Archive for the ‘Peasant Land struggle in Honduras’ Category

Honduras Lenca Communities Reject Energy Project After Murder

http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Honduras-Lenca-Communities-Reject-Energy-Project-After-Murder-20160711-0015.html

Friends and supporters gather near the coffin of Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, member of COPINH, before her burial, in Marcala, Honduras, July 8, 2016.

Friends and supporters gather near the coffin of Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, member of COPINH, before her burial, in Marcala, Honduras, July 8, 2016. | Photo: Reuters

Although the local population is overwhelmingly against the Los Encinos dam, their resolution is non-binding, and unlikely to deter government officials.

Lenca communities in the western Honduran region of La Paz have voted overwhelmingly against a controversial hydroelectric dam in their territory against the construction of a hydroelectric dam, which sparked an Indigenous resistance movement following the 2009 U.S.-backed coup. 

 

Ninety percent of the 1,200 Hondurans who cast ballots in 15 pollintg places across nine communities Sunday voted against the dam on the Chinacla river in the municipality of Santa Elena.  The Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz, also known as MILPAH, has been fighting for recognition of their land rights since 2010 when the redevelopment project by the corporation, Los Encinos, was approved without any community input.

The struggle launched into the international spotlight last month, when local activist Ana Mirian Romero won the annual international Front Line Defenders Award for her commitment for fighting for human rights despite threats against her life.

The communities consulted in Sunday’s vote also rejected the creation of a land register that would have pave the way for further division of Lenca territories.

 

The vote comes after another member of MILPAH’s sister movement COPINH, Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, was murdered last week, just four months after internationally-renowned leader Berta Caceres was shot dead in her home on March 3. Another COPINH member, Nelson Garcia, was assassinated less than two weeks after Caceres.

Romero and other MILPAH activists have also faced death threats and a slew of other personal harassment and intimidation as a result of her involvement in the movement.

Leading up to Sunday’s vote, over a year in the making, MILPAH accused local officials, including the mayor of Santa Elena, of trying to frustrate their attempts to hold the consultation. The movement insisted that the “intimidating acts,” including Yaneth Urquia’s murder, would not stop the vote from going forward.

Hydroelectric companies and other developmen5t projects began surfacing in Santa Elena and surrounding Lenca communities, following the 2009 military coup against former President Manuel Zelaya, which was supported by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That was the same time that Hondurans indigenous communities began experiencing an escalation of government repression.

The Los Encinos hydroelectric project on the Chinacla river, a sacred site in Lenca spirituality and important for the subsistence of local communities, has also been controversial for its links to the country’s political elite. According to the human rights organization Rights Action, the dam is part of an energy project funded by Gladys Aurora Lopez, a lawmaker with the ruling right-wing National Party and Vice President of Congress.

COPINH has specifically singled out Lopez — along with the Honduran government and military — for responsibillity in Yaneth Urquia’s murder and a  “permanent source of threats” in La Paz by promoting controversial energy projects.

But while the nine Lenca communities have ratified their rejection of the Los Encinos dam with a resounding “no” vote, the overwhelming precedent in the country suggests that the government will continue to violate the community’s internationally-enshrined Indigenous right to free, prior and informed consent for all development projects on their traditionally territory.

COPINH and other Indigenous movements have repeatedly called for an end to all corporate projects on Lenca territory to “put a stop to death, impunity, and injustice” in Honduras.

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

by James Phillips

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/07/12/in-the-aftermath-of-the-murder-of-berta-caceres-squashing-indigenous-resistance-and-discrediting-international-observers-in-honduras/

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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

THIS WILL NOT STOP
Another Political Assassination in Honduras; Continued Silence from Most U.S. and Canadian Politicians, Media, Companies and Investors

By Grahame Russell, Rights Action, July 7, 2016

http://us9.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ea011209a243050dfb66dff59&id=7a3d18454c

Assassinated: Lesbia Janeth Urquia Urquia, 49 years old, mother of two daughters and one son.

On July 6, 2016, the body of Lesbia Janeth Urquía Urquía was found stabbed to death, dumped at a place called “Mata Mulas” (Kills Mules) by the Marcala municipal dump, in the western department of la Paz.

Body of Yaneth found near a garbage dump with severe wounds to her head

Lesbia was, since the 2009 U.S. and Canadian backed military coup, a member of COPINH (Consejo de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas).  COPINH writes:“This assassination occurred 4 months and 4 days after the assassination of our leader and companera Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores, and confirms again the plan to erradicate those of us who defend Mother Earth and our common goods.”

Lesbia was at the forefront of a community struggle to oppose the illegal imposition of a privatized hydro-electric dam project along the Chinacla river in Marcalas, La Paz.

This project is headed up by Gladys Aurora Lopez (president of the governing National Party; vice president of the National Congress) and was “authorized” by the very same National Congress without free, prior and informed consent from the affected communities.

Lesbia was at the forefront of community efforts to carry out a public, legally binding community consultation … when she was assassinated and her body dumped in a place for all to see, a message to anyone involved in efforts to oppose this project of the vice president of the National Congress and president of the National Party.

Since the 2009 military coup, hundreds of Hondurans have been assassinated for political reasons.

This will not stop.

Until the international supporters of the corrupted, repressive Honduran regime stop doing business as usual with the economic-political-military elites, benefitting from repression, corruption and impunity, this will not stop.

Until the U.S. government suspends all military “aid” and economic relations with the regime, this will not stop.  Until the Canadian government rescinds the “free trade agreement” it improperly (illegally?) signed with the military backed regime and corrupted congress of Honduras, this will not stop.

Until there are proper media and political investigations into how the U.S. and Canadian governments supported and legitimized the June 28, 2009, military coup and post-coup regimes in Honduras, this will not stop.

State repression and killings are not accidental in Honduras; this how the elites do business with their international business and political partners.

Courageous groups across Honduras, along with Rights Action and many groups across the U.S. and Canada, will not stop documenting and denouncing the endemic killings and repression, corruption and impunity, and the direct complicity of the U.S. and Canadian governments and companies, as well as the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and other global investors and companies.

Open Season in Honduras on Indigenous Women Leaders

Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía – member of COPINH – murdered July 5, 2016

By Phil Little  July 7, 2016

On March 3, 2016 the world was aghast with the news of the assassination of the celebrated Berta Cáceres, co-founder of COPINH (The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras). Berta Cáceres had received over many years numerous death threats because of her work for the rights of the indigenous Lenca people, from whom she is descended. Berta followed the example of her mother, known as MamaBerta, and a long line of militant and active Lenca women who defied patriarchal powers and colonialism to defend their families, their land and their people. Berta Cáceres was listed on an assassination list revealed to an international observer, a visiting Spanish judge, during the fraudulent election process of 2013 which established, as designed by the U.S. embassy, the National Party as the government and Juan Orlando Hernandéz, a military general trained at the infamous School of the Americas at Ft. Benning near Columbus, Georgia, as President.

