Radio in the Lenca Context

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On May First my daughter, Adrienne Bauer
and I squeezed ourselves into airplane
seats headed for a quick visit to a place we
had called home in the early 90’s. We were
going to Honduras—it’s in Central America,
due south of Illinois. In some ways, it’s
still the same old, old sleepy country, with
architecture and customs dating back to its Sixteenth Century
roots, but there’s a newly emerging current of activism
and solidarity, which wasn’t apparent even when we lived
there 14 years ago.
We were heading south to plan the construction of a
new radio station. We work with the Primary Communications
Project (PCP), which improves communications in
developing countries, in solidarity with mostly indigenous
groups, struggling to hold on to their rights in an increasingly
globalized world. We build radio broadcasting stations,
mostly in Cenral America, prefabricating them with
used equipment donated by people here in the U.S. In
1999, we started working with the organizations which
represent the eight indigenous groups of Honduras.
Our present project was conceived in the spring of
2002, but only became viable after generous people donated
start up funds at a huge benefit concert about a year ago.
This is the first project PCP has done that was not funded
by a major grant. It’s a little scary to set a date to construct
a huge station without having all the funds in hand, but
doing smaller-scale fundaising allows the project to be
much more flexible in a number of ways, in scheduling and
adapting to new developments, for example. We’re scheduling
more concerts and other events between now and
March of 2007, when we head south to build the station.
All of these events will include a presentation on PCP and
this project in particular, and we encourage anyone interested
to stop by.
We are working in cooperation with the Lencas of
southwest Honduras and neighboring parts of El Salvador,
specifically with their represntative organization
which is called COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and
Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), to build a
regional 1000 watt AM broadcasting station, which has
the capability to penetrate into the high mountain valleys
where the Lencas live.
The Lencas often refer to themselves as Mayans, and
though there seems to be some doubt if this is really the
case, there’s no doubt that their culture is very ancient and
that they’ve lived in Western Honduras for many centuries.
In 1537, Lempira, a Lenca Indian and national hero of
Honduras, heroically stood up to the Spanish conquistadores.
“Lempira” is even the name of the Honduran currency.
In the years since, though, the Lencas have been pushed
back into the remote mountainous regions of Honduras,
and pretty much ignored by the national government and
mestiso society in general. At the time, this was a big disadvantage—
a clear demonstration of the rascism prevalent in
Honduras. It deprived them of the ordinary governmental
services, like electrical and telephone service, schools,
roads, sewerage treatment and health care, potable water
systems, etc. On the flip side, this isolation allowed the
Lencas to maintain a barter society and a complex religion
and culture stemming from ancient roots which makes for a
cohesive society today.
But now this governmental neglect has given way to
much interest due to the inception of ALCA (The Free
Trade Area of the Americas), and the PPP (Plan Puebla
Panamá)…a massive, intergovernmental plan to develop a
huge system to exploit the geographical, physical and
human resources of all of Central America, as well as the
southern half of México and Panamá.
Thus, in recent years, the potential of development in
the traditional Lenca lands has spawned numerous projects
to open up the territory. The problem is that the
Lencas’ (and other indigenous Hondurans’) possession of
this land is seen as an impedement to this development, so
instead of working out ways in which the Lencas can participate
in the process, a multi-faceted approach is being
employed to remove them from their land and separate
them from any revenue that the exploitation of their
resources might generate.
When hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, doing horrible
damage to much of Honduras, a law was inconspiculously
passed, under emergency conditions (sound familiar?),
which converted all the un-owned land in Honduras to
national parks. Unfortunately, but intentionally, this included
the land on which indigious people lived. So, when
there was already a shortage of arable land for their growing
population, their ownership of even the land they had lived
on for centuries came into question.
A strategy that indigenous people have used to mitigate
the land squeeze is land take-overs. Undeveloped land is
claimed, usually by a community of landless people, who
then build houses and begin subsistance farming. This
process was actually codified in Honduran law, ironically
by a military government, about 40 years ago, but in recent
years had met with less and less enforcement by the government,
until its repeal in 1998. But, the land takeovers
persist, with increasingly deadlier consequenses. In the last
five years or so, the government has taken to bulldozing or
burning these communities, usually with no warning, and
the people have re-occupied, rebuilt and resisted with more
and more tenacity.
