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Making illegality legal - elites against indigenous environmental activists in Honduras

Thursday, 08th October 2020, 17h00CET – Live debate with Miguel Urban MEP and Marisa Matias MEP with the NGO’s COPINH, COPA and EU-Lat on Facebook Live


The Central American country can be heaven for private investment and transnational corporations but hell for human rights defenders. 

On the occasion of the 2020  Sakharov Prize, the Left in the European Parliament nominated activists defending the Guapinol river in Honduras and murdered environmental activist and indigenous leader Berta Caceres. The aim is to highlight the importance of their struggle to defend indigenous rights and access to natural resources in a state where mining projects are sometimes valued more than people’s lives. 

18 environmental rights defenders from the community of Guapinol, Tocoa, were categorised among the most dangerous criminals by the State of Honduras as they started a community resistance camp demanding the immediate withdrawal of Minera Inversiones Los Pinares. The project has polluted natural areas such as the Guapinol river and the Carlos Escaleras National Park. Following their mobilisation, activists faced arrest warrants for defending their right to a healthy environment. 

As reported by The Coalition Against Impunity, the mining company in question is owned by Lenir Perez who was accused of having promoted the kidnapping of two human rights defenders when he tried to install another mining operation in the community of Nueva Esperanza. On that occasion, the justice system did not hold him accountable despite the presentation of all relevant evidence. 

Guapinol activists have been falsely accused of usurpation and damage to property, arson, unjust detention, aggravated robbery, and illicit association which caused the arrest of 8 of them. Today, 5 more activists are facing a warrant for prosecution.  

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, as in 2019 the government granted at least 137 mining concessions and energy and hydrocarbon production licenses in indigenous territories. Meanwhile, the demands of indigenous communities for access to their ancestral lands have been met with criminalisation, repression, and force, turning Honduras into one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders. 

 

In a context where crimes see a 97% rate of impunity, climate activists and indigenous rights defenders denounce the existence of a general pattern of criminalisation and persecution for opposing extractivist projects. Here, the case of Berta Caceres is one of the most emblematic instances of environmental activists’ persecution, exposing the high level of corruption at the heart of the Honduran government.

Berta Caceres was a feminist, Lenca indigenous leader coordinator and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). She was threatened, criminalized, and finally killed in 2016 for opposing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. Initially, the project had the support of European corporations such as FMO and Finnfund and included the construction of a dam in the Gualcarque River, which is sacred for the local indigenous community. 

On 30 November 2018, the National Criminal Court of Honduras condemned 7 men for the murder of the Lenca leader, determining that they were hit-men hired by DESA executives – the Honduran corporation in charge of the project. The trial of David Castillo Mejía, president of Desa and accused as one of the intellectual authors of the murder, is currently underway. The accused and his lawyers are trying to delay the process as much as possible to avoid bringing the trial to a point where it is publicly proven that Castillo is linked to the murder of Berta Cáceres.

Furthermore, in recent months there has been evidence of attacks on social networks against COPINH, Berta Cáceres’ daughters and the social and human rights organisations that are following the case. Therefore, prosecuting David Castillo is key to unmasking the impunity surrounding Berta’s murder, since everything points to it as the link to the structures of political and economic power in Honduras.

Why do crimes against activists and human rights defenders continue to take place with impunity in Honduras? By fostering neoliberal policies and boosting militarisation, the controversial conservative president Juan Orlando Hernandez turned the country into a “wonderland” not only for private corporations but also for narcotrafficking.

For example, Special Zones for Economic Development (ZEDEs) work like an intensification of customs-free zones – with their jurisdiction, administration, and ability to exercise influence on local politics. Also, the president’s brother Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernandez stands accused of large-scale trafficking of weapons and cocaine to the US and is alleged to have received one million dollars from the Sinaloa Cartel leader, El Chapo Guzmán, to finance the political campaign of his brother.

The struggle of Berta Caceres and the Guapinol activists highlight the importance of indigenous activism to protect ancestral territories and communities from environmental degradation in a country that is under the indiscriminate control of private corporations, narcos, and oligarchs who made illegality legal. The nomination for the Sakharov Prize represents in itself a recognition for their struggle against repression, criminalisation, and threats against their environment, community, and lives.

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