The Lenca people are the largest indigenous group in Honduras, whose origins are pre-colonial. They co-existed with the Mayan and other indigenous groups. The Lenca people have maintained many of their ancestral traditions and spirituality despite the powerful forces of assimilation of church and state. In some areas the Lenca people still preserved communal lands for cultivation of their traditional crops. However the recognition of indigenous rights has been resisted by the Honduran state and the families of the oligarchy.

In June 2016 it was revealed that Berta Cáceres was number 2 on an assassination list carried by a U.S. trained murder squad known as the Inter-institutional Security Force (Fusina). One of the 5 persons arrested and jailed in Honduras for the assassination of Berta Cáceres is Major Mariano Díaz Chávez, a graduate of the U.S. trained Tesón squad, and at the time of Cáceres murder was still an active member of the military.  There is also a link to a specially trained taskforce known as the “Xatruch” which is partially funded by the more than $200 million provided by the U.S. as military aid. While the members of the assassination squad have been supposedly identified, the government blocks further investigations that would lead to the main conspirators who paid US$50,000 to kill Cáceres.

Less than two weeks later, on March 15 an associate of Berta Cáceres and an active member of COPINH was also assassinated. Nelson García, 38 years old, was returning to his home after attending the scene of a violent eviction process affecting the community of Río Chiquito, in the same mountainous region where the Honduran dictatorship has granted concessions to foreign and national investors to build dams on every river of the area. In Río Chiquito the homes of the villagers were destroyed in order to force the people off of their ancestral lands. Since 2010 more than 120 environmental investigators and defenders were assassinated in Honduras, making it the most dangerous country in the world for those who defend the land and the environment.

It is in this context that the most recent assassination occurred on July 5, 2016, just four months after the murder of Berta Cáceres which focused the international spotlight on Honduras. In the evening of July 5, 2016 Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía left her home with her bicycle as she regularly did but failed to return. A search by friends and family ended near a garbage dump where the lifeless body of Yaneth was found with obvious head wounds from what police have described as a machete blow.  Yaneth Urquía was a small business owner in the small town of Macala, and was a known activist of the same peasant and indigenous group COPINH, co-founded by Berta Cáceres.

Berta Cáceres received the prestigious Goldman Award for environmental activists because of her stalwart defense of the Gualcarque River, considered by the Lenca people as a sacred waterway. A foreign consortium, involving well connected Honduran political and oligarch elites, were involved through the DESA corporation in the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, a hydro-electric project designed to support mining projects in the country. The international consortium (Dutch, German, American and even the Canadian “Blue Energy” company) employed the military unit of TIGRES, an efficient murder squad of the Honduran military, disguised as “security guards”. The municipal government which supported the Agua Zarca project is composed of members of the National Party, the ruling national government of Honduras.

Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía was a woman activist in a country with an extremely high rate of femicide which was described by the W.H.O. as reaching “epidemic” proportions.  At a rate of 12 per 100,000 population the number of murders of women is among the highest in the world. It is said that “men are killed for what they are doing, but women are killed for being women”.  In Honduras impunity is the norm and 94% of homicides remain without even an investigation. In the past decade an average 440 women are killed each year; that is a woman is killed every 18 hours in Honduras. Just being a woman activist put Yaneth Urquía in danger.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a powerful denunciation of the State of Human Rights in Honduras with a report dated December 31, 2015 (Doc 42/15).  (The official homicide rate is said to be 79/100,000 but it is strongly suspected that the official tally low balls a much higher rate that could be closer to 112/100,000 as in 2014). The Commission Report stated:

Human rights defenders in Honduras are targets of attacks by those who have been identified as responsible for rights violations, and by sectors and groups with interests opposed to their causes. The risk of losing their lives or suffering harm to their integrity has caused a great many human rights defenders in Honduras to have precautionary measures granted by the Commission that require implementation on the part of the Honduran government. (Art.44)

 

The “precautionary measures” are important to understand. Human Rights workers, journalists, environmentalist, lawyers, and anyone in a position to question or expose government complicity or fault and who have received credible threats are identified as persons at risk. Public demonstrations of opposition to the oligarchy or the government too often result in arbitrary detentions, beatings, kidnapping, and frequently death threats. Berta Cáceres had been identified by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as a person needing these “precautionary measures” which would oblige the state to provide protection. It did not do Berta any good as it is obvious that the Honduran military were involved in her assassination and the intellectual authors of the crime reach to the highest levels of the government.

Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía as well had been granted these “precautionary measures” but again it did not protect her. COPINH has denounced the murder of Yaneth Urquía as another “political femicide”. Yaneth Urquía was an active member of COPINH since the military coup of 2009 which eventually led to the dominance of the National Party and the dictatorship under Juan Orlando Hernandez.  Yaneth Urquía was active in opposition to the construction of another hydroelectric dam on the Chinacla River, which flows through traditional Lenca territory and is essential to the livelihood of peasant agrarian communities in the municipality of San José, La Paz.

This hydroelectric project on the Chinacla River known as “Aurora I” however is directly linked to the office of the President of the Republic through Gladys Aurora López who was elected as a Deputy to the National Congress in the fraudulent elections of 2013 and is the Vice-President of the National Congress. She is also President of the Central Committee of the “National Party” (CCPN). Gladys Aurora López and her husband Arnold Castro had been previously identified as having threatened community members and leaders who opposed the hydroelectric project on the Chinacla River.  The owner of the company behind the “Aurora I” hydroelectric dam is none other than Gladys Aurora López.

COPINH stated: “The death of Lesbia Yaneth is a political feminicide, and an attempt to silence the voice of those brave women who are courageously defending their rights and opposing the patriarchal, racist and capitalist system of their society”.

The assassination of Yaneth Urquía suspiciously comes in the context of what is supposed to be a period of “consultations” conducted by the government dealing with the approval of a proposed regulation of the rights of indigenous community to “Prior Consultation that is free and informed”.  This would be in accord with international standards and the rights of indigenous communities to their historical traditions and settlements. This assassination could be interpreted as a statement by the government that it does not want the consultation process to be negative to the interests of economic development, such as that of “Aurora I”.

The parallels to the assassination of Berta Cáceres are far too obvious not to consider. Many of those who have opposed the industrial developments on the rivers of the departments of Sta. Barbara and Sta. Rosa de Copan have opted to flee the area for fear of repression and harm to themselves or their families. Those who stand forward in leadership, such as Berta Cáceres, Nelson García, and Yaneth Urquía, brave the intimidations, false arrests, beatings, trumped up legal complaints, and death threats because they come from a different place where they feel connected to their indigenous ancestors and are nourished by a spirituality that connects them to the “land, the water and the corn”.  They did fear death, but more they feared betraying the “Madre Tierra” (Mother Earth) who gave them courage and life.

