This Is Why You Could Lose Your Life Protecting Honduras’ Environment

Men carry a coffin containing the body of slain Honduran Indian leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, outside of the coroners office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/FERNANDO ANTONIO
Men carry a coffin containing the body of slain Honduran Indian leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, outside of the coroners office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/FERNANDO ANTONIO

A week ago, Lesbia Yaneth Urquía, a businesswoman and environmental activist in the rural town of Marcala, Honduras, left her house as she usually did at the crack of dawn for her daily bike ride. She never returned.

On Thursday, news broke first in Honduras and then in the international press: Urquía’s family had found the activist leader dead in a municipal landfill. It was a gruesome sight. Urquía, a sympathizer of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and a vocal opponent of hydroelectric development in the La Paz region, was dumped on top of trash bags. According to authorities, her head showed signs of massive trauma done with a blunt object. Police said they suspected it all stemmed from a bike robbery, though COPINH quickly attributed the killing to her activism.

Her family didn’t reply to a request for comment, but sources who knew the victim told ThinkProgress that Urquía showed machete injuries. “She was a fighter, an environmental defender, and had long opposed the privatization of natural resources, mostly water,” said Liliam Esperanza Lopez, financial coordinator at COPINH, and a native of La Paz who knew Urquía and has been in contact with the family. “That’s what we experience in this country when we defend the land, the forests,” she told ThinkProgress.

Death has become a part of life for environmental activists in Honduras. A click on any Honduran environmental organization website leads to allegations of persecution. Activists from all over the country describe armed home invasions; suspicious cars or men on motorcycles following them; as well as outright attacks and murders. Honduras recently underwent a massive distribution of land concessions to companies eager to extract timber, gold, silver, copper, and lead, as well as to develop the nation’s abundant hydropower capacity. Concessions are meant to show Honduras as a safe place for business and lift people out of poverty. But since resources are often found in rural indigenous land, experts said the government and companies are clashing with communities.

A Deadly Profession

Clashes in remote but resource-rich areas are not just political, they are deadly, too, according to experts and activists. And while environmental and human right organizations report casualties on a regular basis, COPINH, a group present in some 200 communities, has had it particularly difficult in the last four months. In March, founding member and top leader Berta Cáceres was shot dead in her home, triggering worldwide condemnation and mass protests. Cáceres, a member of the Lenca indigenous community won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for opposing the Agua Zarca dam project on the Gualcarque river, a sacred waterway for the Lenca. She had for years reported threats to her life and the murder of fellow activists.

“We risk so much,” Cáceres said in an interview in 2014. “That implies threats to life, threats to our sons and daughters, to our families.” So far a handful of people have been arrested in connection to her death, Telesur reported, including former and active military personnel.

Murder Of Honduran Environmental Activist Showcases The Risk Environmentalists Face Around The…Climate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Fernando Antonio Before Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was gunned down in…thinkprogress.orgTwo weeks after Cáceres’ murder, Nelson García, another COPINH leader, was killed outside the house of his mother-in-law, according to COPINH. García had been leading some 150 families that claimed property rights on a portion of Rio Chiquito, a town close to Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. His death triggered another wave of condemnations from entities like the United Nations, while inspiring major financiers like the Netherlands Development Finance Company to stop funding to the Agua Zarca project.

Like Cáceres and García, Urquía also organized communities and opposed hydroelectric power plants on indigenous lands. In fact, her murder came just days before some 4,000 indigenous residents of Santa Elena, a community some 12 miles from Marcala, were set for a first-of-its-kind vote that took place Sunday. That vote was part of a so-called civic and free consultation process of indigenous communities on whether they would approve one of the five hydroelectric projects poised for the region.

“We believe this avalanche of murders is a message,” Tomas Gomez Membreño, COPINH general coordinator, told ThinkProgress. “It says, if you keep fighting, people in your communities will keep dying.”

The problem is that the way the development is happening is by not incorporating the people that live there

This is the second time rural Santa Elena has tried to undertake a consultation vote, Rocio Santos, coordinator of natural resources and human rights at the Honduran Centre for the Protection of Community Development, told ThinkProgress. The first time residents and organizations deemed the vote void, as they realized people were trucked in from other areas. “It was a huge scandal,” said Santos, adding “that’s why we did a census, and based on those figures we are conducting the vote.”

Results on the Santa Elena consultation are expected Tuesday or Wednesday.

Environmental opposition to poorly-designed hydroelectric development is not limited to indigenous peoples in developing countries worried about sacred land rights. Activists in the United States and around the world have objected to dams and power plants that, when built or operated badly, can play havok on local ecosystems, change the topography of inhabited land, and even boost greenhouse gas emissions. In California, Washington and other states activists and Native American tribes have taken state and utilities to court, and at times they’ve gotten more water to be released for fish and other wildlife, or technology that can save fish from turbidity.

Confronting ‘Cold Capitalism’

Honduras is the second-poorest country in Latin America. After a military coup in 2009, its right-wing government has been trying to portray the country as open for business through a boom in land concessions. Starting in 2010, the administration of then-President Porfirio Lobo gave over 300 land concessions to private companies for mining, eco-tourism, solar energy, wind turbines, and hydroelectric plants, said Suyapa Portillo, assistant professor of transnational studies at Pitzer College, and an expert in Central American social movements.

These companies are at times associated with the country’s politicians. For instance, investment companies behind some of the hydroelectric projects near Marcala are linked to Gladys Aurora Lopez, a congresswoman and president of the now ruling National Party of Honduras (NP).

Calls and questions submitted to Aurora S.A. de C.V., one of the investment groups, and the NP went unanswered by press time. Lopez has said hydropower concessions in La Paz were given to the company her husband manages before she was an elected official.

