In Pursuit of Autonomy: Indigenous Peoples Oppose Dam Construction on the Patuca River in Honduras

In May 2011, Cultural Survival’s Global Response program launched a letter-writing campaign at the request of Indigenous Peoples of the Moskitia, Honduras, to halt the construction of a hydroelectric dam along the pristine Patuca River. Despite years of protest from local Indigenous Peoples and international environmental groups, in January 2011 the Honduras government signed a contract with a Chinese company to start construction on the first of three dams that would have many irreversible consequences in the Moskitia, Central America’s most biologically diverse tropical wilderness. The ancestral lands and contemporary villages of four Indigenous Peoples—the Tawahka, Pech, Miskitu, and Garifuna—line the Patuca River, and these communities are fighting for their futures as dam construction gets underway.

In July, Cultural Survival was invited to travel to the Moskitia to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Miskitu people’s governing body, MASTA (Moskitia Asia Takanka). As a Global Response Program associate based in our Guatemala office, I was eager to make the trip across the border into Honduras and the Moskitia. The trip would be a good opportunity to strengthen our collaboration with the Indigenous communities and learn more about the movement for Indigenous autonomy in the Moskitia, as well as to experience life along the beautiful Patuca River.


Since the military coup that ousted center-left president Manuel Zelaya in 2009, Honduras has been a dangerous place for activists. In these two years, more than 100 political dissidents have been assassinated and another 200 have fled the country in fear for their lives. Poverty remains rampant at 80 percent, and many communities in rural areas lack voice and power while wealthy landowners, drug traffickers, and foreign corporations have free reign. The coup-supported president, Porfirio Lobo, took office promising to bring prosperity to the country by ‘normalizing’ foreign relations. One of his initiatives was to sign a contract with the Chinese company, Sinohydro, to build the long-protested Patuca III dam on the Patuca River in La Moskitia. Indigenous People and environmentalists had held off this project in its various incarnations for over a decade. But now, Sinohydro, infamous for its shoddy construction of the world’s largest dam, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China, is on-board. As Norvin Goff, president of MASTA, commented, “The current government is obsessed with bringing external investments into the country.” They are doing so without conducting proper environmental impact studies and without consulting the Indigenous Peoples that would be affected, as required by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

After a 14-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to La Ceiba, Honduras, made longer by a protest blockading the Guatemalan-Honduras border along the way, I finally boarded a small plane and an hour later arrived at the landing strip in dusty Puerto Lempira, the entryway and capital of the Moskitia region. I was surprised to find military presence greeting the arrival of passengers. I had already gone through airport security in La Ceiba, but upon arrival in Lempira, two men in army fatigues took my passport, wrote down my information, and questioned: What am I doing here? Whom do I represent? What are my interests in this region? I felt like asking them the same questions.

I touched down in Ahuas, the “heart of MASTA”, hopping off the tiny, five-passenger plane into a dusty field, and followed a friendly neighbor towards the town center, where the conference was being held. Since I arrived a day early, I was able to witness the hustle andbustle while everything was made ready. It seemed the entire community was pitching in to get the events up and running. With only one or two hotels in the town and plenty of people needing to be accommodated, organizers found every spare mattress and extra mosquito net, and local families pitched in to host out-of-towners. There are no restaurants or cafes in Ahuas, so three families were put in charge of cooking meals for those who had traveled far from home. A stage was being constructed in the middle of a field, and an outdoor kitchen was being set up by a group of teenage boys at the direction of their arguing mothers and aunts. The church lent its space, and the mayor loaned his sound system. Norvin Goff explained that MASTA is not a non-governmental organization. MASTA started as a social movement that over the past 35 years formed into a system of local governance for Miskutu people, and spread out among 368 communities throughout the Moskitia. The governing structure includes youth councils and councils of respected elders. “We are all MASTA,” the saying goes. “I am Miskitu, so I am MASTA.”

The conference revolved around the central theme of Indigenous governance and territorial autonomy. For leaders of the movement, the fight against the Patuca III dam is part of a larger discourse of territorial autonomy—the right to manage their own natural resources. “Autonomy, for us, is a right of Indigenous Peoples,” said Goff. “We have to fight for our resources. To ensure the survival of our people from one generation to the next, we cannot adapt ourselves to a foreign political system where we become servants to the rich in the cities. Having our own territory will bring us peace.” It’s not a new concept in the Moskitia, but one that has developed over the past two decades, since the Miskitu of Nicaragua gained gained territorial autonomy in 1987 at the close of the Contra War. During the war, many Miskitu of northern Nicaragua sought refuge
among their brothers and sisters in Honduras.

Since that time, the relationship has remained strong. Members of YATAMA (Yapti Tasba Masraka Nani Aslatakanka, in Miskitu “Sons of Mother Earth”—an Indigenous political party of Nicaragua), Nicaragua’s Miskitu governance and players in the Contra War, traveled upriver to attend the MASTA anniversary. “The topic of autonomy is resurging now in Honduras,” explained Adalberto Padilla, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, “as a result of the government’s consistent failure to give Indigenous Peoples an answer to the poverty, inequality, and exclusion that they are experiencing. The ladino mono-culturalismthat the government presents does not correspond to the reality that Indigenous Peoples are living in Honduras.” To deal with these problems, the Miskitu people have turned not to their government, but to MASTA, whose ultimate goal would be to create their own system of economy, education, and development, in accordance with their worldview, and in harmony with the environment.

To begin the process of recognition from the state, the Miskitu are not starting from scratch. Although they want to create a unique model that will fit their needs in Honduras, they are looking to other Indigenous nations for inspiration and advice, including the Kuna of Panama, the state of Cauca, Colombia, and most intimately, the Miskitu just across the border in Nicaragua. In this research, they’ve learned key points about functional autonomy—the development of markets, bilingual education systems to promote literacy in Indigenous languages, and auto-demarcation of territory, a process in which they are
currently engaging. The concept of autonomy is not envisioned just for the Miskitu, but is inclusive of four different Indigenous groups, who are all participating in the planning process. Lorenzo Tinglas, president of the Federation of Tawakha people, a neighboring tribe of the Miskitu, explained, “So many politicians have come, trying to compel us to accept things that are against the interests of Indigenous Peoples. In response, we are working hard to establish a Indigenous autonomy in the Moskitia, for the four Indigenous groups—Tawahka, Miskitu, Pech, y Garifuna.”

If effective, autonomy would deny the state of Honduras the power to give concessions to foreign companies within the Moskitia without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous Peoples. But the Miskitu and the Tawahka, are not waiting for autonomy to demand their right to free, prior, and informed consent. They are demanding this recognition right now in their fight to stop construction of the Patuca III dam. The Tawakha people live directly downstream from the Patuca III dam site and will be the most immediately and seriously affected. Tinglas lamented, “We know that neither the government nor the company themselves will be able to mitigate the damages that will be done to the environment.” That has been true in China where the same company, Sinohydro, built the Three Gorges Dam. The Chinese government has already spent $15.5 billion to study environmental problems that have occurred downstream. Hoping to avoid such a calamity on the Patuca, Tinglas is all the more determined to stop construction of the dam before it starts. He proposed three tiers of action: grassroots action taken by the communities, legal action, and, building on the first two, international pressure.

Cultural Survival is taking the lead in exerting international pressure on Honduran officials to respect Indigenous Peoples’
rights. Please see our campaign action alert  and write a letter to the president of Honduras.

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