Village Life News Archives Missionary to Help Verify Agreement in Honduras

Paul Jeffrey
United Methodist News Service

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- An American missionary serving in Honduras will help verify an agreement between that country's government and a group of indigenous activists who ended a 10-day hunger strike here on May 14.

Andres Thomas Conteris was named to a 10-person "Committee of Guarantors" during the final stage of negotiations between the activists and a team of government officials headed by President Carlos Roberto Reina. The accord was signed May 14 at the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa.

The 3,000 protesters -- representing Lenca, Pech, Chorti, Tolupan and Garifuna indigenous communities, as well as black Afro-Honduran groups -- began their protest on May 5, camped out in front of the Presidential Palace.

They were protesting the theft of indigenous lands by cattle raisers and large landowners in the west of the country. The activists also called on the government to investigate the assassination of two Chorti leaders during April.

Conteris is appointed by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries to work with the Christian Commission for Development (CCD) here. He serves as assistant for human rights issues to the commission's president, Noemi de Espinoza.

"This is the fourth indigenous march on the capital in as many years," he told United Methodist News Service. "In response to the earlier protests, the government made a series of commitments to indigenous leaders, but it didn't keep most of them."

Conteris said that indigenous leaders, tired of broken promises, this time around insisted on a committee of guarantors that would "be an instrument to make sure that words are translated into actions."

Besides Conteris, representing CCD, the guarantors include Ramon Custodio, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras; Leo Valladares, the Honduran government's human rights commissioner; and Carlos Solano, a Spanish Jesuit who coordinates a ministry with indigenous peoples in Yoro province.

Conteris, 35, a native of Wisconsin who is related to churches in the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington (regional) Conference, didn't wait long to begin his new role. On May 15 he .. rose at 1 a.m. to ensure that the government kept its promise to provide transportation back home to all the remaining indigenous protesters.

He planned to travel later in the week to Copan, near the border with Guatemala, to monitor the government's pledge in the agreement to provide 2,000 hectares of land to Chorti indigenous living there. "We're going to work together with the government to help it comply with the agreement," Conteris said.

The final agreement came only after President Reina joined the government negotiating team after a breakdown in negotiations led to violence.

More than 2,000 soldiers violently evicted the protesters from in front of the presidential palace during the early morning hours of May 12. The demonstrators were pushed down a highway for two kilometers, where they were allowed to re-establish their protest in the middle of a highway interchange.

"They just started hitting, hitting children, hitting women," said Berta Caceres, a Lenca activist from the province of Intibuca who was injured in the melee.

According to Solano, who was detained by soldiers during the eviction, a "majority of the soldiers were peaceful, but some just grabbed the people and hit them. It was totally unacceptable. The demonstration had been totally peaceful, there had been no violence nor aggressiveness toward the police."

Conteris spent the hours after the eviction making sure that those wounded in the incident received proper medical treatment at a private clinic here.

Conteris -- who served as a United Methodist seminar designer in Washington, D.C., before moving to Honduras in 1994 -- called the indigenous protest here "an astounding event where members of several indigenous communities came together and worked closely together for a common goal."

Posted May 20, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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