by defensores en la linea (the original in Spanish is here: “Me he enfrentado a la muerte”
What do the women who defend human rights in Honduras face, those who oppose the arbitrariness of their male co-workers; those who do not tolerate the abuse; those who made denouncements to the authorities only to be ignored; those that are the exiled or banished?
“I have faced death,” summed up Orbelina Flores Hernandez after a lot of thinking. She is a woman farmer, a mother, a grandmother and a human rights defender in one of the most troubled regions of Honduras, The Lower Aguán Valley, where waging a struggle for land and the sound of bullets is a constant back and forth between the few periods of calm interrupted by the worst of circumstances; the taking of the life of whomever.
She can not conceal amongst the tears in her tired and fearful green eyes what has passed through her life. She has 55 years of struggle in this life, which she has dedicated to defending the rights of her sons and daughters, her colleagues, and people known to be victims of injustice.
Fittingly, according to Navi Pillay, who was High Commissioner of Human Rights of the United Nations, “Human Rights Activist is a title that every one of us can acquire. It is not a function requiring professional qualifications. It only depends on us looking at our fellow beings as human beings, we understand that we all have rights to the entire range of human rights and their commitment to see that dream made into a reality.”
Orbelina Flores, came into the world on Thursday, November 10, 1960, in the community of Taujica, Tocoa in the department of Colón. From childhood, things were not easy. There were seven brothers that, when her father died and her mother left to care for her aunts, “I barely passed the first grade because I didn’t have anyone to raise me,” recalled the defender, however that helped her to form strength and steadfastness in adversity.
“I’ve always been a working peasant woman,” said Orbelina, who married at 20 years of age, she raised nine sons and daughters plus one she adopted; She was widowed in 1998 and has since assumed the role of single mother with the care and upbringing of her children. This compares to the thirty percent of Honduran women who are also single mothers or heads of household.
By that time the peasant farmers began to organize in cooperatives to reclaim land “owned” by rich landowners. As a mother she saw the need to join the fight for her children to have better living conditions.
Thus, she became one of the founders of the United Peasant Movement of the Aguan (MUCA), which from November 2001 has been organized by the participation of 28 peasant farmer groups around the “legitimate claim to the lands that were declared for purposes of agrarian reform since the 1970s and fraudulently passed into the hands of corrupt businessmen,” according to Report of the Events and the Recovery of the Land of Agrarian Reform in Honduras by AlbaTv in 2010.
What Orbelina, who has always lived in the community of La Confianza, was searching for was to acquire land for herself and her children, at least where they could grow food because, “land is life, without it we are nothing, but for demanding this right I have had many difficulties come to me,” she said.
Of the twenty people who started MUCA, four were women, Beatriz Elvir, Maribel Mejia, Elida Bobadilla, and Orbelina Flores; the peasant farmer leader Adolfo Casteñada thought it was important to involve more women because their work is valuable, and so other women were integrated, who not only supported the work through traditional gender roles, but were occupying positions of decision making and forming advocacy issues such as women’s rights, violence counseling, and land rights, accompanied by various organizations including the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH).
Women At the Forefront of the Struggle Facing Threats
In the Lower Aguán it is not uncommon to see women leading land seizures, road blocks, social protests or face local authorities that criminalize, attack and stigmatize them, noted Orbelina. She makes mention of the protest known as “The Seven Thousand Machetes, the first big demonstration where equal number of men and women defended the struggle with machetes in hand, this being the unique and characteristic tool of peasant farmers.”
She adds, “We were coming with a machetillo (a colloquial term for machete) in hand, that was back in 2001, we are recovering the lands of Agrarian Reform in Bajo Aguan.”
“As a peasant farming woman, and defender of land rights I have faced death and not only me but my family, those who depend on me and those who just want to eat the fruit of their labor.”
But death has touched other people, and came through infiltration especially by paramilitary groups who impose fear and with this silence that wont allow censure against them. However, the human rights defender does not keep silent in the face of injustices, and Orbalina affirms her decision to continue denouncing situations that threaten life and work in the community from attacks coming from the rich landowners, the military who have besieged the region, and the judicial authorities who are on the side of the powerful.