Unknown Assailants Abduct, Murder Activist in Honduras

Janeth Urquía

Lesbia Janeth Urquia Urquia murdered July 5, 2016

http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Unknown-Assailants-Abduct-Murder-Activist-in-Honduras-20160707-0001.html

The activist, part of the group founded by Berta Caceres, was found dead near a garbage dump.

Another Indigenous activist has been murdered in Honduras, with local activists reporting Wednesday night that a woman identified as Yaneth Urquia Urquia was found dead near a garbage dump with severe head trauma.

Urquia was a member of The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, the group founded by Berta Caceres, who was assassinated in March. According to La Voz Lenca, the communications arm of COPINH, Urquia was an active member of the activist group and fought against the building of hydroelectric power plants on Indigenous land.

Body of Janeth Urquia found near garbage dump

Body of Janeth Urquia found near garbage dump

“The comrade was killed with a knife,” the group said on its Facebook page, adding that she had been “abducted by unknown persons.”

Urquia’s body was found Wednesday near the municipal garbage dump in Marcala, in the western department of La Paz, according to Via Campesina Honduras, a local social movement. Her body has been sent to the Forensic Medical unit of the Public Ministry for an autopsy, it said.

Yaneth Urquia

Janeth Urquia indigenous leader in COPINH

The news comes four months after Berta Caceres, the founder of COPINH, was assassinated in her home. Caceres, an environmental activist, had been leading protests against the building of hydroelectric dams on Indigenous land. Four people have been arrested in connection with her murder, including both former and active members of the Honduras military.

Another leader of COPINH, Tomas Garcia, was shot dead at a peaceful protest in 2013.

Honduras has been wracked by violence since the 2009 U.S.-backed coup against its elected center-left government, experiencing one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Why is Honduras the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists?

The environment is the new battleground for human rights, and activists are getting caught in the crossfire – particularly in Honduras, where two were killed last month

Thursday 7 April 2016 14.12 BST Last modified on Tuesday 12 April 2016Since her mother’s murder a month ago, Bertha Isabel Zuniga Cáceres has scarcely had time to grieve. The 25-year-old student is adamant that her mother, Berta Cáceres Flores, will not become just one more Honduran environmental activist whose work was cut short by their assassination.

“Development in Honduras cannot continue happen at the expense of indigenous peoples and human rights,” says Zuñiga Cáceres, who met today with members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Honduran officials in Washington DC to call for an independent investigation into her mother’s killing. She also requested greater protection for her family and members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the human rights group her mother co-founded.

A growing chorus of voices, from civil society groups to members of the US Congress, have reiterated the need for reform in Honduras in the month since Cáceres was shot dead by assassins in her home. Cáceres, founder of the nonprofit watchdog group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), died less than a week after opposing a major new hydroelectric project. Her death was followed two weeks later by that of her colleague Nelson García. While a suspect has been identified in García’s death, local activists are accusing the government of a cover-up.

A well known leader from the Lenca indigenous community, Cáceres received international recognition – and threats – for her efforts to halt the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the sacred Gualcarque River. Last year, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to uphold indigenous rights.

A deadly place for environmentalists

Honduras now has the highest murder rate for environmental activists in the world, and conflict over land rights is the primary driver. Rampant inequality, a weak judicial system, cozy relationships between political and business elites and near total impunity for crimes against human rights defenders have contributed to 101 murders of environmental activists between 2010 and 2014, according to the British NGO Global Witness.

It’s an upward trend: there were three times as many killings in 2012 as a decade earlier, and 2015 is likely to be the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders in Honduras, according to Billy Kyte, author of a 2015 report by Global Witness spotlighting the dangers faced by activists.

“The environment is the new battleground for human rights, and disputes over land form the backdrop to almost all the killings,” says Kyte.

The Global North’s “rapacious demand” for natural resources is fueling conflict on indigenous lands throughout the developing world, says Kyte. But in Honduras, corruption, organized crime, political instability and increasingly militarized policing have created a particularly acute crisis.

Since the 2009 coup that ousted democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya, the right wing Honduran government has aggressively promoted investment and development in mining, agri-business and large scale energy infrastructure projects. It has privatized land and water resources and removed barriers to large scale development projects, often at the expense of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and small scale campesino farmers.

In large part to meet the mining industry’s enormous demand for energy, the government has granted dozens of hydroelectric dam concessions. Global Witness found that the developers often disregard the land rights of indigenous communities, which become targets of threats and violence. Powerful drug trafficking gangs are also known to use mining and agri-business projects for money laundering.

Honduras is a signatory to the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which requires the free, prior consultation and consent of indigenous communities for projects that impact their traditional territories. But the country has a poor track record when it comes to upholding those rights, according to George Redman, Honduras country director for Oxfam.

It’s not uncommon, says Redman, for communities to first learn about a concession when the company shows up on their land to break ground. In recent years, the Honduran government has fast-tracked approvals for large projects, overlooking legal violations of indigenous rights.

That’s just what happened to the indigenous Lenca community of Río Blanco a decade ago when developers arrived unannounced one day to break ground on a massive dam project called Agua Zarca, a joint venture between the internationally-financed Honduran company Desarrollos Energeticos SA and China’s state-owned Sinohydro.

The Agua Zarca project had been approved despite the fact that it violated international treaties on the rights of indigenous peoples. Fearing for their sacred river, their land rights and their safety, Río Blanco appealed to Cáceres for help, who was subsequently recognized for her work to fight the project.

Agua Zarca has become emblematic of the Honduran government’s failure to address corruption, law enforcement abuses and land grabs.

“You have on the one hand poor indigenous communities up against some of the richest and most powerful people in the country who are also enjoying a degree of protection from Honduran security forces,” says Redman. “So it’s a very, very uneven playing field.”

Companies have been known to forge signatures on consent documents and engage private security contractors and government security forces to subdue protesters. Hours from the nearest cities and often lacking telephones and electricity, indigenous communities are often powerless to fight back.

Recent investigations have estimated that the vast majority of attacks and killings of human rights defenders in Honduras go unsolved.

“People involved in this kind of protection work, they always say, ‘We feel so vulnerable, at any minute we could just be murdered because of this culture of impunity,’” says Redman. “And the powers behind these kinds of investments are so strong”.

A call for reform

Since the killing of Berta Cáceres and Nelson García, international pressure has increased for the Honduran government to take stronger, more decisive action to strengthen protections for activists and uphold indigenous rights.

The very fact that someone of Berta Cáceres’s stature was killed indicates the grave risk faced by other Honduran activists who don’t have that recognition, says Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based human rights advocacy organization.

“To have someone like Berta and Nelson García assassinated shows the fragility in Honduras,” says Beltrán. “It’s a test not only of capacity but the will of the Honduran government and authorities to investigate these types of attacks and killings against environmental and other human rights defenders.”

Speaking on the floor of the US Senate last month, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) called on the Honduran government to cancel the Agua Zarca concession. He criticized the administration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for failing to deliver on a promise made to defend human rights while lobbying last year for a significant share of the $750m in US aid allocated for regional security.

