesty International considers it essential to advance the investigations and guarantee the correct processing of all available evidence for the proper identification of possible perpetrators and their subsequent prosecution.

Amnesty International also met with government officials to discuss the current context of the crisis and the evidence gathered by the organization that exposes serious human rights violations. The officials stated that they have adhered to the law and that if there were cases to the contrary, this would be due to individual actions by inexperienced personnel, not a policy of repression. In addition, they justified military deployment for security purposes in accordance with the Constitution. The authorities pledged to provide Amnesty International with information regarding the investigation into the attack on the UNAH.

Meetings were also held with national human rights organizations, which expressed concern about the state’s repressive strategy aimed at silencing critical voices demanding structural changes in public policies. The organization reiterates its condemnation of the stigmatization, harassment and aggression against human rights defenders and calls for their protection.

Amnesty International has already publicly condemned the National Security Council’s decision of 20 June 2019 to deploy the armed forces, police and intelligence agents in response to protests, as this could lead to an increase in the excessive use of force against demonstrators. The organization reiterates that the state must guarantee an orderly withdrawal of the armed forces from public security tasks and implement a process of strengthening the capacities of the National Police.

“The president must urgently demonstrate that he is willing to use all the means at his disposal to stop lethal repression, otherwise there will be compelling reasons to consider his responsibility for each of the deaths and attacks against people exercising their legitimate right to protest,” concluded Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

 

Into the heart of Father Melo, Jesuit priest and journalist whose life is threatened in Honduras

Melo Moreno SJ, Director of Radio Progreso and ERIC (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

Iván Benítez   July 03, 2019

 

Uncle Ismael! Uncle Ismael! “Maria opens the door of the house and throws herself at the waist of her uncle, who has come to visit the family. The girl clings to his hand and pulls him. The house is located at the foot of a majestic jungle mountainside. Ismael enters the room and looks for the back of his mother who is sitting in a wheelchair. He hugs her from behind. Doña Lita, who is blind and treasures almost a century of life, takes the hand of her son and brings it to her face. Then he goes to the room where his younger sister, Ines, is bedridden due to a degenerative illness. He kisses her repeatedly on the cheek. She does not move or speak. He places the palm of his hand on her forehead and remains silent. Silences that scream! Ines has been his confidant since childhood.

 

Melo with his mother Doña Lita and sister Raquel (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

In the family Melo is not just “Ismael Moreno Coto”, the journalist and Jesuit priest threatened with death for denouncing the violations of human rights that are committed daily in his country. In grade school as often happens a nickname was given by others – “Melo” and later it became “Melito! Melito!” as high school classmates scoffed. At that time it was hurled as a mockery of one from a lower class. Today, on the contrary, he feels identified with the nickname. When he was a child, in his city of El Progreso­ there were two high schools: that of the poor and that of the rich. The municipal government awarded two scholarships for the best students and Melo won one. Later as a young man he lived in Mexico City, where he studied Philosophy, and then, in El Salvador, he studied Theology. Since 1995 he has dedicated himself to journalism, and today, at 61, this round-faced man with a gray mustache, deep circles and a contagious smile, sometimes mischievous, has become one of the main opposition leaders in the country. He is rooted in the peasantry. In Honduras 60% of the population live below the poverty line, with more than four million in extreme poverty.

Scrambled eggs with corn tortillas

Ismael Moreno Coto, known as Padre Melo, is the most visible head of Radio Progreso and the “Reflection, Research and Communication Team” (ERIC), a Jesuit institution that opposes big business projects that threaten the rights of indigenous people, and investigates and challenges government corruption. He sits in front of a microphone and denounces the human rights violations committed in his country every day. He travels to a hidden village in the

