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  • Settler Violence? Race and Emergent Frontiers of Progress in Honduras
  • Christopher A. Loperena (bio)

The displacement of black and indigenous peoples from sites of economic opportunity in Honduras, and the systematic enclosure of the natural resources within their territories, is intimately tethered to white socio-spatial imaginaries and the politics of frontier making. In this essay, I analyze how elite investors, with support from the state and multilateral development banks, mobilize the ideology of national progress to further disenfranchise rural communities of color and to legitimate acts of violence against land and environmental activists. This violence has increased dramatically since the 2009 coup against Manual Zelaya Rosales, which was followed by a surge in extractivist activities throughout the national territory. In the quest for land, mestizo elites harness both legal and physical coercion to seize vital natural resources within indigenous and black territories.1 The process of turning indigenous territories into frontier zones for economic development underscores not only the racialized dimensions of dispossession but also the ways in which violence is used to hasten the power and racial domination of mestizo settlers over indigenous and black peoples.2

Settler colonialism, according to Patrick Wolfe, entails conquering the land and then populating the conquered territory with the victorious people. Although qualitatively different from the colonial project imposed by the Spanish and Portuguese—at least from an ideological perspective, since it was contingent on the incorporation of indigenous peoples into the national body politic—settler colonialism remains pertinent to analyses of race relations in Latin America. Wolfe states that settler colonialism is an ongoing process premised on a “logic of elimination.”3 Through an analysis of settler violence, I elucidate the relationship between settler colonial logics and contemporary development practices in Honduras. The ongoing removal and elimination of indigenous and black peoples is epitomized by the targeted repression and killing of key indigenous social movement activists, including the March 2016 assassination of Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres. [End Page 801]

The logic of elimination is also expressed through legal arrangements that erode collective property rights and undermine black and indigenous sovereignty over the natural resources within their territories. Although Honduras has signed and ratified international legal conventions on the territorial rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, the state has aggressively pursued development projects that directly violate these rights. Even communities in possession of titles to their lands are subject to these forms of expropriation, particularly when the motive is couched within the discourse of national progress.

Progress as Settler Colonial Logic

In Latin America, national progress is crucially bound up with white socio-spatial epistemologies, which relegate indigenous peoples to a mythical past and thus render invisible contemporary indigenous peoples’ existence and political vitality.4 Indeed, the ideology of indo-Hispanic racial mixture, or mestizaje, has been used to negate indigenous and black territorial claims and to buttress the political and economic aspirations of the mestizo elite. The incorporation of indigenous peoples into the nation through the ideology of mestizaje ultimately furthers the whitening project on which postcolonial national identity was founded.5

Aspirations to whiten the nation gain material coherence through development practice. Following Keisha-Khan Perry, I understand development projects as the spatial dimension of the whitening ideology.6 The proliferation of extractivist economic activities within black and indigenous territories asserts national sovereignty over the natural resources to which rural communities of color lay claim, and thereby buttresses white spatial imaginaries. Sharlene Mollet’s research in the Honduran Mosquitia illustrates how indigenous land use practices are defined as backward and thus deemed, by the state, unsuitable for market production.7 In this way, racist understandings of indigenous inferiority position mestizo colonos (settlers) as more apt to use the land productively and thus legitimates their continued presence and spatial dominance over black and indigenous peoples.

Indeed, the notion of “idle” or “underutilized” land has served as a central justification for the usurpation of lands in areas populated by indigenous and black peoples and which have been folded into the agrarian reform policies adopted by the state, beginning with the Agrarian Reform Law of 1962. Because indigenous and black peoples’ lands were often classified as underutilized, they were subject...