Two weeks after the Cáceres assassination, 62 members of Congress sent a letter to US secretary of state John Kerry and secretary of the treasury Jacob Lew urging them to press the Honduran government to grant an independent international investigation into her death, fund a system of protection for activists and permanently stop the Agua Zarca project.

The letter also urged a review of US security assistance, including aid allocated for training of Honduran security forces. It furthermore called for a review of US-backed loans for Honduran development projects from institutions like the World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

On 25 March, 11 US senators led by Senator Ben Cardin sent a letter to Kerry reiterating support for the participation of the IACHR in the investigation of Cáceres’ death. The letter requested that USAid funding be provided to support a program, approved by the Honduran Congress last year, to protect human rights defenders, trade unionists and journalists.

A long road ahead

The family of Cáceres says the response from the US State Department in particular has so far been insufficient to call Honduras to account for the entrenched corruption.

“We’re trying to get people to understand that these are oligarchs who put their friends in strategic places to control the message,” says Silvio Carrillo, a nephew of Berta Cáceres, who traveled to Washington this week.

“We want [the US State Department] to say that they are not confident in the Honduran government – they have no track record and it’s clear that they are not going to produce the proper investigation,” he says.

There’s also a need for companies doing business in Honduras to show greater responsibility for community rights, says Marcia Aguiluz, program director for Central America and Mexico at the Center for Justice and International Law, which accompanied the Cáceres family before the IACHR this week.

“It’s not enough to find out who killed Berta,” says Aguiluz. “I would say it’s important for the international community to understand the conflicts going on in Honduras.”

Following García’s murder on 16 March, the Dutch development bank FMP, which had provided financing for Agua Zarca, announced an immediate suspension of all operations in Honduras. The company said it would send a delegation to communities affected by the project and promised a thorough investigation of all its projects in Honduras. A second major investor, Finnfund, quickly followed suit.

“There is still a [corporate] culture of ‘why do we have to take into account the rights or concern of poor rural communities?’” says Redman. “There’s a discourse that says: this is good for the development of the company, so if you have to stop on a few toes, that’s too bad.”

Leer en español.

GUSTAVO CASTRO was the sole witness to the murder on March 3 of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH). Castro, the director of Other Worlds, an environmental organization in Chiapas, Mexico, was also shot in the attack. After being barred from leaving Honduras, Castro was released on March 30 and has since settled in an undisclosed location. Last week he spoke by phone to The Intercept about the night of the murder and the reasons why environmental activism in Latin America is so dangerous.

Castro’s experience over the past month provides a remarkable glimpse into the Honduran justice system, which is notorious for its culture of impunity. In the months before her murder, Cáceres repeatedly said that she was being harassed by Desarrollos Energéticos, SA (DESA), the private energy company behind the Agua Zarca dam project, which she had vigorously opposed. After the murder, Cáceres’s family immediately pointed to DESA. On March 31, the Honduran public prosecutor’s office announced that it had seized weapons and documents from DESA’s office and questioned several employees.

Contacted for comment, DESA provided the following statement: “The board of directors of the company that is carrying out the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project has not given any declaration nor does it plan to do so until the authorities in charge of the investigation determine the causes and perpetrators of this regrettable incident that ended the life of the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres.”

What happened during your last hours with Berta Cáceres?

I arrived on March 1 in San Pedro Sula, and that day they put me up in another home that belongs to other COPINH members in La Esperanza. It had been years since I had seen Berta in person, although we had been in touch by email. I was there to facilitate a workshop on environmentalism. That day Berta said to me, brother, come to my house, I have internet so you can get in touch with your family. We spent a while talking, even discussing the threats that she had received in the past and in recent weeks — intimidation and threats to her safety by employees of DESA and people who seemed to be hit men contracted by DESA, the company behind the hydroelectric project called Agua Zarca.

And I said to Berta, this is a very isolated home, how is it that you live here alone? So I decided to stay the night. I started to get ready for the second day of the workshop, and she was in her room. At midnight, there was a loud bang on the door and immediately one hit man entered my room, and simultaneously another entered hers. Everything happened very quickly, within 30 seconds, in which simultaneously they assassinated her and shot me. They had clearly been following her and were expecting her to be alone, so I think it surprised them to find another person there and they didn’t know what to do, so they just shot me and ran away.

Were their faces covered?

I don’t know about the other one, but the one who shot me wasn’t masked. I wasn’t able to decipher his face well, but that’s the moment when I became the principal witness, and a protected witness.

When Berta told you that she had received threats from DESA and Agua Zarca, did she say at any point that the people threatening her were from Honduran state security forces? Or were they gang members, or just random individuals?

Human rights activists take part in a protest to claim justice after the murdered of indigenous activist leader Berta Caceres in Tegucigalpa on March 17, 2016. Caceres, a respected environmentalist who won the prestigious Goldman Prize last year for her outspoken advocacy, was murdered in her home on March 3, her family said. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Human rights activists take part in a protest to claim justice after the murdered of indigenous activist leader Berta Cáceres in Tegucigalpa on March 17, 2016.

Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

I don’t remember her saying anything like that. She did say they were employees, people in favor of the company. In fact when I arrived in Mexico, on March 30, the public prosecutor’s office in Honduras published a press release publicly linking the company to their line of investigation. In the press release they also announced that they had seized weapons and questioned some of the company’s people. But they didn’t want to get to this point. Before coming to that line of investigation, I got the impression they wanted to see if another line of investigation could be useful or believable for national and international public opinion, but that was impossible. Everyone in COPINH already knew the recent history, so they had no other option than to finally go after the company. I’m unaware of any advances they’ve had in this line of investigation.Over the last decade there were more than 100 murders of environmentalists in Honduras. And these conflicts are often linked to the army and the police. That’s part of the reality of Honduras. In this specific case, Berta said that the guilty party was the company. It was the company with which she had a strong and direct confrontation.

At first we were hearing that they questioned you, took you to the airport, and then suddenly told you that you couldn’t leave the country. Is this how it happened?

The whole process was confusing and handled poorly. I spent the first three or four days in constant legal procedures in La Esperanza. I could have refused several times, because one has the right to solicit a six-hour prevention order as a victim and a protected witness. Nevertheless I never used this instrument, and every time they asked me to take part in more legal procedures, I did — at any hour, in the middle of the night, whenever. So I went nearly four days without sleeping. I gave the statement for the attorney general, the statement for the public prosecutor, medical examinations, cross-examinations, photographic identification, etc.

And, yes, at first they said I could go. They always said, just one more thing, and then just one more thing, and then it finally seemed like everything was done and ready. They even prepared a helicopter for me to get back to Tegucigalpa on March 5. But because of weather conditions they weren’t able to land the helicopter, so instead they deployed a security detail to accompany me to Tegucigalpa by land. Later, the public prosecutor’s office claimed I was trying to escape, which was a huge lie.

