Archive for the ‘impunidad en Honduras’ Category

Under the U.S. Eye: When is the Time for Honduran Democracy?

Photograph Source: Zack Clark – Public Domain

A U.S. Federal court released documents in which a known narcotrafficker, Don H, implicated Honduran elites and politicians in the drug business. Most untenable is the revelation that the sitting president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, took drug money as bribes for himself and the Nationalist party.

But let’s face it, this is not news to Hondurans who already knew about the narco-dictator, known as “JOH,” as in #FueraJOH (“Get Out JOH!”) and his cronies. For 10 years, since the U.S.-backed coup that put the Nationalist Party in power, various sectors of civil society have protested the party’s connections to drug kingpins and illicit activities, their theft of national resources and sacking of social welfare programs – that is, stealing from the poorest and most disadvantaged for the benefit of the rich. The corruption in the highest levels of the JOH administration is clear as day to Hondurans, and all sectors of society are protesting in the streets right now.

In the 2013 and 2017 elections, and particularly in the latter, the opposition known as the Alliance Against the Dictatorship won. The U.S. meddled and turned a blind eye to rigging of the results by the narco-dictator and his party of crooks. They obscured and circumvented every law to prevent Manuel Zelaya Rosales and the Libertad and Refundación-LIBRE party, part of the Alliance, to take office, fearing their leftist leanings and proximity to Venezuela. U.S., in collusion with Honduran impunity at the highest levels abscond the truth on the Berta Caceres case, and have destroyed the independent body investigating corruption and impunity, the MACCIH, and are oblivious on the real needs of the migrating thousands leaving the country.

U.S. foreign and diplomatic policy in Honduras has been tragic, embarrassing almost. The Republicans and the Democrats have done absolutely nothing to promote democracy. Their actions did absolutely nothing to improve the conditions in the country. In fact, their actions, or inaction, vis-a-vis the JOH regime, have made as many as 100,000 Hondurans migrate out of the country per year. Since the U.S.-backed coup d’état in 2009, Honduras regressed from Banana Republic to narco-dictatorship. The difference between the two is not so great; both require a servile head of state, pliant domestic elites, a weak infrastructure, and a marketable commodity.

Manhandling Honduras to fit the needs of the U.S. geopolitical agenda on Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua—has destroyed the Honduran court system, electoral system and brought the country to a familiar chaos that generated by foreign U.S. policy. Protestors are repressed brutally and painted as the culprit of the violence, instead of the corrupt military police. Peaceful protestors have been sprayed with live bullets by military police, a force created by JOH with the insistence of the U.S. Embassy. In the past week, Military Police, hurled tear gas cannisters inside a school bus full of university students. In the previous months they teared-gas an elementary school with small children inside, and hurled canisters inside private homes causing serious injuries. All of this under the approving eye of the U.S.

The curious thing here is that the various U.S. departments are in contradiction with each other as to what to do about Honduras—on the one hand the U.S. federal prosecutors are nailing down Juan Orlando Hernandez and the Nationalist party for taking bribes for their campaigns and themselves. On the other, the U.S. Embassy and State Department officials are posing for pictures and giving Orlando their vote of confidence. Meanwhile Trump in the oval office calls Honduran immigrants’ invaders and is going to great lengths to keep them out through family separation, incarcerating unaccompanied minors and Transgender immigrants in deplorable conditions with hard rules for asylum.

Whatever the tactics, it is all intervention, all the time.

Will the U.S. ever let Honduras have a participatory democracy?

Hondurans know the U.S. is giving them doublespeak and its intervention will not provide salvation or liberation. For Hondurans, it is clear they will have to bring democracy to their country by their own hands, on both sides of the border. Organizing around their issues locally and nationally, thousands of Hondurans, from all walks of life, have taken to streets in protest. 10 years of illegality and abuses of power in post-coup Honduras has reaped a new kind of resistance—one against the JOH regime—but also one seeking a new kind of participatory democracy to replace him. But the U.S. seems intent on ignoring the will of the people to continue its track record of foreign policy disasters in Central America.

What other abuse of power and suffering will the U.S. State Department inflict on the Honduran civil society to stop the mythical threat Communism (again)? Were 200,000 murders in Guatemala, 80,000 murders in El Salvador, 20,000 murders in Nicaragua, and over 2000 murders in Honduras and thousands of disappearances and displacement of entire communities not enough in the 1980s? What more blood will the U.S. agenda cost us Central Americans on both sides of the border?

Dr. Suyapa Portillo Villeda is an associate professor of Chicano/a Latino/a Transnational studies at Pitzer College. She spent 2018 on a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship in Honduras. 

The Via Crucis of Comayagua

The author’s nephew, Johnny Javier, pictured with his family. Javier was killed Feb. 14, 2012, in a fire at a prison in Comayagua, Honduras. (Photo provided by Mary McCann Sanchez)
The fire that swept through the medium-security prison in Comayagua, Honduras, on the night of Feb. 14, 2012, took the lives of 361 individuals. Devastating flames danced high above the prison walls. Hundreds of prisoners — as well as spouses admitted for a rare conjugal visit — perished in the sudden inferno.I lost my nephew, Johnny Javier, to that fire. The young man was locked in a wing of the jail where toxic smoke invaded, extinguishing any hope of survival. The scene was maliciously unreal. Firefighters arrived 40 minutes after the flames ignited, and first responders reported that guards with keys were nowhere to be found. Johnny and his cellmates died as captives.

An immensely painful personal tragedy? The loss of this young man was that and much, much more. The inability of the Honduran state to protect men held in its custody effectively fueled the incineration of hundreds of human beings. More than half of those imprisoned in Comayagua had never been tried or convicted of a crime, yet the lack of due process had metamorphosed into mass execution by fire.

My nephew’s case, however, had swiftly crossed desks in the court, where it was stamped and sealed and irrevocably filed away. In 2010, when Johnny was a 23-year-old taxi driver, he had fallen victim to a frame-up when an acquaintance asked him to moonlight in a stolen cab. Oblivious of the vehicle’s history, Johnny had accepted, anxious to supplement his scant income of $20 per day.

Soon after, Johnny was rounded up. An attorney appeared at the door of his in-laws’ home, where Johnny lived with his wife, Maribel, and their baby daughter. The lawyer convinced the young mother that a speedy admission of guilt would result in prompt release. Gathering the family’s savings, Maribel paid the lawyer and rushed to the prison where Johnny signed the papers that cost him his freedom.

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Once aware of the travesty, our family sought the services of credible attorneys who attempted to reverse the lethal effects of the unscrupulous lawyer’s advice. The backlogged court, however, had no room for the case. The only out was early release for good behavior.

Johnny stoically accepted his lot. Trusting no one, he worked quietly in the penitentiary garden and sewed uniforms for prison guards.

Those of us who loved Johnny felt the grip of anxiety. Johnny was young and strong, a sure target for gang lords ruling inside and outside the jails. And if he could withstand peer pressure, would he survive the penitentiary itself? We knew prisoners went hungry. I personally had seen how men slept on shelves of cots stacked six high in a prison on the northern coast, where a riot and fire in 2003 left 86 dead.

Nagging questions, not limited to the jail, became part of our lives. Honduras had been hard hit outside the prison walls, too. The legacy of the June 2009 coup in Honduras — the first golpe de estado in Latin America of the century — was one of constricted civil liberties and alarming, unexplained killings of attorneys and journalists. Four judges lost their places at the bench for speaking out.

As Johnny toiled within the prison day after day, pressures mounted outside. Urban centers and rural plazas became home to the weekly protests. Teachers, factory workers, indigenous people, professionals and people of faith protested the systemic failure to deliver justice, inside and outside the jails.

In response, long rows of heavily shielded, helmeted police forces flanked public parks and thoroughfares in relentless shows of force. A young woman died in a protest, choked by tear gas, a precursor to the suffocation that Johnny and others would be subjected to.

The prison complex went up in flames, due to causes never adequately investigated nor explained. The families of 800 inmates awaited news. Which cell blocks burned? Which wings filled with smoke? Who had escaped?

My nephew was declared dead based on cot location. He could be any one of the scores of charred bodies. Our family joined other mourners to travel to the prison and then the capital, seeking his remains. White-jacketed technicians tied rubber sashes on the tiny arm of Johnny’s daughter, and drew blood in pursuit of a DNA match.

The forensic review lagged cruelly. It was Lent in Honduras and the penance was real. Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday, Good Friday — Easter came and went with no resurrection, no tomb to visit, no body to behold. My husband took to the streets with other mourners, placards in hand, to demand an end to the uncertainty.

Fifty-eight days after the fire, Johnny’s widow was summoned to a morgue in the capital. An officer escorted her to a coffin, nailed shut. “Do not open this box,” he warned her, “you will find only bones.” She leaned heavily on Johnny’s two brothers, standing by her side.

In Honduras, it is common for the bereaved to say good-bye to those they love. Gazing into an open casket is the moment of release, a time when peace might begin to set in. Throughout Central America, tenacious searches for the remains of loved ones, followed by exhumation and forensic discovery, have contributed to processes to uphold fundamental human rights.

In the case of the prisoners, however, the long-overdue delivery of impenetrable vessels of bones and ashes failed to provide closure, to engender trust.

And yet, these families in Honduras achieved modest gains: a partial purge of abusive authority, initial steps in prison reform, and meager economic retribution.

And on the broader scale, other victories emerged. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights upheld the right of free expression of the judges who had voiced opposition to the coup and demanded their restitution. Journalists exposed massive corruption at high government levels, despite backlash and punitive actions in what to this day remains an uphill struggle for the rule of law.

