The murder of Berta Cáceres has sent shock-waves through Honduras and the world. Her killing has brought the human rights violations in Honduras into the main stream media. This article, which first appeared in ENCA in November 2015 explores these violations and the woman who had shone the light on the plight of Central America’s environmental activists, and who will continue to live on in the work of human rights activists across Central America.
|Globally environmental and land activists are the second most vulnerable group of human rights defenders, after those working on women’s rights[i]. While all human rights defenders face great risks, those defending the environment and land are particularly at risk, facing killings, suffering threats and physical violence, criminalisation and restrictions of their freedoms.
In 2014, 116 environmental activists were killed globally, with more than three quarters of these being in Central and South America. 40 percent of those killed globally were indigenous peoples[ii]. These killings are often in relation to disputes over the ownership, control and use of land. While mining and other extractives, agribusiness and logging continue to be key factors in many of these disputes, there has been a marked increase in the number of killings related to hydropower projects, particularly in Honduras.
These increases reflect a growth in energy demand which has seen many developing countries increase investments in hydropower construction[iii]. These projects flood land and divert vital water sources used for drinking water, fishing or irrigation, destroying livelihoods. Communities are also often displaced from their homes by force in order to make way for construction. Construction persists despite recent studies showing that large-scale dams are economically unviable and that costs overrun on average by 96%[iv].
Per capita, Honduras continues to be the deadliest place for activists. Twelve environmentalists were killed in 2014, with many of these being connected to struggles against hydropower dams and their impacts on local communities. People defending their rights to land and the environment in Honduras face severe risks to their lives. 111 activists were killed between 2002 and 2014, many of which have been reported in the pages of ENCA (see numerous back issues).
These killings take place within a culture of impunity, corruption, systemic violence and extreme poverty[v]. Many human rights abuses and unlawful killings take place at the hands of the police, who are ineffective and supported by a judicial system which is compromised by political interference[vi].
Levels of inequality in Honduras have grown rapidly since the military coup in 2009. In the wake of the coup a law was passed allowing the government to sell off the country’s rivers and other water sources to the highest bidders[vii]. Coupled with the lifting of the moratorium on new mining projects as part of the General Mining Law in January 2013, Honduras has become the most unequal country in the Americas with a small concentration of elites owning most of the land and industry[viii]. This power is consolidated through the use of private security companies and the military[ix]. Investments in mining, forestry, agribusiness and hydroelectric dams have been made a top priority for the right-wing government, led by President Juan Orlando Hernández[x].
On 8 May 2015 the Honduran government faced questioning on its human rights record through the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Yet while a body of evidence is building, the Honduran NGO ACI-PARTICIPA (Association for Citizen Participation) estimate that more than 90% of killings and abuses against human rights defenders in Honduras remain unresolved[xi]. Coupled with an IACHR report suggesting a complete absence of the most basic measures to address reports of grave human rights violations in the region […] and the possible participation of State authorities in the alleged incidents[xii], the situation looks bleak.
Many of these cases have been reported previously in ENCA newsletters, but we draw them together here again to illustrate the extreme violence under which these environmentalists are operating.
Reflecting the global trend, indigenous peoples have been disproportionately affected by the land and environmental disputes. The Tolupán indigenous peoples from the municipality of Locomapa, Yoro department, in northern Honduras, have been threatened, criminalised and killed for protesting against mining and illegal logging in their communities. These protests included a peaceful sit-in to block the passage of mining and logging trucks through their land, and the public denunciation, on the 18th August 2013, of death threats received by text message warning the protesters to desist from their efforts to protect the environment[xiii]. A week into the sit-in a group of private security contractors approached the protestors and opened fire, killing indigenous leaders Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez. Another leader, María Enriqueta Matute, fled to her nearby home, where she was tracked down and fatally shot.
On 15 July 2013, the Lenca indigenous leader Tomas García who had been demonstrating against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam was shot dead by the Honduran Army during a peaceful protest in Río Blanco, in the department of Intibucá. The following year, William Jacobo Rodríguez was murdered amid accusations of torture at the hands of the police guarding the hydropower project. In October 2014, Rodríguez’s 15-year old brother, Maycol Rodríguez, who cultivated corn on land wanted by the dam company, disappeared and his body was later found in a river showing signs of torturexiv.
The Garífuna[xiv]communities in northern Honduras have also faced a barrage of violence over land. The Garífuna territories are of interest both to investors building luxury resorts on the Caribbean coast and to organised criminals as their territory lies in a remote coastal region of northern Honduras where drug traffickers can pass unnoticed. On 17 July 2014, environmental defender Miriam Miranda and several members of a Garífuna community in Vallecito municipality were abducted by four heavily armed men. After first being told they would be killed, the group were eventually released
The Bajo Aguán valley also continues to be a major hotspot for violence with 82 campesinos having been killed between 2010 and 2013 in a struggle with agribusiness companies and their private security forces.