So I arrived at the Mexican Embassy, where the ambassador and the consul bought me a plane ticket for March 6 at 6:20 a.m. But when we got to the airport, Honduran officials were waiting in hiding around the airport for me, as if this were necessary, as if this were a criminal matter and as if I weren’t a protected witness and a victim. It was so shameless. It felt like having an army at my heels. And the ambassador and the consul were with me. Suddenly eight or 10 people from the attorney general’s office and the public prosecutor’s office stood in front of the door and said that I couldn’t leave. They wouldn’t hand over any official document explaining anything. I know that this government is the result of a coup, but this game was so ridiculous that even they had to ask for apologies from the ambassador and me. What they did was totally unnecessary. And obviously they had to justify themselves before the national and international press by claiming they thought I was fleeing. Even then I could have said I was leaving. Because of a convention on penal matters between Mexico and Honduras, as a victim and a protected witness, I had the right to participate in the legal procedures from Mexico. I’m not a criminal — I’m a victim. But they forgot that.

They said, we need just one more thing. So I asked for more protection for the ride back: a bulletproof vest and more bodyguards. What they originally said they needed was more testimony, but what it ended up being was more cross-examination. At the end of the night they produced a document saying it was necessary for me to stay 30 days more. That was also illegal — the judge used arguments based on international human rights laws regarding suspects. When my lawyer argued they were violating my rights, the judge not only removed her from the case but furthermore suspended her ability to practice law for 15 days.

The government wanted me under its control. It has no laws that protect victims. Nor does it have regulations or protocols or a budget to protect human rights activists. Nor does it have regulations for protected witnesses. So they wanted me under their so-called protection where there is no law that obligates them to do anything. Which is why I stayed in the Mexican Embassy. But it was a month of horrible stress and tension, in which the government, with its complete lack of regulations or protocols, could easily accuse me of anything at any moment, show up with a judicial order, and the Mexican Embassy wouldn’t have been able to do anything. One week before I arrived in Honduras, the Judicial Commission had been dissolved, so there was no legal instrument with which I could defend myself. There was no commission before which I could denounce a judge who acted illegally, because that commission had been dissolved. So I found myself in total legal defenselessness — without a lawyer, because they suspended her. And it seemed neither international pressure nor the Mexican government could do anything. So it was a state of complete insecurity and a constant violation of my human rights.

Did they ever try to accuse you of anything officially?

There wasn’t anything explicit. There were rumors in the press that the public prosecutor’s office was trying to justify involving me in the crime in some way. But with the evidence and my declarations, it was simply impossible for them to invent such a farce. No matter how many circles they ran around the matter, they eventually had to go to DESA. They had no other option. I had the sense that they wanted to keep me there while they were trying to find something. It was a horrible uncertainty, because you have no lawyer. They have the ability to leave you totally legally defenseless.

HONDURAS - APRIL 04: A 745-foot-high dam under construction for a future power plant (Photo by David A. Harvey/National Geographic/Getty Images)

A 745-foot-high dam under construction for a future power plant in Honduras, April 4, 1983.

Photo: David A. Harvey/National Geographic/Getty Images

How do you explain the fact that opposing dams is interpreted as a threat?

This isn’t true only in Honduras — also in Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, etc. One of the reasons is that these dams mean flooding out huge swaths of jungle, forest, and indigenous and campesino lands. And this causes a strong reaction from these communities, because there are thousands and thousands of them displaced violently.

Another reason is that one of the most profitable businesses at the moment is the sale of electrical energy, especially in Latin America, because free trade agreements are opening huge investments for transnational corporations. And what does this mean? For example, free trade agreements allow major investors to put up factories, industrial parks, infrastructure, and mines, which all consume a ton of electricity and a ton of water. And bear in mind that one gold mine can use between 1 and 3 million liters of water every hour. That implies relinquishing the water that belongs to communities, their rivers, and their wells — using it to instead generate electricity for the big industrial corridors. So the sale of energy, and thus investments in energy, is one of the most profitable businesses for big capital. But that means entering into battle over territory with campesino and indigenous communities.

Additionally, with the Kyoto Protocol they’ve invented the stupid idea that dams make “clean energy.” Thus in order to gain carbon credits and reduce their greenhouse gases, wealthy countries started investing in dams. That’s why we have a world full of dam construction.

In Latin America almost every country has free trade agreements with the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and many also with Asia. This means changing your constitution, your environmental legislation that concerns water, energy and foreign investment, in order to adopt and facilitate these free trade agreements. If you don’t, companies sue. For governments, it’s easier to repress people than to pay damages and compensation to corporations. A good example is the case of the gold mine in El Salvador. El Salvador has had to pay millions to defend itself against a mining company before the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. And we are talking about one mine. But imagine 10,000 or 15,000 — we are talking about thousands of mining concessions in the region. And to this if you add dams, and to that you add highways, ports, airports, mines, fracking, petroleum, huge shopping malls, tax-free zones, charter cities, huge elite tourist resorts — there are so many concessions.

If the human rights claims that activists make are actually upheld — contamination of water and land, violating previous and informed consent of communities — or if they kick out a company for dumping toxic waste into rivers, for murdering community members, for causing cancer around mining sites like we’ve seen in Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala — if governments have to do something about these human rights claims by kicking out the extractive industry, they’ll have to pay millions and millions of dollars that they don’t have. Each country would have to sell itself 20 times over to pay off the debt. So this is not easy to solve.

This leads to confrontation with communities. This will only deepen with things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and governments prefer to react by criminalizing citizen protest. Peaceful protest used to be a human right. Now they call it “terrorism,” “violence.” They’re criminalizing human rights.

In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton said that the coup in Honduras was legal. What do you think about this statement?

It seems to me that in the end, the government had to justify a way for another group to come to power. And Honduras’s legal antiquity allows you to make any argument you want. For example, one of the reasons they gave for overthrowing Zelaya was that he proposed to modify the constitution to allow for re-election. Which the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is now trying to do, to modify the constitution to allow for re-election for him next year. So that’s why I say it depends on how you want to see it. If Zelaya proposes it, it’s unconstitutional and he has to go. If the oligarchy and the global hegemony says it, it’s legal, it’s democratic.

How do you see your future? Or are you living more day by day right now?

More day by day. Many are asking me if I’m going to throw in the towel, if I’m like the boxer who can’t take any more and gives up. I say no, I’m picking that towel up. This struggle must continue. I am not alone. Across Latin America there are thousands of people who are criminalized, who are being persecuted and threatened for defending human rights, who are defending the well-being of our planet. We must realize that that no one is exempt from this criminalization. Like so many friends who have been murdered for resisting. But there are many of us, and we will carry on.