How does such suffering and such conviction speak to the Lenten journey and to the paschal mystery? The Via Crucis of the families required enormous fortitude. Intensely private love and separation by death transcended the realm of the individual into community and nation. Step by step, station by station, the cross passed from men and women present only in our hearts to unintentional communities of families and friends that rose to bear it.

Some years have passed since flames raged through the prison of Comayagua. As Lent begins, I am reminded that the suffering that penetrates this season is real and that sacrifice is more than self-deprivation. Clearly, Honduras is not the only country locked down by institutions too weak to uphold justice. Finding the answer to the age-old question of “Where is the victory?” has much to do with the struggle that we dare to take on and the companions that we will embrace on the journey.

[Mary McCann Sanchez is a teacher and writer with a long history of peacebuilding, social justice and community development work in Latin America and in Chicago.]

Politics of Death: ‘Am I next?’ Deadly waiting game for Honduras land activists

by Anastasia Moloney and Nicky Milne | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 20 June 2017 23:01 GMT

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Watch ‘Worth Dying For?’: our new film about how the murder of famed activist Berta Caceres has unleashed a wave of activism across Honduras ( Anastasia Moloney and Nicky Milne

LA PAZ, Honduras, June 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Every night, land rights activist Felipe Benitez and his wife wedge shut the doors and windows of their home and pray gunmen do not break in to kill the entire family – and with due reason.

Honduras has been named the world’s most dangerous place for environmental activists like Benitez – local people battling big business to preserve their ancestral lands from mining, damns, logging, tourism and other mega-developments.

“In Honduras, one of the ways to get you out of the way is murder,” said Benitez from his home in the Honduran mountain top village of Santa Elena in western La Paz province.

The area of lush mountains and sweeping valleys has become a focal point in a nation on the front line of land activism, with scores of active disputes – and murders – along the way.

Benitez fears he could be next – along with his wife and children – as he leads opposition to Los Encinos hydroelectric dam on land he claims for the indigenous Lenca people.

Four activists have been killed since 2013, including one whose dismembered body was found in a river in 2015, said Benitez, and campaigning has stalled construction of the dam.

Norma Allegra Cerrato, Honduran vice minister of human rights and justice, said the government is working to stem violence against activists while other government departments push for the projects they argue are needed for the economy.

“Currently we’ve had a lot of problems with big interests, we even have had deaths and we have to try to avoid this from happening in the country,” Cerrato said.

Honduras is the deadliest place on earth for environmental activism, according to a January report by UK-based watchdog Global Witness, with about 120 activists killed since 2010 but most crimes going unpunished.

The dangers involved hit the spotlight when renowned environmentalist Berta Caceres – a prize-winning grassroots campaigner – was gunned down in her home in March last year.

Hundreds march in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. TRF/Nicky Milne

Since Caceres’ murder, at least seven more activists have been killed, including other members of the organisation co-founded by Caceres – the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), according to Global Witness.

The latest victim, Jose Santos, an indigenous leader and land rights defender, was shot dead in February in his home.


Experts says violent conflicts between indigenous groups, companies and the country’s business and political elite will continue unless more is done to protect the rights of indigenous people and consult them about projects planned on their land.

Under an International Labour Organization (ILO) agreement that Honduras signed in 1989, the government is obliged to ensure projects on indigenous lands win “free, prior and informed consent” from locals.

But Honduran indigenous leaders say this rarely happens.

“Our territories, our rivers have been stolen and we haven’t been consulted,” said Margarita Pineda, whose own fight focuses on land around her native San Jose, another village in La Paz.

Margarita Pineda is pictured in San Jose, La Paz, where she works as co-ordinator for MILPAH, (Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz). TRF/Nicky Milne

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the top rights commission in the Americas, there are nearly 840 mining projects, most for gold, in the pipeline or under consideration, covering a third of Honduran territory.

Caceres led a decades-long campaign against the construction of the $50 million Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam that threatened to uproot hundreds of Lenca people and destroy livelihoods.

Both the government and Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA), the private company building the Agua Zarca dam, have denied any involvement in Caceres’ murder.

International backers of the dam – the FMO, the Dutch development bank, and a Finnish state investment fund, Finnfund – suspended $20 million in funding following Caceres’ murder.

In March 2016, Finnfund said in a statement: “FMO and Finnfund will not, for now, make disbursements to the project.”

“FMO is currently in discussion with the other lenders, the independent facilitator, DESA and other stakeholders in order to realize a responsible exit,” the FMO said on its website.

Fellow activists vow to honour Caceres’s legacy.

Standing by a dried-out river bed, Pineda laments the disappearance of gushing rivers and waterfalls that ran through her forested mountains before a dam was built two years ago.

“They thought we would sit here with our arms crossed when Berta died. But we have strengthened our fight. We will all die one day so it may as well be for a fair fight,” said Pineda who says she has received death threats from armed men.


For Miriam Miranda, head of the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH), danger is a part of life for campaigners.

“We’re facing a hard fight against companies that are taking over our territories,” said Miranda, who is opposing big tourism projects on the ancestral lands of the Garifuna people.

“I’ve been .. arrested and beaten by the police. I’ve been kidnapped by hired assassins who wanted to kill us for defending our territory,” she said.

The police would not comment on the alleged attacks.

Such is the danger that in recent years she and Benitez, along with Caceres and dozens of other Honduran activists, have been granted precautionary measures by the IACHR, which is part of the Organization of American States.

This means the IACHR deems their lives to be at risk, and has asked the Honduran government to take steps to protect them.

But some activists, including Caceres, refused the offer of government protection, citing mistrust of state security forces.


For rarely are the murderers caught. About 80 percent of murders in the Central American nation go unpunished, including killings of activists, according to IACHR’s latest report.

In Caceres’ case, eight people have been arrested in connection with her murder, including current and former Honduran military personnel.

But her family accuses the political elite and state security forces of orchestrating the murder and have demanded an independent investigation, a request the government has denied.

“I have encouraged them (Berta’s children) to continue with this fight,” Caceres’ mother, 80-year-old Austraberta Flores, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Of course it’s risky, but if we don’t make the sacrifice, it will be impossible to stop the destruction of the country.”

Honduras has pledged to do more to protect activists, bring criminals to justice and push forward a law that would better regulate consultations between companies and local communities.

Last year Honduras introduced a scheme aimed at keeping the activists safe – providing protection, including bodyguards and mobile phones, to about 74 people, mostly rights defenders.

State prosecutors continue to investigate the murder of Caceres and other activists, said vice minister Cerrato.

“Everyone wants immediate results,” she said.

“But I don’t think it’s that easy to obtain such fast results if we want to make an effective and in-depth investigation. We need to be a bit patient.”

Activists feel no safer – and vow to keep on fighting, and to the death if that is what is takes.

“Our territory is life itself,” said Pineda. “If we don’t protect it, who will?”

(Reporting by Nicky Milne, writing by Anastasia Moloney Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

In the Aftermath of the Murder of Berta Cáceres: Squashing Indigenous Resistance and Discrediting International Observers in Honduras

by James Phillips

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People who work for human rights, the rights of Indigenous communities, protection of our global environment, and social justice, are demanding justice after the murder of Berta Cáceres. She was killed in early March when gunmen broke into her house and shot her. It is abundantly clear to many Hondurans and international supporters and observers that her killing was political. Cáceres was the charismatic leader of COPINH, an organization begun in 1993 by Lenca communities in Honduras to promote their rights and protect their traditional lands, and to work with other Indigenous and popular organizations.

In the three years before her murder, Cáceres led COPINH in actively opposing construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam across the sacred Gualcarque River that runs through traditional Lenca lands in western Honduras. For her work she was awarded the international Goldman Prize in 2015 for Indigenous environmental activism. Cáceres helped to bring the Lenca struggle into global awareness, delivering an impassioned acceptance speech upon receiving the award in San Francisco. In Honduras, the Lenca and other Indigenous communities are widely seen as the front line of defense of the environment and the nation’s natural resources.

But Cáceres’ work also roused the fear and concern of those who wanted the dam as part of a larger economic development plan for Honduras that promoted foreign investment and large-scale resource extraction (mining, lumber, tourism, agribusiness) at the expense of hundreds of indigenous and peasant rural communities. These interests included the Honduran government and its powerful supporters, as well as U.S., Canadian, Chinese and other foreign interests. The Honduran company Desarollos Energéticos (DESA), with government support, held the contract for the Agua Zarca dam.

The dam builders cleared a dirt road to the construction site through traditional Lenca land without asking Lenca permission. Honduras is bound by national and international laws and treaties, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Labor Organization Convention 169 that prohibit taking or using indigenous lands or resources without “full, prior, and informed consent” of the affected communities. The Lenca claimed they were never consulted about the dam or the road. The company, DESA, also ordered them to stop using the river that had been central to their lives for many generations. In addition to private company security guards, a unit of Honduran military guarded the company’s construction compound, as if to emphasize the government’s interest in completion of the dam.

Beginning in April, 2013 and for more than four months, COPINH and the Lenca continued peaceful protest, sometimes leading processions or protest walks along the road, attracting Hondurans from other areas as well as international observers from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. During one of these protests a Honduran soldier in the military unit guarding the dam construction compound shot and killed Lenca protester Tomás Garcia and seriously injured his teenage son, Alan.

