More environmentalists die in Honduras than anywhere else. Why?

Ordinary Hondurans fighting to protect their land and water are being murdered by state forces or hired assassins. A Global Witness report says more than 120 Honduran environmental activists have been killed since 2010.

Photo by: AFP/Reuters
Photo by: AFP/Reuters

Honduras is a mineral-rich country but the benefits are reaped by a small section of society, the report says.

What is happening?

A two-year investigation by Global Witness found “threats and attacks against land and environmental defenders in Honduras do not occur in a vacuum.”
The British-based environmental group said the killings were orchestrated by the powerful political and business figures who see the activists as obstacles to their business interests.  
After a 2009 coup which ousted former president Manuel Zelaya, the incoming government sought to use natural resources in the mining, energy and agricultural sectors to uplift the economy in South America’s third poorest nation.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez ran his election campaign on the slogan “Honduras is Open for Business.”
This drew foreign investment. But ordinary people in Honduras opposed the development, arguing that it would irreversibly damage their land, forests and water supply. 

Who is being targeted?

Activists said human rights abuses in Honduras are now worse than in the 1980s, when forced disappearances were the norm.

There have been “countless chilling attacks and threats, including the savage beating by soldiers of pregnant women, children held at gunpoint by police, arson attacks on villagers’ homes, whilst hired assassins still wander free among their victims’ communities,” Global Witness campaign leader Billy Kyte said.
Global Witness says 123 Hondurans, mostly local activists, have been murdered for opposing development. Countless others have been threatened or attacked.
Berta Caceres, a 44-year-old mother of four, is the most high profile victim. She was gunned down in her home for protesting the construction of the Agua Zarca dam.

Seven people are in custody, including an employee of an electricity company linked to the dam.
Local communities have also been targeted. Members of the Tolupan indigenous community who live in extreme poverty were shot at and killed when they were peacefully protesting the mining and logging of their land. Five people were killed and no arrests have been yet been made.

Villagers were threatened after they challenged the construction of a mine by businessman Lenir Perez, who has close ties to Honduras’ first lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez.

Berta Cacares was a vocal member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). (Reuters)

Who is behind the killings?

Global Witness alleges members of Honduras' political and economic elite are orchestrating the violence.

The group said it had evidence linking one of the most powerful politicians in the country to the killings.

The president of Honduras’ ruling party Gladis Aurora López “appears to have a clear conflict of interest given that her husband controls La Aurora and Los Encinos, two dams granted licenses when López was in Congress, in violation of the Honduran Constitution,” the report said.

It claimed that the planned Los Encinos hydropower project in the west of the country is controlled by Lopez’ husband, who aims to sell energy to the state despite a conflict of interest.

Private security firms employed by mining and hydropower companies have also intimidated communities into signing away their land to the energy companies. Of 29 farmers who were killed between 2009 and 2013, private security guards were implicated in 13 of the deaths.
Global Witness has also claimed that state security forces and organised crime units were involved.

Enrique Martinez, 17, with a rifle slung over his back, patrols an area of La Confianza, Honduras, a city developed from land seized by small-scale farmers from one of Honduras' richest men. (AP)

What is being done?

Very little.
There has been some action, like in Cacares’ case, where suspects were arrested.
But the report points out that corruption is rife, political elites peddle their influence for stakes in big deals, and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
The disgruntled in the communities are either imprisoned or regularly offered bribes - and when that doesn’t work, the military is enlisted, the report says.
Global Witness said the government needs to step in, investigate the allegations made in the report, and protect activists.

“The state must implement its international obligation to protect land and environmental defenders, their families, colleagues and communities against threats and reprisals,” the report said.


TRTWorld and agencies