The voracious capitalism we face cannot continue as is, with its accelerated and extractionist logic that is finishing off our planet. I think our great challenge is to realize that other worlds are possible. We can build something different, something dignified and just. There is enough water for everyone. There is enough land, enough food for everyone. We cannot continue feeding this predatory system of capital accumulation in the hands of so few. That system is unsustainable. So from wherever we are — in the Americas, in Europe, in Asia — we will all be affected by this system. Sometimes it seems that the crisis doesn’t touch certain places, and sometimes we don’t make the structural link to capitalism with the crises that the U.S. and Canada and France and Spain face. But I hope that we realize this soon, because it will affect us all sooner or later. And I want to say that there is still time to do something. This is urgent.

Top photo: Activist Gustavo Castro at a news conference at the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico, April 4, 2016. Castro is a key witness in the March 3 fatal shooting of activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras.

Berta’ Mother: The Honduran State is Responsible for this Crime

Public Letter from Austra Bertha Flores López.

Austra Bertha Flores López mother of Berta Caceres

As you know, I am the mother of Bertha Isabel Cáceres Flores, assassinated on March 2nd of this year. A month has gone by since this abominable and cowardly crime took place. I write this public letter despite the pain it causes me, in order to reach as many people as possible with these messages:

1. I want to express my deepest thanks to all of the people, social movement organizations, human rights organizations, representatives of indigenous and afro-descendant peoples, women’s organizations, representatives of different churches, diplomats, teachers’ organizations, youth organizations, LGBT organizations, environmentalist organizations, members of the media, in summary, to all of those who have shown solidarity during this tremendously difficult time that I have had to live through as a result of this violent crime. The same is true, of course, for my grand daughters and my grandson, who had their mother stolen from them in the most horrendous way imaginable, along with all of the other family members who have suffered this irreparable loss.
I have painstakingly served my people as a midwife, a mayor, a governor and a congresswoman, roles which allowed me to push for the approval of ILO Convention 169, for the defense of women, of children and of human rights in general. At 83 years of age this crime has hit me hard and I am only able to stay strong thanks to the steadfast solidarity that I have received from you. I want to tell you that I hope not to leave this world before achieving justice for my daughter Bertita, who has given her life for our mother earth, for the rights of indigenous and black peoples, for women and for the rivers. For this reason I ask you to please continue to vigorously support me so that we may achieve justice and end impunity in a country so beaten down by the oppressors’ political violence against those who work to build a more just and humane society. I reiterate to you my appreciation, and ask that we make our cries for justice even louder, since that is the only way we can end the impunity that has surrounded this crime. You all can decide on the way to do this, whether through a prayer, a poster, a march, a drawing on a wall, or a non-violent but powerful action. Our sisters and brothers have demonstrated enormous creativity. Keep it up, so that a world without violence can one day be possible.

2. Secondly, I write to you to say that it is the Honduran state that is responsible for this crime, for the following reasons: The Honduran state was under obligation to comply with the protective measures ordered to secure my daughter’s life, yet the state did not fulfill these international commitments. It was the Honduran state that approved the concessions of our natural resources, including the Gualcarque River, a river that is part of the Lenca territory, without the required prior, free, and informed community consultation, despite knowing that it is required to do so under an international agreement approved by the Honduran state. That agreement is the Untied Nations International Labor Organization Convention 169, which mentions the right to consultation. The violation of this convention has generated tremendous conflict, leading to bloodshet in the communities, assassination of indigenous leaders and environmentalists.
The Honduran state criminalized my daughter by leveraging state institutions to mount several cases against her for the crime of carrying out her work in defense of our natural resources and the rights of indigenous and black peoples in Honduras. The Honduran state has taken it upon itself to defend the private interests of extractive companies, to such an extent that when my daughter, as general coordinator of COPINH, led a march this past February, she was insulted, vilified and threatened by people linked to DESA’s interests in front of the police and the army, whose response was to repress her and the Lena people that were mobilizing, going so far as to seize the buses that were transporting them.
The Honduran state contaminated the crime scene instead of preserving and investigating it. It has been a month already and despite national and international pressure, the state has been unable to capture the material or intellectual authors of this crime that has brought grief to our family and our people.
After the coup d’état lists of people to be targeted by death squads for assassination circulated. The first person on those lists was Bertha Isabel.
I know that nobody can bring my daughter back to life, but that will not stop my determination to fight with all of my strength so that Bertita’s assassination does not remain in impunity. That means fighting for the Honduran state to allow an independent commission to investigate this painful assassination and to cancel all of the concessions of natural resources that have been handed out in clear violation of ILO Convention 169, particularly the concessions along the Gualcarque River, for which my daughter struggled and continues to struggle from wherever she may be. It means the Honduran government must commit to not allow any more crimes against the women and men who defend human rights. That Honduras allow our family to participate in the investigation. That the Honduran state cease the criminalization of COPINH and the social movement organizations.
I would like for UNESCO to designate the Gualcarque River as part of humanity’s cultural and natural heritage.

I also want to use this opportunity to express how happy I am that Gustavo Castro, a dear friend and another victim of this crime, has been able to return to his country.
I close by asking that all of our people in Honduras and all of the peoples of the world take up the struggle in defense of life and mother earth. Towards that end, I leave you with the words of my daughter: “WAKE UP HUMANITY, THERE’S NO TIME LEFT.”
With conviction, appreciation and solidarity, sincerely,
Austra Bertha Flores López

The U.S. Role In Honduras by Stephen Zunes

The US role in the Honduras coup and subsequent violence

https://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/the-u-s-role-in-honduras-by-stephen-zunes

 

People carry the coffin of indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Caceres after a five-hour autopsy at the Forensic Medicine Center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 3. (CNS/EPA

Stephen Zunes  |  Mar. 14, 2016NCR Today

On March 3, Berta Cáceres, a brave and outspoken indigenous Honduran environmental activist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, was gunned down in her hometown of La Esperanza. Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director for Amnesty International, noted how “For years, she had been the victim of a sustained campaign of harassment and threats to stop her from defending the rights of indigenous communities.”

She is just one of thousands of indigenous activists, peasant leaders, trade unionists, journalists, environmentalists, judges, opposition political candidates, human rights activists, and others murdered since a military coup ousted the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

Despite being a wealthy logger and rancher from the centrist Liberal Party, Zelaya had moved his government to the left during his four years in office. During his tenure, he raised the minimum wage and provided free school lunches, milk for young children, pensions for the elderly, and additional scholarships for students. He built new schools, subsidized public transportation, and even distributed energy-saving light bulbs.

None of these were particularly radical moves, but it was nevertheless disturbing to the country’s wealthy economic and military elites. More frightening was that Zelaya had sought to organize an assembly to replace the 1982 constitution written during the waning days of the U.S.-backed military dictator Policarpo Paz Garcia. A non-binding referendum on whether such a constitutional assembly should take place was scheduled the day of the coup, but was cancelled when the military seized power and named Congressional Speaker Roberto Micheletti as president.

Calling for such a referendum is perfectly legal under Article 5 of the 2006 Honduran Civil Participation Act, which allows public functionaries to perform such non-binding public consultations regarding policy measures. Despite claims by the rightist junta and its supporters, Zelaya was not trying to extend his term. That question wasn’t even on the ballot. The Constitutional Assembly would not have likely completed its work before his term had expired anyway.