Blaming the victim or innocent third parties is a common strategy of oppression and control. Authorities accused Cáceres and two other COPINH leaders–Tomás Gómez and Auriliano Molina–of fomenting violence, and claimed to have found a gun in Cåceres’ vehicle. DESA officials accused the three of causing economic damage by delaying the dam’s construction. After a court hearing at which more than one hundred Lenca and others gathered in support of Cáceres, she was ordered to stay away from the area of the dam protests and from any other protest activities. She was later forced into hiding for a time as authorities briefly sought her arrest, and for months before her assassination she continued to receive death threats. She reported at least thirty-three to the authorities, she said, but they did nothing, even though the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (an arm of the Organization of American States) had mandated the Honduran government to extend protective measures to Cáceres and other COPINH activists.

In the days after the murder of Cáceres, Honduran police held and interrogated COPINH leaders Gómez and Molina and Mexican citizen Gustavo Castro, director of Mexico’s Friends of the Earth. Castro was visiting Cáceres when she was killed. He was shot but survived and was given refuge in the Mexican Embassy when Honduran authorities refused to allow him to leave the country. The police later released Gomez and Molina, but only after a hint of suspicion had been planted against them. In response, COPINH’s lawyer Victor Fernandez said, “Blaming people close to Berta is part of the crime. Leaders are murdered to terrorize communities, contaminate organizations, and squash resistance movements. This is the pattern.”

After two months of widespread popular demonstrations and protests in Latin America, the U.S., and Europe, the Honduran judicial prosecutor’s office announced charges against four men in Cåceres’ death. The identity of the four is revealing of the forces arrayed against the Lenca. Government and news sources reported that three of the four were active or retired military officers, and two are or have been DESA personnel. Sergio Rodriguez served as engineer for the Agua Zarca dam. Douglas Bustillo is a retired military officer and former head of security for DESA. Mariano Chavez is an active member of the Honduran military, and Edison Duarte is a former military officer. Before her death, Cáceres reportedly identified at least one of these men among those who had threatened her. In addition to these arrests, there are calls for the investigation and arrest of the intellectual authors of the crime, since many believe the murder was ordered, or at least condoned by higher authorities in Honduras. DESA officials have denied any responsibility.

In Honduras it is rare that prominent or powerful individuals are charged with crimes. A culture of official impunity allows the powerful literally to get away with murder. Impunity is the linchpin of the whole system of control and oppression. Some observers believe that because of the widespread and continuing concern and protests after Cáceres’ murder–concern that also aroused members of the U.S. Congress–the Honduran government was forced to show that it was treating this particular murder seriously and to bring credible charges.

Since the killing of Cáceres, COPINH members have been subjected to ongoing threats and attacks. On July 6, 2016, the body of Lesbia Janeth Uruquía, 49, was found stabbed to death near the municipal dump in Marcala, western Honduras. Like Cáceres, Uruquía was the mother of several children. She was a COPINH member and a leader in the effort to stop construction of a private hydroelectric dam on the Chinacla River. This construction project was headed by Gladys Lopez, president of the ruling National Party and vice-president of the National Congress that had authorized the project. As of this writing, no one had been charged in Uruquía’s murder.

Cáceres saw the conflict over the Agua Zarca and other such projects in the context of the support shown by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the 2009 coup against the government of Manual Zelaya. The coup is widely blamed for ushering in the current era of rampant resource extraction, violence, and repression in Honduras. In Hard Choices, Clinton writes that she advocated swift recognition of the coup and the post-coup government as an exercise in “clear-eyed pragmatism,” even as most of the hemisphere’s governments withheld recognition and demanded the restoration of the elected Zelaya government.

There is a history behind this. In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration sent the Honduran government a blueprint for economic development (popularly known as Reaganomics for Honduras) that emphasized turning Honduras into a country wide open to foreign investment and resource extraction. Honduran government plans almost exactly mirrored this, until the Zelaya government seemed to deviate from the plan by listening to the voices of the country’s rural, peasant, and Indigenous people. The 2009 coup ended that challenge by removing Zelaya. It appeared that rhetoric about democracy and human rights clashed with the model of economic development the U.S. needed in Honduras.

Both the Agua Zarca project and the Chinacla River project are part of the larger national development plan that includes as an integral component the construction of hydroelectric dams across many of the country’s major rivers, including the Patuca (one of the largest Honduran rivers) that runs through the lands of at least three Indigenous peoples—Miskito, Pech, and Tawahka—in eastern Honduras. The electricity to be generated by these dams is intended, at least in part, to serve the needs of major mining operations in various parts of Honduras—mining projects (Honduran and foreign) that displace Indigenous and peasant communities without ever seeking their “free, prior, and informed consent.” Since the 2009 coup against Zelaya, the post-coup governments have granted a flurry of such mining concessions to U.S., Canadian, Chinese, and other foreign interests.

Murder and community displacement are two costs of such “development” projects. Another is the inequitable appropriation and use of essential resources that local communities need. Geology and hydrology experts estimate that a medium-sized mining project such as some of those proposed for Honduras can consume as much water in a few hours as a rural Honduran family would consume in a year.

Many Hondurans have long criticized this model of development. In 1980, Honduran Central Bank economist Edmundo Valladares referred to “the misery financing the model of development.” By contrast, World Bank president Jim Kim recently (April 2016) responded to the murder of Berta Cáceres in an address at Union Theological Seminary by expressing regret at her murder, then adding, “You cannot do the kind of work we are trying to do and not have some of these incidents happen. We just have to be honest when it happens, admit it, and then try to face it as best we can.” Was he implying that the killings of Indigenous and other leaders were an acceptable price for constructing the model of development? The World Bank has denied any involvement in the Agua Zarca dam project.

With its charismatic director eliminated and ongoing threats to those that remain, COPINH relies more than ever on the support of the international community. Lenca often express gratitude for the interest and support of foreign individuals and the global community. Observers from the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Europe have been present at Lenca and COPINH events. Recently, however, several international observers were public denounced by government officials and in media with questions such as, “Why is this foreigner present at a COPINH event?” In at least one case, an Italian human rights observer was deported after a campaign to discredit her.

At the same time, Honduran authorities have taken much uncharacteristic and seeming friendly interest in COPINH. Critics call this “mobbing,” a tactic of killing with kindness. The new attention is designed to confuse and co-opt COPINH’s remaining leaders and the Lenca people. But as human rights activist Ismael Moreno, SJ (Padre Melo) said several years ago after a long protest walk led by COPINH and the Garifuna organization OFRANEH, “The Indigenous peoples were highly disciplined and resistant…They were the most firm on the journey. They have resources that the rest do not have: their long history of resistance.”

Foreigners can help the Lenca and other Indigenous people of Honduras by becoming aware of the corporate and government interests and investments that their own countries have in Honduras. This extends also to foreign development and security aid and the conditions and accountability in which this aid is used. Some members of the U.S. Congress are beginning to demand this of their own government.

James Phillips, Ph.d., is a cultural anthropologist at Southern Oregon University. His book, Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience, was published by Lexington Books in 2015

A Martyr of ‘Laudato Si’?

The indigenous spirituality of assassinated activist Berta Cáceres

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By Betsy Shirley 03-18-2016

Less than two weeks after the March 3 murder of acclaimed indigenous Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, Nelson García, another Honduran activist, was murdered outside his home. Both García and Cáceres were members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the indigenous rights organization Cáceres co-founded.

Though Honduran police have claimed Cáceres’ murder was the result of an attempted robbery, many believe it was a political assassination, intended to silence her. Cáceres’ family, along with more than 200 human rights organizations and now the Holy See, are calling for an independent international investigation into the crime.

“I want to express my desire that there be an independent and impartial investigation into what happened in order to resolve this horrendous crime as soon as possible,” wrote Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a letter addressed to Cáceres’ family and friends.

For those closest to Cáceres, it’s a small but encouraging sign.

“It’s justifying what we’ve all been saying: that Bertita’s had a profound effect around the world,” Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, told Sojourners.

And, by some measures, that legacy can be found everywhere from remote villages in Honduras to papal encyclicals.

“I am vulnerable”

Berta Cáceres knew persistence was dangerous.

“Giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet,” she said on April 20, 2015, after accepting the Goldman Prize for her leadership in a nonviolent campaign that pressured the world’s largest hydroelectric company to withdraw from the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River.

That same day, an international organization that monitors environmental abuse reported that Honduras is “the deadliest country in the world to defend the natural world.” According to the Global Witness report, at least 109 environmental activists were killed there between 2010 and 2015. Cáceres herself had received death threats for more than a decade, and her colleague, Tomás García, was shot by a military officer in 2013. Later that year, Cáceres told Al-Jazeera, “I take lots of care but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable…when they want to kill me, they will do it.”

The deadly environment for activists is closely tied to recent Honduran history. Following the 2009 coup, in which democratically elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, the new government declared Honduras “open for business” and granted profitable contracts to transnational companies looking to capitalize on Honduran natural resources — including resources on indigenous land. When leaders like Cáceres demanded the rights guaranteed to indigenous people by the U.N and the International Labor Convention — including the right to determine how indigenous land is used — it wasn’t great for business. The death threats followed.

Cáceres’ words about “giving our lives” not only underscore her persistence and courage but also her deeply rooted indigenous spirituality — an understanding that the well-being of humanity depends on the well-being of the earth.

“When we started the fight for Rio Blanco, I would go into the river and I could feel what the river was telling me,” Cáceres said in 2015.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I also knew we were going to triumph, because the river told me so.”

Image via Goldman Environmental Prize.

The spirituality of resistance

According to the Lenca creation story, when the first man began to clear land to grow maize, the trees bled and cried out against him. God then instructed the man to perform a compostura, “during which the man should sacrifice domestic animals to God and the earth to ask forgiveness for the violence he was about to do.”

