The foregoing picture is dark. But Honduras is also a place where members of the research team were struck and inspired by the countervailing models they found, whose precepts and practices held promise for confronting challenges extending far beyond the country’s borders. For an analysis like this to be most effective, it must include a similarly careful examination of constructive networks and individuals. Some of the grassroots organizations we visited were actively building networks with allies both inside and outside Honduras, by way of frequent visits and meetings to pursue common agenda items. But often those constructive actors are just individuals, lacking the resilient network structure that characterizes their kleptocratic counterparts. Part of the task of reinforcing them would be to study what it might look like for them to be more effectively woven together in such a hostile context.

Vectors of Reform Within Governmental Institutions

When news of rank profiteering within the public health service brought tens of thousands of Honduran citizens into the streets in 2015, one of their demands was for an internationally backed law enforcement commission, along the lines of Guatemala’s CICIG, which after several years of work had made some spectacular arrests. After weeks of protests and contentious negotiations, a convention establishing the Organization for American States–sponsored MACCIH was negotiated and ratified.

Many Hondurans criticize the agreement for according the body less autonomous power to take legal steps against corrupt officials than CICIG’s founding documents do. Most of our interviewees were skeptical of MACCIH’s likely independence. Still, in contrast to CICIG, which can punish delinquents without doing much to address the structures that select for their behavior, the Honduran commission is vested with at least the theoretical power to engage in crafting deep-seated reforms to the Honduran governing system that go beyond CICIG’s mandate.

It is in this context that the Honduran Congress takes on an enhanced role. The legislature is not functioning quite as a rubber stamp, ratifying every wish of Honduran self-dealing elites. In a notable development, some young and dedicated members of Congress have brought twenty-eight of their colleagues together into a front to support the fledgling MACCIH. Drawn from all parties, these members of Congress have set themselves the task of ensuring that MACCIH does get substantive input into legislative reforms that could reduce the kleptocratic networks’ maneuvering room—such as revisions to the criminal code, corporate law, and campaign financing rules.465

“The point of the front,” said one of its founders, “is to open communication between anti-corruption-minded members and MACCIH—those who want the convention to be respected in spirit as well as letter. We have been able to stop some so-called reforms from being rushed through Congress without MACCIH’s involvement.”466 In an initial victory for this coalition, a new political finance law was passed in October 2016.467 In spring 2017, its next objective was to obtain passage of a law allowing for plea bargaining.

Culture-Based Justice Movements

If there were ever a Honduran Nelson Mandela, it would have to have been Berta Cáceres, the environmental and social justice activist beloved among disenfranchised people throughout the country for her dedication to grassroots democracy, cultural revival, and environmental protection. “Whenever we go outside and come close to the leaves, we feel the loss of our dear friend Berta,” mourned the coordinator of a sister organization to the one Cáceres founded in 1993. “Because she was defending indigenous rights and the rights of the woods and the waters and nature throughout Central America.”468

It may have been the profound challenge posed to kleptocratic practices everywhere by this different understanding of how humans fit into the natural world, as much as her leadership of the specific campaign to halt construction of the Agua Zarca dam, that led to Cáceres’s March 2016 assassination.469

“Her first fight was to prevent deforestation,” Cáceres’s mother, Austra Bertha Flores López—herself a former elected official and activist—told us a few months later. “She sat down in front of the machinery! There were big protests, eight hundred, a thousand people. And she was working to bring schools and social services into our communities, she sent nurses to Cuba to study and brought the Cuban medical brigades here. She was fighting against the privatization of everything and patriarchy and militarization. It is a spectacular fight, because all those things are connected.”470

The organization Cáceres co-founded in 1993, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH), has energized indigenous Lenca communities—and not only them—in a remarkable way. At a time when the Lenca language has been lost, and surviving strands of traditional indigenous culture were far more tenuous than they were, for example, in neighboring Guatemala, COPINH helped communities throughout the country revive their sense of that culture, sometimes dynamically re-imagining it, and find in it the inspiration for a positive vision of their future. We could even feel the effects among the isolated Tawahkas living on the Patuca River.

“Our proposal as COPINH is about the relationship between nature and humans,” a member of the leadership told us. “We believe that the common goods of nature are not merchandise, they are part of life. In our spirituality, they are integral, the way a body has fingers and a nose. In the same way, water is life. In water there are beings, like fish, and those beings help stop climate change. And there are the spirits of our ancestors, which maintain the strength of our people. Privatizing a river is like slitting our wrists or stopping our breath.”471

“For us,” echoed the coordinator whose own movement was inspired by COPINH, “rivers are sacred. A dam is like cutting off its head.” His organization’s mission, he says, is in part to “rescue our worldview [cosmovision]. It’s like a chip in a cell phone: it encompasses architecture, mathematics, religion, language, how to cultivate plants and relate to the natural world. The Spanish took our chip out and inserted a new one, and our communities are returning to their own chip.”472

This “chip”—this re-imagined, traditional worldview—questions the very premises of a global economy based on infinite growth and the forced conversion of human labor and elements of the natural environment into cash by which that growth can be measured. COPINH and similar organizations’ vision of a more circular economy, in which animals and even features of the landscape are endowed with rights, and humans bear responsibilities to care for and cultivate these members of their broader community, defies the framework within which kleptocratic networks thrive, and suggests a realistic alternative.