Attention, Seattle! NCR on Tap is coming to your city April 5. Join editor Dennis Coday and others for an evening of food, drinks and good conversation about the church. Learn more.

The leader of the coup, Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, was a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas, a U.S. Army training program nicknamed “School of Assassins” for the sizable number of graduates who have engaged in coups, as well as the torture and murder of political opponents. The training of coup plotters at the program, since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, isn’t a bygone feature of the Cold War: General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, who played an important role in the coup as head of the Honduran Air Force, graduated as recently as 1996.


More: Catholic groups write John Kerry to urge US scrutiny of Honduran activist’s death


There is no evidence to suggest that the Obama administration was behind the coup. However, a number of U.S. officials — most notably then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — played an important role in preventing Zelaya’s return to office and the junta consolidating its power in the face of massive nonviolent protests.

Clinton insisted the day after the coup that “all parties have a responsibility to address the underlying problems that led to yesterday’s events.” When asked if her call for “restoring the constitutional order” in Honduras meant returning Zelaya himself, she didn’t say it necessarily would. State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly evaded reporters’ questions as to whether the United States supported Zelaya’s return, placing the United States at odds with the Organization of American States, the Rio Group, and the U.N. General Assembly, all of which called for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya.

U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens, reflecting the broad consensus of international observers, sent a cable to Clinton entitled “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup,” thoroughly documenting that “there is no doubt” that Zelaya’s ouster “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” Similarly, Ann-Marie Slaughter, then serving as director of Policy Planning at the State Department, sent an email to Clinton strongly encouraging her to “take bold action” and to “find that [the] coup was a ‘military coup’ under U.S. law.” However, Clinton’s State Department refused to suspend U.S. aid to Honduras — as required when a democratically-elected government is ousted in such a manner – on the grounds that it wasn’t clear that the forcible military-led overthrow actually constituted a coup d’état.

Emails released last year by the State Department also show how Clinton rejected calls by the international community to condemn the coup and used her lobbyist friend Lanny Davis — who was working for the Honduran chapter of the Business Council of Latin America, which supported the coup — to open communications with Micheletti, the illegitimate interim ruler installed by the military.

Leaders of Latin American nations, the U.N. General Assembly and other international organizations unambiguously demanded Zelaya’s immediate return to office. However, in her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton admits that she worked to prevent restoring the elected president to office: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”

The elections, held under military rule and marred by violence and media censorship, were hardly free or fair. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) declared they would not recognize elections held under the de facto government and the Organization of American States drafted a resolution that would have refused to recognize Honduran elections carried out under the dictatorship, but the State Department blocked its adoption.

In the subsequent six years, the horrific repression and skyrocketing murder rate — now the highest in the world — has resulted in tens of thousands of refugees fleeing for safety in the United States. Ironically, as Secretary of State, Clinton rejected granting political asylum and supported their deportation.

Clinton’s role in supporting the coup in Honduras is a reminder that the Middle East is not the only part of the world in which she is willing to set aside principles of international law and human rights to advance perceived U.S. economic and strategic interests. Indeed, it may be a troubling indication of the kind of foreign policies she would pursue as president.

[Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, Contributing Editor to Tikkun Magazine, and is currently serving as a visiting professor at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand.]

A Voice for Honduras’ Voiceless

The Lasting Legacy of Berta Cáceres

By Lauren Carasik

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/honduras/2016-03-22/voice-honduras-voiceless

Honduras is reeling from the assassination of prominent indigenous rights activist and environmental leader Berta Cáceres, who was gunned down in her home in La Esperanza on March 2. For years, she had faced death threats from industrialists who laid claim to the land of her people, the Lenca. Her hallmark fight pitted her against powerful figures who sought to dam the Gualcarque River—a sacred site for the Lenca. The construction would have threatened the indigenous group’s livelihood and spiritual connection to the river.

Cáceres’ most public battle may have focused on the small indigenous communities of Rio Blanco that live adjacent to the river, but her struggle was far from local—indeed, her efforts to protect indigenous land rights made her a national and global symbol, standing against transnational capitalism and the threat it poses not only to indigenous people throughout the developing world, but to global ecology as well. In the wake of Cáceres’ death, thousands mobilized to march in Tegucigalpa on March 17 and 18. Outside of Honduras, the killing has galvanized a groundswell of outrage as well. Hundreds of international organizations and academics have signed letters condemning the killing and demanding justice, and activists unfurled a protest banner in front of the headquarters of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington and disrupted a meeting of the Council of the Americas attended by U.S. ambassadors to Central America. Inside the beltway, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahydenounced the United States’ role in “supporting and profiting” from the “corruption and injustice” in Honduras, and 62 members of the House of Representatives have sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew to demand an independent investigation into Cáceres’ death and the suspension of U.S. military aid to Honduras. Washington is the Honduran government’s biggest patron, and it must now decide which side of the nation’s history it wishes to be on.

AGE OF RESISTANCE

Cáceres came of age during the 1980s, a decade marked by brutality across Central America. She was raised in a household that was steeped in the ideas and actions of resistance. The Cáceres family spent nights huddled around a radio listening to revolutionary dispatches from Nicaragua. Her mother, also named Berta, frequently took in refugees fleeing the civil war in El Salvador.

Cáceres first entered politics in 1993 when she co-founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras(COPINH). COPINH sought to resist illegal logging and protect therights of indigenous people, a group historically excluded from Honduras’ political system. Cáceres soon emerged as a leader in a broader social movement that united a coalition of marginalized groups seeking greater political and economic inclusion. Cáceres spent the next 16 years advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples, women, and other marginalized groups. To advance those goals, she helped build a social movement in Honduras and established strong connections to groups across the region and around the world.

Her work became particularly urgent after the coup in Honduras in 2009 that ousted democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. The president had laid the groundwork for populist changes which included land reform, efforts that were scrapped once Zelaya was out of office. Since then, life has become harder for activists of all stripes. Indeed, any groups who opposed the new regime’s neoliberal agenda became an official target for retribution.

Since the coup, successive administrations have courted foreign capital, engaged in privatization efforts, granted hundreds of hydroelectric and mining concessions to international corporations, and built infrastructure to support the accelerated exploitation of natural resources in Honduras. Among the projects was the Agua Zarca dam over the Gualcarque River—the issue the defined Cáceres efforts. The dam is being built by Desarrollos Energéticos, SA(DESA). Among the company’s owners is the powerful Atala family, suspected of ties to the coup, including Camilo Atala, president of theFicohsa Bank, the largest in the country. The Chinese hydroelectric engineering firm Sinohydro was initially overseeing the work with financing from the World Bank. But the protests over the construction compelled both to withdraw in 2013. Cáceres had also implored other foreign financiers, including the Dutch Development Bank FMO, the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation and German firms Siemens and Voith, to pull their funding. Mounting public pressure after the murder of Cáceres’ and COPINH activist Nelson Garcia two weeks later finally prompted the Dutch and Finnish banks to suspend disbursements on March 16, although they have not permanently withdrawn from the project.