Today, the Lenca people live in eastern El Salvador and western Honduras. But according to David Escobar, a Salvadoran Lenca and indigenous activist based in California, the concept of compostura remains an essential part of Lenca culture.

“‘Permission-giving’ is a common value that is still practiced today among the Lencas of Honduras and El Salvador,” he explained.

Consequently, when heavy machinery arrived on the Gualcarque River in 2011 to begin constructing a dam, without the permission of the Lenca people, the Lenca viewed it not only as the destruction of their livelihood and water supply, but also as the destruction of a sacred site and complete disregard for their indigenous rights.

So with the help of Cáceres and COPINH, the Lenca people fought back: On April 1, 2013, members of the Lenca community created a human road block to the construction site. They held out for 21 months.

As part of their defense, the Lenca people made traditional composturas, offering food and drink to the earth and asking the spirits of the earth, water, and sun for protection as they worked for justice. They also engaged the indigenous tradition of caminata, walking as a community to the dam headquarters while offering prayers or incense.

Cáceres identified these actions as a major turning point in halting construction on the Agua Zarca dam.

“In our fight to protect the Gualcarque River, the most powerful element has been the Lenca people’s spirituality and an impressive tenacity in the struggle that continues to this day,” she said.

Photo of Berta Caceres as a young child. Image via Betsy Shirley/Sojourners.

“Forgive me!”

Shortly after Berta Cáceres was murdered, Fr. Moreno Coto, a Jesuit priest known in Honduras as “Padre Melo,” wrote a note expressing “pain and rage” at the death of someone he called a “friend” and “sister.”

“We had a particular history of close friendship and common struggle,” he said.

A few days later, with the help of Fr. Fausto Milla, a diocesan priest who was another of Cáceres’ closest allies, Padre Melo conducted Cáceres’ funeral.

Cáceres, like many Lenca people, was raised Catholic, but she herself identified most closely with the practices and beliefs of her indigenous heritage. Though Cáceres had the support of local leaders like Frs. Coto and Milla, Carrillo said his aunt had a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church.

“Certain parts of the Catholic Church have not done well by the indigenous population there,” explained Carrillo.

For Cáceres, this complicated relationship included ongoing legacy of colonization by Spanish Catholics — which, by conservative estimates, cut the indigenous population in half — as well as Cáceres’ ongoing struggle with the Honduran hierarchy. According to Cáceres, Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez instructed churchgoers not to work with COPINH or listen to radio stations that were too critical of the Honduran state. Throughout his tenure as archbishop, Cardinal Rodríguez has also been accused of endorsing the 2009 military coup by reading “a statement on national television that seemed to bless the action.” The cardinal has denied these claims.

Cardinal Rodríguez’s feelings about Cáceres seem unchanged by her murder. Carrillo told Sojourners that although someone from the apostolic nunciature in Buenos Aires — the Holy See’s embassy in Argentina — had called Cáceres’ mother, offering condolences on behalf of the pope, no one in his family had heard from the highest-ranking Catholic in Honduras.

Jenny Atlee, who has worked on human rights issues in Central America for more than three decades, confirmed that Cardinal Rodríguez had made “disparaging remarks” about Cáceres and COPINH. But Atlee also noted that the discrepancy between the hierarchy and grassroots of the church wasn’t unusual.

“There’s a real gap between those two positions … with the top levels of the Catholic church being very allied with the powers that be … and another layer of church which is more rooted in the lives and struggles of the poor and accompany those struggles and interpret and reflect on scripture from that reality,” she said.

Image via Goldman Environmental Prize.

A martyr of Laudato Si?

But when it comes to the powers that be vs. the poor, at least one person on top level of the church seem to be squarely on the side of the latter: Pope Francis.

In 2014, Cáceres met Pope Francis at the first World Meeting of Popular Movements at the Vatican. During that meeting, the pontiff assured delegates that their concerns — a desire to have “land, housing, and work” — would have a place in his then-forthcoming encyclical on the environment.

And the Holy Father delivered,

“It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions,” he wrote in the fourth chapter of Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, his 2015 encyclical. He also acknowledged that “agricultural or mining projects” posed a serious threat to the survival of indigenous people.

Even the broader themes of Laudato Si sound like the interconnected worldview of indigenous spirituality that was so central to Cáceres’ work.

“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” wrote Pope Francis.

“It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Following Cáceres’ death, one Italian newspaper hailed her as “a martyr of Laudato Si.” Jenny Atlee, who knew Cáceres for more than 20 years, pointed out that while that descriptor might be accurate, the Lenca woman should also be viewed as part of the “long, ongoing history of violence and genocide against indigenous people.”

Perhaps the best suggestion for how we memorialize Cáceres comes from Naomi Klein, a secular activist who was invited to discuss Laudato Si at the Vatican.

“Particularly in Latin America, with its large indigenous populations, Catholicism wasn’t able to fully displace cosmologies that centered on a living and sacred Earth, and the result was often a Church that fused Christian and indigenous world views,” she wrote in the New Yorker.

“With Laudato Si’, that fusion has finally reached the highest echelons of the Church.”

As Klein points out, the lines of influence flow from indigenous spirituality to the encyclical, not the other way around.

Or more to the point: Berta Cáceres is not a martyr in the tradition of Laudato Si. Laudato Si is an encyclical echoing what indigenous leaders like Cáceres have been saying for centuries.

Betsy Shirley

Betsy Shirley (@betsyshirley) is Assistant Editor at Sojourners.

A few numbers begin to reveal why Honduran indigenous leader and global movement luminary, Berta Cáceres, was assassinated on March 3, 2016.

According to the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), more than 300 hydroelectric dams are planned for Honduras, of which 49 are on COPINH lands. Eight hundred seventy-two contracts have been handed out to corporations for mining alone, with many others created for mega-tourism, wind energy, and logging projects. The majority of these are planned for indigenous lands. Of those, all are in violation of International Labor Organization Convention 169, to which Honduras is a signatory, allowing free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous peoples before development may take place in their territories.

The many planned extraction projects – in a country slightly larger than the state of Virginia – add up to the need of the Honduran and US governments to subjugate the population. Quiescence and compliance are essential for the national elite and multinational corporations to make their profits. So here are a few more relevant numbers. Honduras has 12,000 soldiers – one for every 717 people, for a county not expected to go to war. Its 2013 “defense” budget was $230 million. Since 2009, the US has invested as much as $45 million in construction funds for just one of those bases, Soto Cano, commonly known as Palmerola. Last year, US taxpayers footed $5.25 million in direct military aid, and much more in training for 164 soldiers at the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Operation. Three hundred seventy-two US military personnel are in the country.

Given that state control is often attained through violence, a few more figures become relevant. One hundred one environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2014, making it the most dangerous country anywhere in which to try to defend the Earth.

Nine land defenders were attacked just yesterday, March 15, between the time we began writing this article and when we completed it. COPINH member Nelson Garcia, who had been helping recover lands on Rio Lindo, was assassinated in his home on March 15 while the Rio Lindo community was forcibly evicted.  This brings to 14 the number of COPINH members who have been murdered since the group was founded in 1993. A member of COPINH’s coordinating committee, Sotero Echeverria, was threatened with capture by police. Echeverria is one of the 3 members of the group who have been framed by the government for Berta’s murder.

Also yesterday, early in the morning, police agents arrested 7 members of United Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MUCA by its Spanish acronym), including the president, Jose Angel Flores. Flores and six other MUCA activists, including his family members, were arrested and taken to the police station. Flores has protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because of the danger he, like all those organizing in the Bajo Aguan region, face. Berta did, too. Protective measures have the weight of toilet paper with the Honduran government.

Despite the ongoing violence, COPINH, MUCA, and other Honduran organizations and movements – workers, campesinos, feminists, and more – have resisted the attempts to subdue them. As Berta loved to say about the movement, “They fear us because we are fearless.”

Photo: The Rio Blanco community at its blockade of the dam. COPINH member Aureliano Molina, one of the three who will go to trial on September 12 for being a danger to the nation, said, “We don’t negotiate life.”

Of the countless Hondurans who put their bodies on the line every day, no individual has more prominently encouraged or strategically organized dissent than Berta. No Honduran has more visibly spread the message of rebellion to the Americas, nor more audibly urged that rebellion to spread throughout the Americas. “Our call to this continent is that we really push the need to unite ourselves and to create strategies between social movements and left governments,” Berta told a large international gathering of prominent leftists in Havana in 2009.

Berta’s last stand was against a dam being illegally constructed on the sacred Gualcarque River in the community of Rio Blanco. In addition to the internationally financed company DESA, behind the dam was the World Bank, and the largest dam company in the world, Sinohydro, which is owned by the Chinese government. For more than a year and a half, the villagers of Rio Blanco were able to halt the dam construction with nothing more than their bodies, a small trench and fence across the road leading to the river, and their political militance. Berta and others, meanwhile, took the case to the world, building worldwide alliances which brought enough pressure to force the World Bank and Sinohydro to pull out.

Adding insult to injury to those seeking to control water, minerals, forests, and lands, for her work in stopping the dam Berta won the 2015 Goldman Prize, the equivalent of a Nobel for environmental defense. With the award, Berta’s prestige skyrocketed, further threatening domination by the political and economic powers that be.  In her acceptance speech, knowing that behind her stood tens or hundreds of thousands of other Hondurans toiling for justice, Berta dedicated her prize in part, to “rebellion.”