Melo being offered coconut water (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

mountains to listen to the peasants, and then leads a protest march against the government in his city. Melo has travelled to the United States and Europe to receive international awards for the defense of the freedom of expression. But he is more comfortable visiting the sick in hospitals in his city, or sitting with team members in the courtyard of their home sharing a beer wearing casual shorts and his flip flops.  He collaborates with the most prestigious media outlets at an international level, while being very present to care for his mother, Doña Lita or his sister Inés. (Inés died two weeks after this report was written.) With equal ability he prepares an intellectual discourse for any scenario in the world, but he is equally comfortable rolling up his sleeves in the kitchen while preparing some scrambled eggs with corn tortillas for his friends. Melo can be timid while at the same time be capable of a few jokes, familiar, solitary, unpredictable and often unpunctual. It is characteristic of his commitment to life and simplicity, while remaining a staunch enemy of double standards and false praise that can be directed towards him. Melo does not feel like a superhero in such a dangerous country in Central America: Honduras had the second highest per capita number of murders: 3,682 in 2018 or 40/100,000. (Insightcrime.org)

The 5 men of Honduras

March of the Torches, Melo walking with his people in El Progreso (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

According to the Forbes list of 2018, five people in Honduras accumulate the equivalent of the minimum annual salary of two million of their population. “Honduras remains hostage to a small group that rubs shoulders with the richest people in the world,” says Melo. “225 are in control of all economic and political decisions. And this is what causes the origin of the migrant caravans.” Of the nine million inhabitants, one million live outside of the country and six million live with precarious futures in health and housing. “Honduras possesses the conditions of wealth which would enable its people to live with dignity, for this generation and the next, but the small handful of people who concentrate the wealth have created a triple alliance with which they protect themselves” Melo continues. “There is a triple alliance formed by a corrupt political bureaucracy, an entrepreneurial elite and multinationals. And whoever touches this triple alliance is threatened with a premature death. That’s why they threaten to kill us”. “A triple alliance” he stresses, “protected by the United States, organized crime and the military.”

March of the Torches, weekly protest march in El Progreso (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

For the past two months (May and June), another social and political crisis has been detonated in Honduras as the threat of “privatization initiatives” in education and public health care has alarmed the population. “In reality, this crisis is nothing more than the accumulation of conflicts that are rooted in the coup d’état of 2009, the illegal and fraudulent elections of November 2017, the corruption, the impunity and the links of President Juan Orlando Hernández with drug trafficking” clarified Melo’s team (ERIC) this week. “The social and political pressures continue to rise, and the escalation of repression and systematic violation of human rights is very serious”, they have warned. To all this is added the government plan to “criminalize” Human Rights defenders. Diario de Navarra has had access to a document in which the government puts Father Melo in the spotlight, pointing him out as one of the “political leaders behind the planning of marches, riots and looting” with the express aim according to the document to “disaccredit” him.

15 days at Melo’s house

It is very difficult to keep up with Melo’s pace on any day. On May 2, for example, Melo himself is the one who picks up a journalist from Diario de Navarra at the San Pedro Sula airport. That morning, on the way to the city, Melo is obviously showing concern about something. “They want to prosecute Radio Progreso and me. They want to do it anyway”, he says, before arriving at his house, located on the very edge of a neighborhood controlled by gangs. “In ten years nothing has ever happened to me, even the neighbors tell us if there are strange people hanging around”, he reassures, pushing the gate. A mango tree full of fresh fruit welcomes the new guest.

Melo in the broadcast cabin of Radio Progreso (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

The next day, Friday, May 3, which happens to be “Freedom of the Press Day”, Melo opens his eyes at five o’clock. Even though it is still night, he comes down from his room dressed in blue and white, with flip-flops and a cream-colored brimmed hat. He limps due to a sharp pain that accumulates in his joints, the same illness that afflicted his younger sister. Melo walks towards the entrance gate, opens the padlock, always facing the threat of the night, and in an invisible gesture sweeps the darkness. Then he drives to the radio station. It is a habitual trip, deceivingly simple, with an underlying of risk. Two surveillance cameras record everything. At about one o’clock in the morning shots were heard not far away. And three hours later, a daily ritual is repeated as three agents of the National Police park their vehicle in front of the Jesuit residence, and then emerged to take a selfie with their assault rifles.