JORGE CABRERA / REUTERS

The words “Berta Lives” are seen written in chalk to honour the slain environmental rights activist, Berta Caceres during a vigil to mark International Women’s Day in Tegucigalpa, Honduras March 8, 2016.

The heart of Cáceres’ strategy was to push the government to recognize that the COPINH’s demands were grounded in internationally recognized rights, including the right to prior and informed consent for projects that affect indigenous communities, and to target the project’s international financiers. At first, Cáceres and COPINH tried to block the Agua Zarca dam’s construction through political channels, including indigenous assemblies, public declarations opposing the dam, and legal challenges. When these failed and construction was set to begin in 2013, it seemed like the community was out of options.

The next salvo was peaceful protests. COPINH set up a roadblock that prevented DESA from accessing the river. DESA responded with a concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation that, at times, turned violent. Tomás Garciá, a COPINH protestor who was unarmed, was shot at close range and killed by a Honduran soldier in 2013. Two other members of COPINH have also been killed since then, and others have been attacked with machetes. Cáceres herself had been arrested on charges of illegal possession of a firearm (which she claimed was planted), as well on charges of usurpation, coercion, and damages as a result of the blockade. These charges were ultimately dismissed.

In the IACHR’s December 2015 Situation of Human Rights in Honduras report, the group specifically decried the criminalization of Cáceres’ protest movement. According to Global Witness, Honduras was the most deadly country in the world for environmental and land rights defenders in 2014.

In the end, COPINH’s orchestrated resistance to the Agua Zarca dam halted its construction in Honduras’ Rio Blanco community, but failed to thwart the project altogether. DESA moved the dam project across the river, near the town of San Francisco de Ojuera, where the company boasted of winning support for USAID projects. Construction began in August of 2015. The conflict simmered on, reaching a boiling point again on February 20, as security forces detained 100 protesters, including Cáceres, who had traveled to the new dam site to register their disapproval. Among those seeking to block the path of the protestors were members of the Honduran military. During the altercation, COPINH members reported that a local official told Cáceres that she would never come back to the project’s new site, and that she might be killed.

A man puts flowers on the coffin of slain environmental rights activist Berta Caceres at a cemetery in the town of La Esperanza, outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras March 5, 2016.
JORGE CABRERA / REUTERS
A man puts flowers on the coffin of slain environmental rights activist Berta Caceres at a cemetery in the town of La Esperanza, outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras March 5, 2016.

UNDER PRESSURE

Since Cáceres’ death, the Honduran government has yielded to tremendous public pressure and agreed to launch a prompt investigation into her murder.

Initial signals, however, have inspired little confidence. State investigators ignored the Cáceres family’s demand for an independent expert to attend the autopsy. The crime scene was compromised, and authorities were quick to suggest that her murder was either a crime of passion or a random robbery. Gustavo Castro Soto, a prominent Mexican environmental activist who was injured in the attack and is the sole eyewitness, provided testimony over multiple days in harsh conditions, but was prevented from leaving the country for 30 days, though he believes his life is in danger in Honduras. His lawyer’s license was suspended for 15 days after lodging a request that the decision to detain him in Honduras be revised. To this day, Castro remains in the Mexican Embassy compound in Tegucigalpa for his own safety, despite his stated desire to return home to his family. Intense and prolonged questioning of COPINH leaders have fueled concerns that Honduran authorities are more interested in extracting intelligence about Cáceres’ activist group to distract their efforts, rather than finding her murderer.

Cáceres’ family has expressed their doubts about the integrity of any investigation conducted by the Honduran government. They have demanded an independent international investigation to be overseen by the IACHR—one that could not only name the material perpetrators of the crime, but its masterminds as well, however high up the chain of command they may be. Honduran authorities have cited an agreement with the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to accompany the investigation, but there is good reason to doubt that the local office has the capacity, expertise, and investigative authority necessary to ensure an independent inquiry.

STAYING SAFE
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Cáceres’ family and the international community have also demanded that the Honduran government implement the IACHR’s orders to keep members of COPINH safe. But activists cannot be protected with armed guards and cameras alone. Rather, Tegucigalpa must confront the root of the social conflict that claimed Cáceres’ life, by respecting the rights of indigenous people, and canceling the concession to the Agua Zarca dam and others. Short of this, the cycle of unrest and repression in Honduras is sure to continue.

As U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton provided tacit support for the administration of former Honduran interim President Roberto Micheletti despite near universal condemnation of his tenure. Cáceres herself criticized Clinton for opposing the demand for Zelaya’s reinstatement, which set the stage for a deepening of the human rights crisis inside the country. And despite pervasive and persistent reports of repression—some of which has been directly linked to Honduras’ state security forces—Washington has continued to provide security aid as well as development financing to Honduras.

When Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, she dedicated it to “all the rebels out there, to my mother, to the Lenca people, to the Rio Blanco, and to the martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources.” She now takes her place on that list, but if her killers thought they could silence her voice and derail her mission, they were mistaken.

Links

  1. [1]  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/honduran-activist-shot-killed-home-article-1.2552454
  2. [2]  http://www.britannica.com/topic/Lenca
  3. [3]  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/08/20138510295334159.html
  4. [4]  https://intercontinentalcry.org/indigenous-peoples/lenca/
  5. [5]  http://fpif.org/one-year-resistance-rio-blanco/
  6. [6]  http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-death-of-berta-caceres
  7. [7]  http://web.mit.edu/urbanupgrading/upgrading/resources/organizations/USAID.html
  8. [8]  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/patrick-leahy/
  9. http://hankjohnson.house.gov/sites/hankjohnson.house.gov/files/documents/03_2016_Letter_Honduras_Berta_Caceres.pdf

10] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/03/04/who-murdered-environmental-activist-berta-caceres.html

[11] http://www.thenation.com/article/end-all-us-police-and-military-aid-honduras/

[12] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/regions/central-america-caribbean

[13] http://www.copinh.org/
[14] http://culturesofresistance.org/groups-we-support-COPINH
[15] http://copinhenglish.blogspot.com/
[16] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/Pages/Declaration.aspx
[17] http://www.latinamericansocialmovements.org/honduras/
[18] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/world/americas/29honduras.html
[19] http://www.britannica.com/biography/Manuel-Zelaya
[20] http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/227/european-funders-suspend-support-for-agua-zarca-dam
[21] http://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapid=298110979
[22] http://cepr.net/blogs/the-americas-blog/new-report-details-multilateral-development-bank-us-role-in-human-rights- abuses-in-rio-blanco-honduras
[23] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-21/central-american-billionaires-discovered-amid-citi-asset-sales [24] http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2015/01/27/ficohsa-becomes-honduras-biggest-bank/