Another infringement on the territory of many Central
American indigenous people, Lencas included, is the
construction of hydro-electric projects. For several years,
the Lencas have been resisting the construction of El
Tigre, a massive reservoir which would displace about
30,000 Lencas. The effects and reputed benefits straddle
the Rio Tirola border between El Salvador and Honduras,
complicating efforts to fight the project. Several years
ago, the Lencas held massive protests, including highway
blockades and a month-long campout beneath the Honduran
National Assembly building (a scale model of the
UN headquarters). These actions were responsible for
getting the project postponed, but unfortunately it’s
back, so the protest goes on, and so does the daily coverage
by La Voz Lenca.
At the top of this article, I referred to a new spirit of
activism which is emerging in Honduras. Several groups
have been organized to advocate for different causes.
Probably the most militant and thus persecuted of these is
the CNTC, (The National Rural Workers Association), a
union whose demands for fair treatment for the mainly
landless agricultural workers they represent has resulted
in strong reprisals, including assasination of their organizers,
from business interests whom they are challanging.
Their strikes and political actions threaten the very fiber
of the existing Honduran system, which in turn is the very
embodiment of a “banana republic.” Most of the country’s
most productive land is in the hands of foreign companies,
and most of the income from that production goes
abroad and stays abroad, while corrupt government officials
look the other way in exchange for bribes as their
country suffers.
Into this context emerged COPINH, in about 1993. In
just a few years it has become a dynamic and effective force
in advocating for the Lencas.
COPINH is involved in so many actions and ongoing
programs that finding time to meet about the radio project
was complicated. On May 30th, a big assembly was held to
discuss the AM radio project in detail. Arriving on that date
was a delightfully complicated process; a day and time
would be proposed, only to be nixed by some conflict—
“Oh, no, we can’t do it then…That’s Mother’s Day!” As minutes
ticked by, the preposterous nature of the impasse
became clear to everyone. Instead of becoming frustrated
and angry by a long process at the end of a long meeting,
the problem became a running joke. And the way this
process worked is just one of the things that makes
COPINH a wonderful organization to work with.
During the week we were there, COPINH got word of an
answer to an impossible dream… They got “Utopia.” See,
there is a place close to La Esperanza which had been built
for a school of forestry. It has 7.5 manzanas (about 15
acres) of land with it, and a really nice, big building. Something
went wrong, and instead of being opened as a school,
the place was put up for sale. “Utopia” in Spanish carries
the connotion of “impossible dream.” The folks of COPINH
decided to explore buying the place, but they called it
“Utopia,” because it was so unlikely. But, the owner
reduced the price because he so valued the work of
COPINH, and other things fell into place. The people of
COPINH are euphoric about that.
For the radio project, this place is ideal. It has a nice flat
space, well suited for constructing a 200 to 300 foot transmitting
tower, and it would be a secure location resistant to
sabotage. The Lencas want to use it to promote alternative
energy and to house conferences and classes addressing
social issues, organic and other alternatives in agriculture,
and other utopian ideas. So not only would a radio station
located there have a ready-made program base, it could be
used to greatly expand the influence of those ideas. We are
looking into the feasibility of running the transmitter on a
combination of bio-gas and photovoltaic energy (their
idea). In this way, the radio station would be an integral
part of the Utopia, a way to apply Lenca ideals and culture
to shape the future of their society. Just a few weeks before our visit, radio
station coordinator Marta Vasquez and
COPINH co-coordinator Salvador Zuniga
were attacked while trying to cover a story
for a one-hour radio slot called “Ecos de
Opalaca” which COPINH leases on a commercial
station. This program is used to
inform and organize the Lenca Community,
and our new station would augment its
role. While both Marta and Salvador
escaped serious injury, the attack emphasizes
the role the radio station is having in
the lives of the Lenca people, and the
threat that is to those who would like the
Lencas to move aside so their resources
can be exploited.
Bill Taylor is the Director of Engineering
Primary Communications Project.
Information about their radio programming,
links to Lenca history and info about
COPINH can be found on the WRFU website
at—click on the Sister
Station link on the upper righthand corner.
If you would like to get involved with this
project or any other aspect of PCP, check
out our website at,
email me at or call
217 762-9561

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