Four anti-mining activists have also been killed nationally since the introduction of the General Mining Law in January 2013.
Beyond the killings, the ciminalisation of human rights defenders by the state is rife. COFADEH (The Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras) has recorded 3,064 cases of the improper use of criminal law against defenders since 2010, with members of the police and army also being involved in numerous cases of intimidation, threats and suspected killings of environmental and land activists[xv].
A shining light
In a glimmer of light in this violent landscape Berta Cáceres, a founding member of COPINH, was awarded the Goldman Prize for Environmental Activism in May of this year. Praised for her defiant fight against environmental abuses in Honduras, the award also placed an international spotlight, albeit a short-lived one, on Honduras and the dangers of environmental activism as a whole.
COPINH was founded in 1993 and was born from the struggles of the Lenca peoples. Since its inception COPINH has forced the cancellation of dozens of logging operations; has created several protected forest areas; developed municipal forest management plans; and secured over 100 collective land titles for indigenous communities, in some cases encompassing entire municipalities.
More recently COPINH has been fighting hydropower projects, campaigning for the right to consultation related to the Agua Zarca dam that would force the Lenca community off their ancestral land. Berta and COPINH have been fighting the dam on multiple fronts, from non-violent protests in the streets through to lodging appeals against the dam’s financiers, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Dutch development bank, FMO, through the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
This campaigning has resulted in the world’s largest dam builder, the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, pulling out of the project.
For her efforts Berta Cáceres has been falsely criminalised by the Honduran government. In May 2013, a criminal case was filed against her for illegal possession of a firearm and for endangering the security of the Honduran state[xvi]. She has also been charged since with inciting others to commit crimes, occupation of public and private property, and damages against the hydroelectric company[xvii]. Furthermore, like many activists she has received numerous death threats to herself and her family. Berta blames these on the private security guards from the dam company as well as the police and army protecting the project.
While these, and similar charges against two other COPINH leaders, Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina have been dropped the company has appealed the dismissal to the Supreme Court and Berta Cáceres continues to live in fear and continues to receive regular threats against her life because of her continued work defending the people of Río Blanco’s land and rivers.
Berta Cáceres and COPINH offer some much needed hope, but even as the IFC admits failing to implement its own social and environmental policies when approving the Agua Zarca loan, the unlawful use of violence by public and private security forces to protect concessions granted without transparency and consultation, remains a deadly problem.
As the Honduran government announces plans to grant temporary environmental permits to companies on the same day of application[xviii] and attempts to elevate the recently formed Military Public Order Police to constitutional status[xix], they have set out a path of increased violence and persecution against not just environmentalists, but all the Honduran people.
We offer our congratulations and thanks to Berta Cáceres, not just for the fights that have been won, but for bringing the plight of the Honduran people to the world stage, and for reminding us that now more than ever we must stand with the people of Honduras and Central America in Solidarity against the new wave of violence.
[i] UN Human Rights Council (2007), Report submitted by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights defenders, Hina Jilani(A/HRC/4/37), p13
[ii] Goldman Prize (2015)
[iii] Businesswire Press Release (21 October 2014), Research and Markets: Global Hydropower Plant Construction Market 2014-2018.
[iv] International Rivers (2015)
[v][v] World Bank (2013) Global Poverty Working Group, Honduras development indicators.
[vi] Human Rights Watch (2015), Honduras Annual Report 2014.
[vii] See Al-Jazeera (24 December 2014), Honduras dam project shadowed by violence.
[viii] See Jacobin (11 February 2015), Honduras’ five century war.
[ix] See Frontline Defenders press release (18 July 2013), Honduras: Killing of human rights defender Mr Tomas García
[x] See hondurasopenforbusiness.com
[xi] ACI PARTICIPA (June 2014), Impunidad e Indefensión, un vistazo a la realidad de las defensoras y defensores en Honduras, p36.
[xii] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights press release (5 December 2014), Preliminary observations concerning the human rights situation in Honduras.
[xiii] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (19 December 2013), Resolution 12/2013 Precautionary Measure No. 416-13
[xv] See Frontline Defenders press release (18 July 2013), Honduras: Killing of human rights defender Mr Tomas García
[xvi] ENCA 63
[xvii] Amnesty International (4 October 2013) Honduras – Indigenous Leaders continue to be targeted
[xviii] La Prensa (13 February 2015), Estado de Honduras otorgará licencias temporales en un solo día.
[xix] See The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights press release (5 December 2014), Preliminary observations concerning the human rights situation in Honduras.