This was too much for DESA and the Honduran government. The multi-year efforts to eliminate Berta – through threats, kidnaping attempts, charges of sedition, and more – finally succeeded in the form of a bullet piercing her flesh. Who hired the assassin is unknown. What is known – given very explicit statements and actions of the company and the government in the days and weeks preceding her assassination – is that both were behind the act.

Yet even death cannot subdue Berta. In the days since her murder, the notoriety of her person and her message has multiplied exponentially around the word. The current level of global action against Honduran government impunity, US government’s support for it, and pillaging by transnational capital has reached heights that Berta could only have dreamed of. Click here for actions you can take in solidarity.


Beverly Bell is the founder of Other Worlds and more than a dozen international organizations and networks, Beverly is also an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Beverly has worked for more than three decades as an organizer, advocate, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S.   She is the author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance.

“No había precio que pudiese llegar a la altura de Berta, era insobornable, estorbaba”según Ismael Moreno sj

Tras el asesinato de la dirigente indígena, Berta Cáceres, que causó conmoción nacional e internacional, las voces para exigir justicia se levantan y se topan con un gobierno que busca ofrecer otra imagen como producto de exportación, y da la idea de estar investigando a profundidad el crimen.

Para el sacerdote jesuita Ismael Moreno, director del Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación, Eric, reconocido a nivel internacional por el otorgamiento al premio Rafto 2015, sostiene que el gobierno de Honduras, detrás de sus palabras y de sus autoritarismos, no tiene sustento, necesita reivindicarse, y la mejor manera de hacerlo es recurrir al cinismo de decir que están investigando cuando en realidad sólo están desarrollando una única hipótesis.

“Hay una palabra que en estos días ha venido sonando de Berta y es indomable porque no se le podía controlar. No había precio que pudiese llegar a la altura de Cáceres, era insobornable, estorbaba” sostiene el sacerdote Jesuita.

Radio Progreso (RP) habló con el padre Ismael Moreno (IM) sobre el impacto de este asesinato, las demandas y la realidad a la que se enfrentan los defensores y defensoras en Honduras.

RP. ¿Qué sensación y qué sentimientos le deja el asesinato de Berta Cáceres?
IM. Es una sensación muy profunda y es contradictoria, es profundamente de dolor, pero lo que yo resalto en estos días de tanta preocupación por lo que pueda pasar a muchas otras personas defensoras de los derechos humanos y de los pueblos indígenas, de los territorios y de los bienes naturales comunes. A mí lo que me queda, ya como recuento de estos días, es la trascendencia de este acontecimiento tan duro, mortal, sangriento de Bertita Cáceres.

RP. ¿Cómo ve la reacción de la comunidad internacional?
IM. Hemos tenido la manifestación y las expresiones de repudio, de aliento, de solidaridad y también de exigencia por parte de la comunidad internacional y de las organizaciones de todo el mundo, como creo yo que hacía muchísimos años, pero muchos años, que no lo habíamos experimentado. Entonces uno se siente muy adolorido pero con un sentimiento de que estos hechos tan amargos y tan mortales son tan profundos y tan duramente conmovedores que han logrado impactar y estremecer al planeta entero, y Honduras de nuevo se convierte en el centro de atención tanto por el repudio del asesinato y también por la figura noble y tan vital de Berta Cáceres.

RP. ¿Quién era Berta Cáceres?
IM. Bueno, la recuerdo como una mujer tenaz y exigente en la lucha, terca como poca gente he conocido, incomodaba a quien fuera, pero al mismo tiempo dulce, nunca perdía la sonrisa. Y además tenía una capacidad tan profunda y al mismo tiempo de estar, con su sencillez, cerca de la gente y por otra parte ser tan fuerte y firme en su palabra contra aquellos que ella consideraba que amenazaban a las comunidades indígenas, a los diversos pueblos, a los territorios y a los bienes comunes de la naturaleza.

RP. ¿Por qué asesinaron a Berta?
IM. Hay una palabra que en estos días ha venido sonando de Berta y es indomable porque no se le podía controlar. No había precio que pudiese llegar a la altura de Berta Cáceres, era insobornable, estorbaba.

RP. ¿Qué va a pasar ahora?
IM. Una persona puede ser grandiosa, como es el caso de Berta Cáceres, pero la historia es activa, la historia es dinámica, la historia es viva y los liderazgos no se consumen ni se terminan en una persona. Allí quedan las comunidades organizadas de Copinh, los pueblos Tolupanes, los pueblos garífunas, sigue el campesinado hondureño, sigue las nuevas generaciones de la juventud, está la familia, las tres hijas de Berta Cáceres, está el hijo, está mucha otra gente que se ha sentido tan estremecida con la muerte de Berta Cáceres que muy bien se decía en su sepelio: Berta no murió sino que comienza a multiplicarse en muchísima otra gente.

RP. ¿Cuál es su valoración de la forma en que el Estado está llevando la investigación?
IM. Yo creo que el Estado, y particularmente el gobierno que lo representa, está manoseando, contaminando el caso de Berta Cáceres, y allí es donde, desde mi punto de vista, tiene que estar la primera gran exigencia y demanda de los diversos sectores que estamos repudiando el caso de Berta Cáceres, y es exigir una investigación a fondo, independiente y no contaminada por los intereses políticos y de los grupos fácticos que estuvieron atrás de las denuncias que a lo largo de varios años presentó y elevó Berta Cáceres, y muchas de esas denuncias eran de amenazas de muerte que ella advertía que le estaban haciendo.

RP. ¿Por qué lo hace el gobierno?
IM. El gobierno lo que está haciendo es tratando de cooptar, de capturar para sí mismo el caso de Berta Cáceres, sin duda alguna abrumado por la impresionante reacción internacional. Y este gobierno que detrás de sus palabras y de sus autoritarismos no tiene sustento, necesita reivindicarse, y la mejor manera de hacerlo es recurrir al cinismo de decir que está investigando pero lo que están haciendo es llevando solamente una línea de investigación.

RP. ¿Cómo debe dirigirse una investigación como el caso Berta?
IM. La demanda que presentamos es sostener la línea de investigación que debe llevar a aquellos actores que Berta denunció, que Berta identificó como los responsables de las amenazas a muerte que fue recibiendo en los últimos tres años.

RP. ¿Qué otras demandas se plantean?
IM. Una segunda demanda es que el gobierno anule definitivamente todos aquellos convenios que tienen que ver con la explotación del Río Gualcarque y de los territorios donde habitan las comunidades Lencas, particularmente el proyecto Agua Zarca que está en manos de la empresa Desarrollos Energéticos, DESA. También avanzar hacia la revisión orientada para que se anulen aquellos decretos y figuras jurídicas que tienen que ver con la venta de los territorios y de la soberanía nacional, particularmente la anulación del decreto de las ciudades modelos y la derogación de la ley de minerías.

RP. ¿Qué demandan a la comunidad internacional?
IM. Una presencia. Estamos animando a un encuentro aquí en Honduras de los sectores internacionales que han dado muestras de solidaridad ante el asesinato de Berta Cáceres. Promover un encuentro para que se defina un acompañamiento coordinado, articulado y orientado a fortalecer aquellas luchas por las que dio la vida y por las que asesinaron a Berta Cáceres, y que continúe la denuncia internacional porque eso contribuye a que la muerte de Berta Cáceres no quede impune.

RP. ¿Cuál es la situación real de los defensores y defensoras en Honduras?
IM. La más absoluta vulnerabilidad. Si han asesinado a Berta Cáceres, sin duda alguna, la mujer con el más alto nivel de reconocimiento internacional y con una trayectoria, qué es lo que no les está ocurriendo a otros defensores a nivel regional y local. Es cierto, hay muchas figuras jurídicas, hay una ley aprobada de protección a defensores, podemos tener muchas figuras jurídicas, podemos tener muchas palabras bonitas y hermosas, y hasta llena de bendiciones, lo que ocurre es que la institucionalidad aquí no funciona, o si funciona pero al servicio de los fuertes.

RP. ¿Cómo define a un defensor o defensora?
IM. Una persona que está presente y acompañando de cerca a sus hermanos y hermanas que están luchando y están padeciendo las consecuencias de una institucionalidad que no les protege y que no les garantiza sus derechos. Un defensor y una defensora es quien se juega la vida cotidianamente defendiendo a su pueblo.

RP. ¿Cómo define usted la justicia?
IM. La necesidad de defender a los más débiles.

RP. ¿Dónde encontramos las esperanzas en Honduras?
IM. En los pobres que cargan con las consecuencias de la injusticia y en aquellos que hasta ahora su voz no se les escucha.

Le invitamos a escuchar la entrevista completa con el padre Ismael Moreno sj.

The Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was at home last week, in a town called La Esperanza, when gunmen stormed in and shot her dead. Cáceres, who was forty-four, had known she was in danger. Late last month, while leading a march in a nearby village, she had an altercation with soldiers, police officers, and employees of a Honduran company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., or DESA, that she had been fighting for years. In 2010, the Honduran Congress passed a law that awarded contracts to a group of private companies, including DESA, to build dozens of hydroelectric dams throughout the country. Four of the approved dams, which are known collectively as the Agua Zarca Dam, were along the Gualcarque River, in western Honduras, on territory inhabited by the indigenous Lenca people.