Melo’s fingers are tough as leather. They stretch and contract as they stroke the steering wheel on the way to the station. A current of pain flows like an internal torrent. Pain, he describes while circulating, which helps him to remember at every moment the suffering of the people. Any motorcycle that stops near the windows of the car is reason for some discomfort. Melo tries not to show his nervousness. With the arthritis he suffers, the pain bombards from the inside.

Freedom of the press

Senator Tim Kaine (secord from left) from Virginia with Jesuits in El Progreso 2016

A slight smile escapes Melo when speaking about freedom of the press. “To exercise freedom of expression in our situation is a permanent task. Here in Honduras, we celebrate this day while living in a country that is at the service of the elite. Freedom of expression as a right of the press has ceded to a demand to be at the service of the strong. We cannot say that we enjoy freedom of expression. Freedom of expression becomes a huge challenge and an affront to adverse conditions. We risk our lives and risk our personal safety and that of our team.”

The car winds through the empty streets of the city of El Progreso. At this early hour it is already 25 degrees Celsius (77 F). “Since 2009, after the various threats that we have had, we were accepted by the Inter-American Commission to merit precautionary measures,” Melo continues. “Each year these measures have been renewed, and ten years later we continue to merit these measures. The State has the obligation to implement protection measures for people at risk”. “To do this”, he clarifies, “the State sends to our home a police patrol at nine o’clock at night and at four o’clock in the morning. But it happens that the police themselves are contaminated by organized crime. Therefore, they fulfill a double function. Ostensibly they protect us, but in reality they watch and control us. I do not think they’re going to kill me. What they are now seeking is to discredit us. They try to connect me to one issue or another. That’s why they watch us, videotape us and even listen to our conversations.”

Armored crystals

Recipients of the RAFTO Norwegian [Alternate Nobel) Award

At 5.15 am, the gate to Radio Progreso opens. A security guard, who does not carry a weapon, watches the entrance. The silence of the empty streets is left behind. The priest places his fingerprint on the door security system so that he and the journalist visitor can enter. The station is protected by bulletproof glass. Melo opens the palm of his hand and leans against the wall. He must climb the stairs sideways, pulling his body up the stairs. They walk through a first room, a small library which exhibits a book edited by the Rafto Foundation that awarded Melo in 2015 the prize for the “defense of freedom of expression”. This was a huge international recognition which recognized “the legitimacy of millions of Hondurans and Hondurans who yearn for a real and profound change in the social, political and economic situation that affects us as a society.” The Foundation highlighted in 2015 “that justice and the reason for this popular clamor to stop once and for all the thousands of abuses suffered daily by the peasantry, the indigenous peoples, the Garífuna communities and rural towns and communities in the face of the voracity of the interests of extractive and transnational companies in Honduras.” Since 1987, the Rafto Foundation has recognized and awarded human rights and democracy advocates, including people who later received the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Good morning, God gave us this day”

Melo in his office (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

Once in the radio booth, Melo embraces the morning announcer, Letty, with a “good morning sister”. He takes off his hat and sits in front of the microphone and the bulletproof window. It is 5.30 am: “Good morning, God gave us this day!” is the morning greeting and the name of the program. After the half hour program, Melo shut himself in his office until seven in the morning. He then returned home for breakfast. Yami, the woman who helps with household chores, had prepared breakfast.

Caravan of Migrants – refugees from the violence and poverty in Honduras

In the same house there are two young men in formation to be Jesuits, Aquiles and Jerson, and Father Martín, a Guatemalan who works on the audiovisual content of the web. The five take their breakfast at the kitchen table: scrambled eggs, fried plantain, fresh cheese and avocado, always with aromatic Honduran coffee. They talked about what’s happening. Melo joked with the young men. At one point, Jerson spoke about a 7-year-old boy who died in the Rio Grande, on the border with the United States. “He was trying to cross with his uncle on a raft … That child was my neighbor in my community …”, he commented, obviously distressed. “I still remember when he hugged me one last time and spoke to me in English. His parents had emigrated two months before and he was happy because he was going to meet them again.”