COPINH contrasts with many associations dedicated to language or cultural revival in Europe, or identity-based groups in the United States, in the concerted effort it makes to articulate its concepts in crosscutting terms and to include and ally with non-Lencas. It has joined land-rights campaigns by campesinos as well as broad-based labor or women’s movements.473 During meetings with members of such organizations, proceedings were marked by their careful initial introduction of every participant (all of whom were accorded time to speak), their transparency, and their focus on each local community’s specific concerns.474

Alternative Development Models

It is not as though COPINH and like-minded movements are opposed to development altogether, or even to hydroelectric dams. On July 22, 2016, members of a sister organization took us to visit a 1-megawatt micro-dam funded, ironically, by the Finnish foreign ministry, as well as the UN Development Program, the EU, and USAID, and built by local residents under the supervision of Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation personnel. The micro-dam lies a two-hour walk down the slopes of a steep wooded valley carved by the river. Villagers explained a two-year process, whereby 179 of their neighbors—one from each family in three communities—took part in negotiations as to how the dam would be built and used, and then about a hundred of them, including women and young adults, participated in construction.

“This is a successful project,” said the young man who showed it to us, “because it empowered the people. If people approve, and give their land and work, a project will be strong and last. If the money goes to the municipality, it won’t work: they’re corrupt.” We noticed that the dam only blocks off half the river’s channel. “That was part of the agreement with the Spanish,” the young man explained. “The river had to be allowed to run free, because the river creatures need the water too. We are responsible for the creatures of the forest.”475

Truly consultative small power-generation projects may be as hard to implement as large ones, given almost equivalent reporting and oversight requirements. And arithmetic dictates it would take a hundred such micro-dams to generate as much electricity as a single Patuca III. So the environmental impact of expanding the model would not be insignificant.

Nevertheless, there is a lesson in this example—in contrast to the kleptocracy’s capture of the solar energy industry—for environmentalists the world over. It is this: not all forms of carbon reduction are equal. While a green kleptocracy may be preferable to an oil-drenched one, the evolution of the Honduran power market suggests the importance of seeking decentralized ways of converting to carbon-neutral energy sources, providing individuals and small communities as much autonomy as possible in meeting their own energy needs. A kind of energy democracy. Otherwise, as the world transitions away from fossil fuels, the so-called resource curse may afflict even more countries than it does today, as kleptocratic networks rush to capture monopoly control over the “resources” embodied in storied forests and the winding rivers that are the lungs and arteries of a landscape.

Built with input and labor from local residents, this dam serves some 300 households.

It seems equally critical for the developed and developing world alike to listen to the analysis of groups like COPINH, whose members still know the forest and hear how it breathes, and learn from them ways of envisioning new models of human development and values other than money that can be held up as measurements of social worth to compete over.

Having met these thoughtful men and women, who subsist near the material edge of survival but with such a fierce and joyful reverence for the community of nature and people that makes up their lives, it was interesting to think back to the words of the Finnfund officials, who cast them in the role of adversaries. Those development professionals did not recognize in the activists precisely the electricity-deprived poor they claimed to want to help. Nor did they see them as people from whom Westerners might learn, not just about how most effectively to deliver assistance to Honduras but also about how the West might pursue its own destiny in such a way as to reduce inequality and avoid depleting natural resources as it continues to develop.

For no matter how talented and dedicated and courageous their members may be, beleaguered grassroots organizations like these cannot be expected single-handedly to take on and transform a system as entrenched as the Honduran kleptocracy. And despite much lip-service paid to civil society in recent years, this study indicates that the vast bulk of Western intervention in Honduras—civilian and military assistance as well as nonmaterial diplomatic engagement—tends to reinforce the kleptocratic networks that are victimizing such groups and the populations they represent. Until this reality is recognized and its implications taken into account, there is little chance that these efforts will result in a reduction in the violence, underdevelopment, and out-migration that plague Honduras—much less the corruption that fuels these ills.


465 Interviews, Tegucigalpa and Washington, August and September 2016.

466 Interview, Tegucigalpa, August 3, 2016.

467 Felipe Puerta, “New Law Proposed by MACCIH Hits Familiar Obstacles in Honduras,” InSight Crime, October 24, 2016,; and “Con votos de la oposición, Congreso aprueba ley de financiamiento politico,” Criterio, October 20, 2016,

468 Interview, July 22, 2016.

469 For a good account of the murder and subsequent investigation—and its weaknesses—see Jason McGahan, “Army Major, Corporate Goons Charged in Murder of Berta Cáceres in Honduras,” Daily Beast, May 8, 2015,; for more recent revelations, see Lakhani, “Berta Cáceres.”

470 Interview, Esperanza, July 19, 2016.

471 Interview, July 19, 2016; for a remarkable exploration of how specific named places fit into the moral and ethical structure of Western Apaches, see Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apaches (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).

472 Interview, July 22, 2016.

473 For a fascinating and very careful examination of the history and impact of COPINH, see Daniel Aaron Graham, “Ghosts and Warriors: Cultural-Political Dynamics of Indigenous Resource Struggles in Western Honduras” (PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2009).

474 “COPINH accompanies communities,” explained a member of its leadership. “They are autonomous; they decide what they want.” A whiteboard on the wall of the room where we met displayed the names of several member-communities and the primary struggle in which each was engaged.

475 Interview, Opalaca, July 22, 2016.