Orbalina’s preparation and availability, has led her to coordinate the oversight board of the Permanent Observatory for Human Rights of the Aguan (OPDHA in it’s Spanish acronym). This work has not been welcomed by many people because from there they observe, accompany, and follow up on complaints of human rights violations.
Life is very valuable, asserts Orbelina, who saw things out of the ordinary in the community and wanted to salvage it, “but I was responded to with death threats,” she says, “I faced death threats as if I were the bad person who had infiltrated.” That affected her deeply, and in 2013 she was forced to flee from the organization that she had helped found with blood, sweat, and tears. She was forced into exile away from the land that her struggle had achieved.
Although one of the first recommendations for the State of Honduras in the United Nations’ 2010 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was to ensure respect for the rights of women, in its 2015 review peasant women and feminist organizations deny that there is any progress from the government.
While it is true that the Honduran government has opened the Investigative Unit for Violent Deaths in the Aguán (UMVIBA), in this time it has not even reported that 815 women, including Orbelina, have been criminalized in the struggle for access to land, have been victims of violent evictions and illegal arrests, and have been murdered.
Nor has UMVIBA reported that, “rural women do not have access to land, credit nor technical assistance. On the contrary, their struggle has been criminalized, and in 2014 alone four peasant women were killed,” as was denounced by La Plataforma 25 de Noviembre Against Violence Towards Women which was composed of memebers of women peasant farmer and feminist organizations before the UPR presentation by the State of Honduras in Geneva, Switzerland in May of 2015.
Orbelina believes that justice should be equal. Money and influence can not be a part of decisions in favor of the powerful, but must guarantee life as the maximum right of everyone.
Paradoxically, in the Bajo Aguán, that right is constantly threatened, Orbelina Lopez has lamented the murder of many of her peers, and what is most painful is that their deaths go unpunished, “I saw them die: Juan Jose Escoto, Toño Belly, Jose Angel Flores, Silmer George, both of the Jacobos. Also Dony, Lalo, Daniel, many peers, and others who I remember by their nicknames, but will not mention out of nervousness and feelings of fear.”
Fear sometimes does not let women speak, the direct victims of state, sexual and economic violence in the Lower Aguán, and if they do, the authorities re-victimize them and the communities designate them as guilty.
“I face the fear of death, I do not expect something different because I have no right to claim that they will save my life, mine is no more nor less than the others [who have been murdered],” lamented the human rights defender referring to the actions of the authorities when a person files a complaint in either of the cities of Tocoa, La Ceiba or Tegucigalpa. This recently occurred with the assassination of the President of MUCA, Jose Angel Flores, and fellow MUCA member Silmer George, by an alleged paramilitary group in La Confianza last October 18th, adding 125 murders recorded by the OPDHA.
These actions are part of the more than 1,172,000 victims of internal forced migration in Honduras, since they must move from the community, fleeing from one place to another, and are destabilized emotionally because they have to flee their home, family, pets and livestock.
“Not being home affected me, it’s very painful I missed my own hot coffee. It was a year and a half that I left and still I cannot go outside, not even to my patio to sweep quietly because at any moment they could attack me.”
“Judicial authorities know everything that has happened in the Bajo Aguán, and I do not know what to do, I got tired of being denounced, so I ask the national and international organizations, to help us ask for the investigations into the murders of our peers and act against human rights violators,” said Orbelina.
She considers it impossible that the Honduran authorities would act in favor of the work of human rights defenders, of peasant’s rights. Not to mention to give importance to the vulnerability that women face, even when their children and daughters are put in the middle of it, “but I have no reason to flee since the complaints that I have made (against the criminals) are real, nevertheless I fear for my family.”
Meanwhile, Orbelina continues harvesting bananas, corn, beans, yuca, taro root, lemons, oranges, and raising hens, chickens, ducks, because she likes to have in her yard her family’s food, but it is clear to her that the main need is justice and that life is respected.
She concluded by saying that “If anything happens to me the paramilitary group operating in the region is responsible, as well as is the State which is the guarantor of providing peace and security to our lives, because we deserve the best just like all the rich, with equality, because we are all just looking for how best to survive, which is more complicated when I make these denouncements, but I will not stop as long as God lends me life … “