“If the migrant is not your brother, God is not your father”

Martín and Jerson decide to visit the grandparents of the little boy, little Ezequiel, in the community of Nueva Esperanza. They will take the opportunity to record an interview for the radio. Melo nods. As director of the radio station, he is aware of the risk faced by his team of reporters. Some leave home in the morning wondering if they will return alive. This is admitted by one of the threatened journalists, Gerardo Chevez, father of four children, who has been assaulted twice by the police. A patrol of the National Police also appears at his home at dawn. This is the daily reality of working for the teams of Radio Progreso and the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC.)

 

 

 

“You will be the next”

The martyrs of the UCA

Since childhood Melo has had to learn to deal with death before its time. His father, a peasant leader, was murdered in 1974 in a violent robbery that Melo “suspects” had other objectives. Melo also knew Ellacuría, his thesis professor. The Basque Jesuit was killed by the Salvadoran army in November 1989 along with five other priests of the same order and two women employees of the Central American University (UCA). Melo had a warm friendship with the woman who cooked for the Jesuit community and her daughter. He had just invited them to spend Christmas at his family house in El Progreso.

The news of this brutal assassination caught Melo while he was in the mountains, celebrating a mass with a peasant community. Upon receiving the news, Melo first went to his family home to be with his mother. He sought Doña Lita’s embrace, her consolation, and he cried. Doña Lita, then, whispered to her son: “You will be next. Have courage.” Those words of his mother cemented the strength that today holds firm. Years later after these words from his mother, in 2016, Berta Cáceres was murdered. She was an indigenous woman leader who opposed the government’s “extractive” model of development. Berta had received numerous death threats because she could not be bought by the corporations and political parties. Berta Cáceres knew what she faced.

Melo and Berta Caceres in Rio Blanco (photo credit Lucy Edwards)

Thus, whenever Gerardo Chevez, one of the main investigative journalists from the radio station, picks Melo up at the airport or accompanies him from one place to another, Melo somewhat jokingly reminds Gerardo: “Roll down your window so the gunmen do not confuse us and kill you instead.” At a protest in Rio Blanco three years before she died, Berta asked Father Melo who of the two would first be assassinated. “Who will go first, Melo, you or me?”

Carlos Mejía – murdered in 2014 Marketing Manager of Radio Progreso

 

 

 

 

On April 11, 2014, Carlos Mejía, who was the marketing manager for Radio Progreso, was murdered. Mejía was in theory also protected with mandated precautionary measures by the “Inter-American Commission on Human Rights” because of the threats he had received.

 

Lesly, a 32-year-old journalist with 12 years of experience with Radio Progreso, admits that “the situation is very complicated.” She recognizes that “we are an easy target if you do not work in a corporate environment. But it is also rewarding. Melo tries to project honesty and dignity. We have to break so many molds in this country. It demands a very strong commitment.”

 

One night, returning in his car from San Pedro Sula to El Progreso after visiting a hospitalized friend, the journalist from Diario de Navarra asked: “Melo, how would you describe yourself?” After a long silence, he replies: “I have lived through three wars in Central America: Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That is why, because I have lived through these wars that I defend peace.” As the journey and the conversation continued, Melo allowed some memories to surface to seek the answer to the question.

Melo visiting Chabelo Morales at the prison of El Porvenir Chabelo, a farmer from the Aguan, was a political prisoner and released with the legal support of ERIC (photo credit Phil Little)

 

He remembered those years when he as a Jesuit priest accompanied the peasant indigenous population, in the midst of a genocide conducted by the Guatemalan army which had been trained by the Israeli military. The military burned to the ground the peasant villages. On one occasion the military had them surrounded in the middle of the forest. “It was Christmas. We did not have food. We had not eaten for days. But on Christmas day someone managed to break through the siege and brought us some soda crackers. Carefully these were sliced ​​and distributed equally in tiny portions. Then, I discovered the meaning of Christmas.”