The Lenca voiced their opposition as soon as the plans became public, around 2011—first with formal votes and entreaties, and, after those were ignored, with road blockages and demonstrations. In the spring of 2013, these turned to violent confrontations with police, who arrested Lenca protesters en masse. That summer, soldiers based out of DESA’s local headquBerta Cáceres11arters opened fire on a crowd of residents, killing one indigenous leader and seriously injuring several others. Cáceres was on the front lines from the start, having founded the group that has organized much of the opposition, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

At one point, in 2013, Cáceres was briefly forced into hiding. At least three of her colleagues had been murdered for opposing the Agua Zarca Dam, and DESA had launched a criminal case against her, first for possession of an unlicensed gun and later for incitement. “They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me; they threaten my family. That is what we face,” she said afterward. Later that year, two of the dam’s main backers—the Chinese engineering and construction company Sinohydro and an arm of the World Bank­—withdrew their support because of the public opposition and increasingly bloody state crackdown. (Last year, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in persuading them to abandon the project.) The threats against Cáceres increased. This past October, and again in December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (I.A.C.H.R.) called on the Honduran government to take “precautionary measures” for her security. COPINH complained of a fresh wave of threats just days before she was murdered.

Between 2010 and 2014, a hundred and one environmental activists were killed in Honduras, which is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the most perilous for environmental activists, according to a report from Global Witness. Ninety-eight per cent of violent crimes in Honduras go unsolved. A week after Cáceres’s assassination, there is little clarity on how it happened. Were there two killers or as many as ten, as some rumors have suggested? Did they fire just the four shots that killed her, or were there more? The police at first claimed Cáceres was killed in a robbery, and also insinuated that her killing might have been a “crime of passion.” President Juan Orlando Hernández was more diplomatic in his statements, calling Cáceres’s murder “a crime against

Berta and her mother

Berta and her mother

Honduras” and “a blow for the people.” At present, the only two people who are said to have been in police custody in connection to the murder are a fellow activist and a Mexican colleague who was with Cáceres when she died and was shot twice himself. As the sole witness to the crime, he has been ordered not to leave the country, and his life remains in danger; in an open letter to a local newspaper, he insisted that the investigating authorities tampered with the crime scene and that Cáceres’s killers would likely return for him. Two other members of COPINH are reportedly under investigation. (A spokesperson for the Honduran government said it was working with American law enforcement, including the F.B.I., to investigate the killing.)

On Tuesday, I called a longtime friend of Cáceres and a fellow human-rights advocate, a Jesuit priest named Ismael Moreno Coto, better known as Padre Melo, who runs the Jesuit-sponsored community radio station Radio Progreso. The station is openly critical of the government, and its employees work in a climate of extreme danger. In 2014, its marketing manager was stabbed to death, even after the I.A.C.H.R. spent three years petitioning the government to protect him. Cáceres had been scheduled to appear on Melo’s show the day we spoke. “I always had a certain fear of Berta Cáceres,” Melo said, in a wry, melancholy voice. They met when Cáceres was a twenty-year-old schoolteacher obsessed with social justice. “She had a special way of making us uncomfortable,” he said. “She wouldn’t leave us in peace until we were all part of the fight.”

Berta Cáceres23

Berta said that the people were the “children of the land, the water and the corn”

Cáceres was born into the Lenca community, and grew up in western Honduras in the nineteen-eighties, when violence was sweeping through neighboring El Salvador. Her mother, who was a midwife and social activist, cared for the refugees who streamed across the border. Cáceres became a student leader, gaining prominence in the community for fighting logging operations on Lenca land. She was also a mother of four—a son and three daughters—who eventually received threats as well. As the pressure on Cáceres mounted, in the winter of 2013, her son and two of her daughters fled the country.

For the past three years, Melo told me, the threats against Cáceres and COPINH were constant—“dozens of them, and getting stronger each time,” he said. “All of them were documented. They came from people working for, or with, DESA.” For Melo, the fact that the government hasn’t followed those leads, focussing instead on a group of fellow activists, was typical. “Anyone who questions the government winds up penalized as being opponents of the public order,” he said. “We are portrayed in the media as bad people. We are persecuted, subjected to repression or worse, death, like what happened to Berta Cáceres.” He called for a serious investigation conducted under the direction of international monitors. (The Honduran government denies ever having “made negative public comments about the activities” of COPINH and says it is pursuing all open leads in its investigation.)

Padre Melo and Berta were both children raised in poor peasant families and shared the same hopes and struggles for the poor.

Padre Melo and Berta were both children raised in poor peasant families and shared the same hopes and struggles for the poor.

When I asked Padre Melo if speaking out might put his own life at even greater risk, he was unflinching. “I want it to be absolutely clear. The government of Juan Orlando Hernández is responsible for the death of Berta Cáceres.” He was suggesting, as so many others in Honduras have, that the government knew about the escalating clashes between the local community and DESA but did nothing to stop them. The thugs who beat up, intimidated, and even evicted Lenca residents were given cover by federal troops, who often broke up peaceable demonstrations themselves.

Just days before Cáceres’s murder, President Hernández was in the U.S. to meet with American leaders and reassure them of his continued commitment to tamping down violence in Honduras. The U.S. continues to treat Hernández as a partner in fighting corruption and swelling gang violence in the region. But as Dana Frank, a historian and Honduras expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz, pointed out last year in Foreign Policy, the current government “is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime.” Before becoming President, Hernández, a member of the conservative National Party, was in Congress, where, in 2009, he endorsed the military coup that toppled then-President Manuel Zelaya and plunged the country into a period of unprecedented violence and lawlessness. (The U.S. government all but endorsed the coup

Over 10,000 came to the small town of La Esperanza for the ecumenical funeral of Berta

Over 10,000 came to the small town of La Esperanza for the ecumenical funeral of Berta

and in many ways remains responsible for the chaos that ensued.) It was in the aftermath of the coup that Congress awarded DESA its dam contracts, even while the principal financiers of the company were roundly denounced as key supporters of the 2009 uprising.

A few years later, Hernández helped depose four Supreme Court judges, then led an effort to illegally appoint a new attorney general. When he ran for President, in 2013, there were multiple allegations of vote buying, intimidation, and the killing of political opponents. His time in office has been bloodier still. Rather than root out the corruption in the state’s police forces, Hernández expanded the military and tasked it with domestic policing. Claims of rapes, beatings, and intimidation have trailed soldiers across the country. Echoing these complaints, Melo has demanded that the government remove federal soldiers from Lenca territory, where they’ve been strong-arming the population in apparent coördination with DESA.

Berta Cáceres34

Bus loads of people from all areas of Honduras came to the funeral of Berta

In remarks made the day of Cáceres’s memorial service, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, called for the Agua Zarca Dam project to be abandoned. A few days later, I spoke to a member of his staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tim Rieser, who has helped Leahy shape key deals in the region in recent years. “Will Honduras stop supporting projects like this that disrupt local communities and threaten the environment?” he asked. (Rieser was authorized to speak for the Senator.) “The local population was not properly consulted, they are unlikely to benefit from the project, and look at all the problems it has caused,” he added. At this point, a few foreign contractors are still on board—among them, Siemens and Voith Hydro—but Cáceres’s slaying, and what it brings into view, may change that.

How Honduras responds to Cáceres’s murder may also affect how the U.S. deals with the government in the future, Rieser told me. For the current fiscal year, Congress has already approved seven hundred and fifty million dollars in aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, with various strings attached. The U.S. may withhold further aid to Honduras unless it demonstrates a commitment to defending human rights, including those of social activists and journalists, Rieser said. On Thursday, more than two hundred interfaith, environmental, and human-rights groups worldwide called on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to support a thorough investigation into Cáceres’s assassination.

Berta Cáceres38Cáceres and her legacy will haunt the Honduran government as it decides how to proceed, both with the murder investigation and the Agua Zarca Dam project. “She was a person with an enormous capacity to communicate humanity and to defend it,” Padre Melo said. She could empathize and spar with humble people, he told me, telling jokes and stories “with the same smile as always.” But when she was in front of the police or the military, he said, “se engrandecía”—she grew big—“speaking firmly, elevating her voice with strength. She was like a machine gun. She would finish talking to the authorities who opposed the community, and then return to the people. She would go back to being Berta.”