Hillary Clinton Claims Honduran Government ‘Followed The Law’ In Ousting Its President in 2009Politics by CREDIT: AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo In an extensive interview this week, the editorial board of the NY Daily…thinkprogress.orgThe country’s push to harvest the power of its rivers and lakes is no accident. Honduras lacks fossil fuel resources, but does possess precious metals like gold, silver, and copper, and it’s rich in hydropower potential. Developing hydroelectricity has, however, divided and incensed indigenous agricultural communities like the Lenca, who say diverting rivers and drying up streams for energy threatens their already fragile livelihood. In Honduras, as in much of Latin America, poverty rates are higher among rural and indigenous people, both demographics that overwhelmingly lack basic services like electricity and potable water that private development could create.

“The market is there in Central America because there has been very little development, but the problem is that the way the development is happening is by not incorporating the people that live there,” Portillo, who is from Honduras, told ThinkProgress. “It’s really cold capitalism.”

She said despite a background of local opposition and alleged threats to activists and murders, companies get government support. Meanwhile, crimes go mostly unsolved while indigenous communities feel rights to their ancestral territories are trampled. Development takes place usually without consulting indigenous communities as mandated by United Nations conventions that Honduras has ratified, Portillo said. “Indigenous people are seeing the loss of their land and their only way of survival.”

A Secret Hit List

While Honduras leans heavily on land and water development for growth, its stability is increasingly under the arm of military police. Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, and yet Portillo said this security force may be causing more repression and corruption. “You have this ascension of policemen into military police status, but there’s no training, there’s no clean up of [crooked cops],” she said.

That military police so reminiscent of the security apparatus Honduras used during its turbid 1980s is growing. Just in 2014, Honduras added 1,000 military police officers, essentially enlarging this force by 50 percent, according to Insight Crime, a nonprofit journalistic venture.

For their part, companies hire private security personnel that often have police or military background, as well as ties to the government. “So then you have these multiple bodies operating. You have sort of the military police, you have the security forces, and then you have this collusion by the government, which protects the companies because they want to keep Honduras open for business,” Portillo said.

Women Are The Ones Fighting The Tough Environmental Battles Around The WorldThree women, three stories. In Papua New Guinea, the Carteret islands are drowning in the rising sea. The people who…thinkprogress.orgThe government is now even suspected of having a hit list with names and photographs of dozens of activists after a piece in The Guardian quoted an anonymous Honduran sergeant who said the list was distributed to military police.

Meanwhile, paranoia and fear are rampant among activists. Some sources in Honduras agreed to continue interviews with ThinkProgress only after extensive background reviews, or offered help only via encrypted emails. That’s because whether attacks on environmentalists come from high crime rates as authorities often say, or are politically motivated as activists counter, the fact is that environmentalists — and most importantly, leaders — are being killed.

At least 109 activists known for opposing dams, mines, logging, or agriculture projects were murdered in Honduras between 2010 and 2015, according to Global Witness, a nonprofit that’s tracking the deaths of what it calls environmental defenders. In its latest report released shortly after Cáceres death, Global Witness said 2014 saw a spike in murders linked to hydropower projects, and that 40 percent of those killed worldwide are from indigenous communities.

Honduras may be under the spotlight now, but other countries fare much worse. In 2015, Brazil had 50 killings, according to Global Witness, followed by the Philippines, 33, and Colombia, 26. Honduras now ranks below Peru, Nicaragua, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Guatemala on Global Witness’ list. The top 10 deadliest countries are largely in Latin America.

Follow The Money

But as threats and murders mount, Honduras is increasingly under international pressure to take stronger measures in protecting activists and indigenous rights. Even U.S. lawmakers have spoken out on the issue. Weeks after Cáceres murder, dozens of senators urged Secretary of State John Kerry to review U.S. security assistance to Honduras, and U.S. backed loans for development projects.

Activists in Honduras said pressuring international lenders from the country of origin is essential. Once in Honduras, the genesis of international loans are often secret by law or difficult to obtain, Gomez, the COPINH leader, said. “But we do know the World Bank is investing. We know the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is investing, and so is the International Monetary Fund (IMF),” he said.

International agencies provide 85 percent of the financing for public investment in Honduras, according to the IDB. Some of agencies have pulled their funding as claims of systemic human right abuses grow, but this leaves many still involved.

One Simple Way To Keep U.S. Corporations From Hiding CashEconomy by CREDIT: AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko The Panama Papers’ revelations of widespread tax avoidance by the global…thinkprogress.orgThe World Bank said in a statement to ThinkProgress that they are involved in one hydroelectric project, called La Vegona, in northern Honduras. “The World Bank has expressed its concerns to the government over the murders of indigenous activists and has encouraged it to continue with the investigations to solve them as swiftly and transparently as possible,” the statement said.  Neither the Inter-American Development Bank (IBD) nor the International Monetary Fund (IMF) replied to questions by press time. It’s known, however, that the IMF signed an agreement with Honduras in 2014, allowing the country access to $189 million for three years provided that the government underwent privatizations, pension reforms, and public sector layoffs. However, it’s unclear how much of that money has been allocated for projects in rural areas.

For its part, the IDB last year loaned $23 million to rehabilitate a hydroelectric plant in Lake Yojoa, Honduras largest lake. The IDB says it “supports the implementation of a new policy to include preventative actions at the municipal level, with emphasis on attention to high-risk groups and strengthening information systems and criminal investigations.”

Calls to various Honduras representatives in Washington D.C. and Honduras went unanswered by press time.

Update:

This post has been updated to clarify the circumstances surrounding the death of Nelson García.