Award winner knows activism’s risks all too well


When members of the Lenca indigenous community learned in 2010 that a 22-megawatt dam being built on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras would compromise fishing resources and deprive them of irrigation, they began to resist. They took the case to the Honduran public prosecutor’s office, complained to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and launched a 14-month-long blockade of the site, effectively bringing construction to a halt.

The campaign by hundreds of Lenca against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric plant on the banks of the Gualcarque River marked a rare victory for environmental defenders in Honduras. In late 2013, Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned company building the dam, pulled out of the project, citing community opposition, and Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), the Honduran company holding the concession, began planning the dam’s relocation.

“We faced a situation where rights to a river were privatized, where we weren’t consulted on a dam gravely affecting us and where both myself and other indigenous leaders received dozens of death threats,” says Berta Cáceres, a Lenca organizer of the campaign and 2015 winner of the Goldman Prize, one of the world’s foremost environmental awards.

Indeed, the victory came at a steep cost. One member of the Lenca community was shot by the Honduran army during a protest; two others were assassinated in obscure circumstances; and numerous others were beaten, tortured and arrested. Moreover, the relocated dam still could be built upriver, where it would affect the Lenca people.

Cáceres, general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), which led the anti-dam resistance, received the Goldman Environmental Prize on April 20. At a ceremony in Washington, D.C., she was formally named this year’s winner for Central and South America.

The ceremony coincided with the release of a report entitled “How Many More?” by the London-based human rights group Global Witness on killings of environmental activists. As the report underscored, violence of the type visited on the Lenca is all too common in Latin America, particularly Honduras.

The Global Witness report found that nearly three-quarters of 117 such killings around the world occurred in Central and South America. Brazil and Colombia were the hardest hit countries followed by the Philippines and Honduras. But Honduras had the most killings of environmentalists per capita, with 12 murders in 2014 and 111 since 2002.

“Recent regressive laws, collusion between powerful political and business interests and a climate of near total impunity have increased violence related to a surge in destructive agriculture, mining and dam projects” in Honduras, the report said. It called Honduras the “deadliest country in the world to be a land and environmental defender.”

Crackdown on dissent

Many analysts say the trend can be traced to the June 2009 military coup that brought a right-wing government to power. After the coup, opposition media were shut down, thousands of demonstrators were arrested and four of the five justices in the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber were removed.

Shortly afterwards, the Honduran National Congress passed a series of laws that prioritized business concerns over social and environmental ones. In 2009, for example, passage of a General Water Law allowed companies to privatize river use for dam projects. In 2013, a new General Mining Law was enacted that not only overturned a moratorium on new mining concessions in place since 2006, but also green-lighted open-pit mining projects despite a poll showing a large popular majority opposing them. The mining law also allowed community water resources to be used for mining in all cases except those few in which streams or rivers are officially registered.

Since then, hundreds of mining concessions have been approved, covering over 30% of the country. Foreign companies have moved into Honduras to exploit its reserves of gold, coal and iron ore. And violence against advocates has continued, with four anti-mining activists killed in the past two years.

Honduras has among the world’s highest homicide rates, one of the highest rates of corruption in the Americas (according to the non-governmental group Transparency International), and dire socioeconomic indicators, with nearly two-thirds of the population living in poverty. Such conditions would make it hard for any country to protect its natural resources, analysts say. But the tight alliance between business elites and the government since the 2009 coup, they add, has made matters worse.

Case in point

The current struggle in the Bajo Aguán river valley in the Honduran departments of Colón and Yoro, near the Caribbean Sea, is a prime example, experts say. Former President Manuel Zelaya, deposed in the coup, had tried to resolve land conflicts in the Bajo Aguán, where subsistence farmers were in revolt against expanding oil palm plantations. Farmers accuse plantations of forcing them off their lands and draining vital wetlands. But after skirmishes in December 2009 between those farmers and the Dinant Corporation, one of the country’s biggest palm oil producers, the area was heavily militarized.

Since then, Global Witness says, over 80 small-scale farmers have been killed in their battles against agribusiness companies and their private security forces. Meanwhile, Honduras has solidified its position as a major palm oil producer.

“We’ve seen a huge spike in killings as a result of the conflict between communities and agribusiness in the Bajo Aguán region,” says Billy Kyte, author of the Global Witness report. “It’s part of a pattern in Honduras, in which violence has worsened for land and environmental defenders since 2009, with land issues and hydropower being the principal drivers, and mining acting as an additional factor.”

The Global Witness report calls on Honduran authorities to improve protection of environmental and land defenders, and to honor International Labor Convention 169. The convention, which Honduras ratified in 1995, requires indigenous and tribal peoples be consulted on extractive and development projects.

- Steven Ambrus

Berta Cáceres
General Coordinator
Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh)
La Esperanza, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 9911-0085
Billy Kyte
Campaigner and Report Author
Global Witness
London, England
Tel: +(44 207) 492-5820