Honduras: CIDH preocupada por amenazas a líderes campesinos en el Bajo Aguán

Washington, Estados Unidos (Conexihon). –  La Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) expresó este lunes su preocupación por una serie de desalojos violentos que habrían ocurrido en la zona del Bajo Aguán en el contexto del conflicto agrario que existe en la región.  Así como por las amenazas y detenciones que habrían sido perpetradas en contra de varios líderes y lideresas campesinos beneficiarios de medidas cautelares otorgadas por la Comisión el 8 de mayo de 2014, presuntos hechos que habrían ocurrido desde el mes de mayo hasta la fecha.
La Comisión instó hoy al Estado a “investigar estos hechos de violencia y a procesar y sancionar a los responsables. Y urgió al Estado a adoptar en forma inmediata todas las medidas necesarias a fin de garantizar el derecho a la vida, la integridad y la seguridad de las defensoras y defensores de derechos humanos en el país”.
Según información de público conocimiento, el 21 de mayo de 2014, miembros de la policía y del ejército, así como guardias de seguridad privada habrían participado en el desalojo violento de las fincas La Trinidad y El Despertar, en el municipio de Trujillo, Colón. Según la información disponible, 300 familias afiliadas al Movimiento Auténtico Reivindicador Campesino del Aguán (MARCA) habrían sido desalojadas.
Presuntamente las fuerzas de seguridad habrían utilizado bombas lacrimógenas y spray pimienta y habrían realizado disparos al aire para amedrentar y desplazar a las familias que habitaban las fincas desde el mes de julio de 2012. De esta operación presuntamente habrían resultado heridos alrededor de 50 campesinos y 8 miembros de las fuerzas de seguridad.
Adicionalmente, 15 personas habrían sido detenidas y presuntamente golpeadas, entre los detenidos se encontrarían Walter Cárcamo, Jaime Cabrera y Antonio Rodríguez, beneficiarios de las medidas cautelares otorgadas por la Comisión semanas antes del suceso. Presuntamente Jaime Cabrera habría sido amenazado de muerte por miembros del ejército y de la policía, quienes supuestamente le habrían colocado un fusil en la oreja izquierda.
De conformidad con información recibida por la CIDH, el 3 de julio la Policía Nacional Preventiva, los miembros de la Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta Xatruch III y el 15 batallón de Fuerzas Especiales habrían llevado a cabo el desalojo de 350 familias del Movimiento Campesino “Gregorio Chávez” (MCRCG) que se encontraban en la finca  Paso Aguán desde el mes de mayo del presente año. Las familias presuntamente fueron desalojadas de forma violenta mediante el uso de gases lacrimógenos.
En esta ocasión, varios de los campesinos habrían resultado heridos y siete habrían resultado detenidos, entre los que se encontrarían dos de los líderes campesinos beneficiarios de las medidas cautelares otorgadas por la CIDH.
Persecución de defensores
Por otro lado, según información recibida por la Comisión, el 30 y 31 de julio los defensores de derechos humanos Martha Arnold, Irma Lemus y Rigoberto Durán, integrantes del Observatorio Permanente de Derechos Humanos del Bajo Aguán, habrían sido perseguidos por dos vehículos color blanco. Adicionalmente, el 19 de agosto el líder campesino Santos Torres, perteneciente al Movimiento Campesino Gregorio Chávez y beneficiario de las medidas cautelares otorgadas por la CIDH, habría sido amenazado por militares y guardias de seguridad en su domicilio, quienes presuntamente lo habrían apuntado a él y su esposa con armas de fuego. Presuntamente este mismo grupo de militares y guardias de seguridad se habría presentado en el domicilio de Glenda Chávez, integrante del Observatorio Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Aguán y lideresa de este movimiento campesino.
En la zona del Bajo Aguán, existe un conflicto de tierras de larga data entre campesinos y empresarios. Según una red de organizaciones nacionales e internacionales que dan seguimiento a esta situación, 112 campesinos y campesinas habrían sido asesinados en los últimos cuatro años en el contexto del conflicto agrario que aqueja a la región. La Comisión Interamericana se ha manifestado en reiteradas ocasiones sobre la situación en el Bajo Aguán, incluyendo en la sección sobre Honduras del Capítulo IV de sus Informes Anuales 2012 y 2013. La CIDH observa que la situación continúa siendo altamente preocupante.
En este contexto, el 8 de mayo de 2014, la CIDH otorgó medidas cautelares a favor de 123 miembros de las organizaciones “Movimiento Campesino Recuperación del Aguán” (MOCRA), “Movimiento Campesino Fundación Gregorio Chávez” (MCRGC), Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguán” (MUCA) y “Movimiento Auténtico Reivindicador Campesino del Aguán (MARCA), solicitando al gobierno de Honduras adoptar las medidas necesarias para garantizar su vida e integridad.
La CIDH recordó al Estado  que es su obligación investigar de oficio hechos de esta naturaleza y sancionar a los responsables. Como ha señalado la Comisión anteriormente, los actos de violencia y otros ataques contra las defensoras y los defensores de derechos humanos no sólo afectan las garantías propias de todo ser humano, sino que atentan contra el papel fundamental que juegan en la sociedad y sume en la indefensión a todas aquellas personas para quienes trabajan. La Comisión recuerda asimismo que la labor de defensores y defensoras es esencial para la construcción de una sociedad democrática sólida y duradera, y tienen un papel protagónico en el proceso para el logro pleno del Estado de Derecho y el fortalecimiento de la democracia.
La CIDH es un órgano principal y autónomo de la Organización de los Estados Americanos (OEA), cuyo mandato surge de la Carta de la OEA y de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos. La Comisión Interamericana tiene el mandato de promover la observancia de los derechos humanos en la región y actúa como órgano consultivo de la OEA en la materia. La CIDH está integrada por siete miembros independientes que son elegidos por la Asamblea General de la OEA a título personal, y no representan sus países de origen o residencia.

Palm Oil and Extreme Violence in Honduras: The Inexorable Rise and Dubious Reform of Grupo Dinant

Monday, 08 December 2014 11:11 By Jeff Conant, Truthout |


A Corporation Dinant worker repairs an irrigation system for oil palms in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras’ northern coast, August 26, 2011. The violence over land titles in Bajo Aguan is the most volatile example of the social divide that burst into view a few years ago. (Photo: Edgard Garrido Carrera / The New York Times)As one of the fastest growing global commodities, palm oil has recently earned a reputation as a major contributor to tropical deforestation and, therefore, to climate change as well.

About 50 million metric tons of palm oil is produced per year – more than double the amount produced a decade ago – and this growth appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Because oil palm trees, native to West Africa, require the same conditions as tropical rainforests, nearly every drop of palm oil that hits the global market comes at the expense of natural forests that have been, or will be, burned, bulldozed and replaced with plantations.

Owned by Miguel Facussé, one of the wealthiest men in Honduras, (Grupo) Dinant has been associated with the killings of over 100 peasant farmers,

With deforestation garnering headlines due to forests’ crucial role in regulating the climate, global commodity producers, from Nestle and Unilever in Europe, to Cargill in the United States to Wilmar International in Indonesia, are recognizing the need to provide products that are “deforestation-free.” Other corporate-led initiatives like the public-private Tropical Forest Alliance that promises to reduce the deforestation associated with palm oil, soy, beef, paper and pulp, and the recent New York Declaration on Forests signed at the UN Climate Summit in New York, suggest that saving the world’s forests is now squarely on the corporate sustainability agenda.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

But what is being left behind is the other significant impact of palm oil and other agro-industrial commodities – namely human rights. Commitments to protect forests and conservation areas can, if well implemented, address environmental concerns by delimiting the areas of land available for conversion to palm oil. But natural resource exploitation is inextricably linked to human exploitation, and such commitments do little to address this.

A case in point is Grupo Dinant, a Honduran palm oil company that declared last month that it has been awarded international environmental certifications for its achievements in environmental management and occupational health and safety. Dinant has also been making overtures toward joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), including hosting the RSPO’s 4th Latin American conference in Honduras in 2013. But, Dinant, which produces about 60 percent of the palm oil in Honduras, is at the center of what has been called “the most serious situation in terms of violence against peasants in Central America in the last 15 years.”

Owned by Miguel Facussé, one of the wealthiest men in Honduras, Dinant has been associated with the killings of over 100 peasant farmers, and appears to be involved in a virtual terror campaign to ensure control of a large swath of land in the Lower Aguan Valley near the Caribbean coast of Honduras.

While credible human rights groups like Human Rights Watch denounce the killings and note that “virtually none of the crimes are properly investigated, let alone solved,” Dinant continues to enjoy financing from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, support from the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism, and brand relationships with multinational consumer goods companies such as Mazola Oils.

The Aguán Valley and the Introduction of Palm Oil

The Bajo Aguán Valley, one of the most fertile regions in Honduras, has long been a center of agrarian conflict. In her book Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras, researcher Tanya Kerssen reaches back to the 1950s to show how a struggle between farmers’ associations and multinationals Standard Fruit and United Fruit Company set the scene for the land concentration that reigns today. Decades of peasant struggle led to a brief period in the 1970s when the government distributed land to smallholder farmers from other parts of the country, who then formed cooperatives to bring crops to market. The embattled region became briefly known as the “capital of land reform” – but these reforms have long since been rolled back, in part due to the country’s need to pay back its foreign debt.

In a few years in the early ’90s, more than three quarters of the land in the Aguan Valley was re-concentrated into the hands of a few Honduran oligarchs.

In the 1980s, a combination of loans from the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) and bilateral aid allowed the Honduran government to construct a road network in the Aguan, as well as three palm oil processing plants and a modern port. Hoping to pay down its large debts to the IDB, the state-controlled mills bought palm from peasant cooperatives at rock-bottom prices, in return promising peasants eventual control over the processing plants. In the early ’90s, an “agrarian modernization law” was passed with support from the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development that again stimulated large land purchases and made the Aguan Valley the national poster child for re-concentration of land.

Land Re-concentration, Rise of Grupo Dinant

Over the next several decades, cooperatives and smallholders were coerced into selling their land to powerful landlords, often through intimidation and manipulation, from bribes of peasant leaders to threats and outright violence – tactics that continue to reign in the region to this day. Peasant farmers in the Aguan again found themselves as day laborers on large plantations, working hard for little pay. In a few years in the early ’90s, more than three-quarters of the land in the Aguan Valley was re-concentrated into the hands of a few Honduran oligarchs. One of these landlords was Miguel Facussé.

Human Rights Watch confirms that government security forces themselves have committed human rights violations including arbitrary detentions and torture.

Among the wealthiest men in Honduras – and now the richest – Facussé established a series of food commodity businesses, culminating in 2005 with Grupo Dinant. Dinant produces cooking oil, snacks, and other food products, as well as biofuels. To do this, the company took a $30 million loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and a $7 million loan from the InterAmerican Investment Corporation (IIC). Trade liberalization also enriched Facussé: Both Unilever and Proctor & Gamble gained important footholds in Central America by acquiring distribution networks and brands owned by Facussé. The profits and the status conferred on Dinant through such purchases enabled more land purchases in the Aguan Valley, furthering the concentration of land.

In 2001, farmers in the region organized as the Unified Peasants Movement of the Aguán Valley (MUCA), with the aim of reclaiming their land rights through the courts. With legal routes exhausted, in 2006 they began land occupations. In June 2009, they occupied one of the palm oil processing plants of Exportadora del Atlántico, part of Grupo Dinant, provoking then-President Manuel Zelaya to promise to investigate the land rights issue. However, Zelaya was removed in a coup later that month.

The Killing Years

While violence had long been present in the region, the months following the coup saw a dramatic increase in killings. As of October 2010, a year after the coup, 36 small-scale farmers had been killed. None of these cases were resolved or brought to court, but as a result of the escalating violence and murders, the government militarized the area. During this time, Dinant became implicated in the murder of dozens of peasants.

In 2011, FIAN, an international NGO working for food rights, produced a report on human rights violations in Bajo Aguán, documenting “evidence of the involvement of private security forces hired by Dinant and other companies owned by Miguel Facussé in human rights abuses and, in particular, in the murder of peasants in Bajo Aguán.”

The government was eventually forced to convene both MUCA and the company to negotiate a deal in June 2011. The government agreed to distribute some 30,000 acres to the farmers, including 12,000 acres where oil palm has been planted by Exportadora del Atlántico – not by giving the land back, but by selling it at market prices. The company agreed to the proposal, but later announced it wanted to renegotiate it. In protest, other peasant groups began land occupations, exposing themselves to violent evictions by state security forces.

A 2012 public hearing on the human rights situation in the peasant communities of the lower Aguán concluded that the agrarian conflict there is the “most serious situation in terms of violence against peasants in Central America in the last 15 years.” By April 2013, at least 89 peasant farmers had been killed in the Aguan Valley.

Killings have continued with complete impunity, the region around the plantations has been heavily militarized, and long-standing peasant communities have been violently evicted.

Precise numbers are difficult to verify however; to quote Human Rights Watch, “Honduras is notorious for ineffective investigations.” Former Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubi told the Honduran congress in 2013 that 80 percent of homicides go unpunished; of 73 killings recognized by the government to be linked to land conflicts, seven have been brought to trial, and none has resulted in conviction. Human Rights Watch affirms that government security forces themselves have committed human rights violations including arbitrary detentions and torture.

The Role of International Financiers

In 2008, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank approved a $30 million loan to Dinant, to be delivered in two tranches of $15 million each. When the June 2009 military coup ousted the democratically elected president and violence in the Aguán Valley escalated, the IFC put disbursement on hold, but the first tranche was eventually distributed.

In its assessment of the potential concerns under IFC’s Policy on Social and Environmental Sustainability, the IFC noted that “a limited number of specific environmental and social impacts may result which can be avoided or mitigated by adhering to generally recognized performance standards, guidelines, design criteria, local regulations and industry certification schemes. Land acquisition is on a willing buyer-willing seller basis, and there is no involuntary displacement of any people.”

This proved to be far from the case, as the IFC could have easily foreseen.

The Inter-American Development Bank approved a loan for $7 million in June 2009, but never signed the agreement with the company and never paid anything out. A spokesman for the IADB said at that time, “In the case of Dinant, there was a significant shift in a number of matters surrounding the project that led us to reconsider. The political turmoil Honduras experienced in 2009 was one of the aspects affecting this decision. Other considerations included . . . a controversy over real estate ownership.”

Following the coup, Dinant became implicated in the murder of dozens of peasants. Killings have continued with complete impunity, the region around the plantations has been heavily militarized, and long-standing peasant communities have been violently evicted.

When FIAN’s 2011 report was brought to the German development bank DEG, the bank confirmed FIAN’s findings and canceled a $20 million loan to Dinant, “with a view to the evolving agrarian conflict in the Bajo Aguán region.” French company EDF Trading also cancelled a contract to buy carbon credits from Dinant, indicating that it was “taking the situation in Honduras very seriously.”

Private security guards outnumber police in Honduras by a ratio of 5 to 1.

By contrast, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation has been stubbornly defensive about its $30 million relationship with Dinant. IFC claimed in 2008 that: “Dinant understands the importance of having good relationships with their neighboring communities and are quite proactive in this regard.”

In April, 2010, the IFC requested that Dinant hire an international security consultant to assess its security program and to provide training for the company’s security forces. The IFC said that the consultant would “work with Dinant to develop a Corporate Security Policy and Code of Ethics based on the UN Voluntary Principles for Business and Human Rights.”

Given the impunity that reigns in the region, reform of Dinant’s security force would prove to be a challenge. Human Rights Watch investigated 29 killings in the Aguan Valley and reports that 13 of the 29 killings, and one disappearance, suggest the possible involvement of private guards. The same report notes that Honduras has more than 700 registered private security firms, and numerous unregistered firms; the UN working group on the use of mercenaries reports that private security guards outnumber police in Honduras by a ratio of 5 to 1.

In December of 2013, an independent audit by the CAO Ombudsman of the IFC, a semi-independent body charged with overseeing the environmental and social safeguards applied to IFC loans, issued a stinging critique of the IFC for having failed to follow its own requirements.

“According to civil society source,” the CAO investigation states, “there were at least 102 killings of people affiliated with the peasant movement in the Bajo Aguán between January 2010 and May 2013, with specific allegations being made linking 40 of these to Dinant properties, Dinant security guards or its third-party security contractor. Allegations in relation to the killing of at least nine Dinant security personnel by affiliates of the peasant movement have also been made.”

A lucrative agro-industrial crop like palm oil, in a context of entrenched corruption and an authoritarian regime, lends itself to land grabbing and agrarian violence.

Still, the IFC rejected several of the CAO findings. Despite a list of demands sent to the World Bank by 70  civil society groups, the World Bank has yet to withdraw funding from the project. Instead, the IFC put in place an “enhanced action plan,” which requires Dinant to adopt voluntary security protocols and to “engage stakeholders” in order “to better understand the issues currently impacting communities and to bring strategic focus and overall coordination to Dinant’s existing corporate social responsibility programs, such as funding for school teachers, clinics, and conservation programs.” Nothing in the plan considers turning over land to local communities, and there is no mention of sanctions, or loan withdrawal for failure to comply.

The problem is not the crop, but the agro-industrial model; decades ago with Standard Fruit, Honduras was the archetype of the banana republic; today with Dinant it’s an oil palm republic.

The IFC’s refusal to disengage is especially troubling in light of the World Bank’s recent safeguards review, which seeks to weaken the bank’s environmental and social safeguards and to shift responsibility toward borrowing governments themselves. In October, 2014, over 100 civil society groups denounced the World Bank’s efforts, but no concrete response has been forthcoming.

Flex Crops and Consumer Campaigns

The rise of Corporacion Dinant as a leading palm oil producer in Central America is inseparable from its history as part of a long, violent and ongoing backlash against agrarian reform in Honduras. But it is also indicative of the ways in which a lucrative agro-industrial crop like palm oil, in a context of entrenched corruption and an authoritarian regime, lends itself to land grabbing and agrarian violence.

Anecdotal sources suggest that most of Dinant’s palm oil is exported to Mexico, where it is bought by Grupo Bimbo . . . largely responsible for a vast increase in Mexican consumption of palm oil in junk foods.

Palm oil production relies on cheap labor and large expanses of land to turn a profit. In order to be economically viable, nearly 10,000 acres of land are required to feed a single palm oil mill. But the economy of scale that palm oil demands to reap a profit is generally true across commodities – while palm oil is the particular villain in the case of Grupo Dinant, the problem is not the crop, but the agro-industrial model; decades ago with Standard Fruit, Honduras was the archetype of the banana republic; today with Dinant it’s an oil palm republic. Researchers have recently introduced the term “flex-crops” for crops that can be used for food, feed, fuel or industrial materia, and which lend themselves to land grabbing due to growing demand and the land area required to grow them.

Thanks to years of campaigning by environmental and human rights groups, the palm oil sector is undergoing what may be a sea-change: Palm oil producers and traders like Wilmar International, Golden Agri-Resources, and Unilever are adopting voluntary policies to improve their practices; consumer-facing companies including Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Procter & Gamble have strengthened their palm oil sourcing policies.

But the pressure to make these companies change comes from consumer companies who fear the brand damage that comes from sourcing palm oil that threatens orangutans and Sumatran tigers, and from financiers who have certain, albeit minimal, standards to uphold.

Anecdotal sources suggest that most of Dinant’s palm oil is exported to Mexico where it is bought by Grupo Bimbo – the commodity food conglomerate largely responsible for a vast increase in Mexican consumption of palm oil in junk foods. A campaign targeting Grupo Bimbo could gain some ground, but given the massive crisis of instability and conflict in Mexico, it seems unlikely. Dinant holds the license to use the Mazola trademark in Central America, but it is unclear whether the North American Mazola brand has any legal ties to Dinant that make it susceptible to consumer pressure.

Dinant is financed largely by a Honduran bank also backed by the IFC, and no US and EU financiers appear to hold shares in the company. As long as the IFC refuses to withdraw its financing and to push the company toward reforms that are unlikely to address the root problem, Dinant will maintain some credibility and will continue to produce some of the world’s bloodiest palm oil.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Jeff Conant

Jeff Conant directs Friends of the Earth’s international forests campaign; he is co-author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health (Hesperian Health Guides, 2008) and author of A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency (AK Press 2010).