The Dutch development bank, FMO, which is the main European funder of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project, has suspended all its activities in Honduras after the murder of another indigenous activist.
The murder of Nelson García from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) on Tuesday (March 15) follows the assassination two weeks ago of the council’s coordinator and co-founder Berta Cáceres, who was gunned down in her home in La Esperanza in the western province of Intibucá.
Garcia is reported to have been shot four times in the face at Rio Chiquito after military police removed local people from land they were occupying.
FMO said in a statement that it was shocked by the news of García’s murder.
“After the recent violent death of Berta Cáceres, we have called upon the Honduran government to do anything in their power to stop the ongoing violence and killings in their country.
“The right of speech for those who speak up for their rights and the livelihoods of people are of very high value to FMO. Every individual should be safe when defending their position. FMO rejects and condemns any violence against those individuals or groups.”
FMO said that, “given the current situation, with ongoing violence”, it had decided to suspend all its activities in Honduras, with immediate effect.
“This means that we will not engage in new projects or commitments and that no disbursements will be made, including the Agua Zarca project.”
The Finnish aid-financed investment fund Finnfund told the journal Development Today that it was also suspending disbursements to the Agua Zarca dam, which is being constructed on indigenous community land in Río Blanco.
The interim executive director of the organisation International Rivers, Peter Bosshard, says the pressure is now on on the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) to suspend all support for the dam. The CABEI loan to the project totals US$24,400,000.
COPINH has called on the Dutch and Finnish governments to visit the Agua Zarca site, Bosshard said. “It is also high time for the US government to end its aid to a Honduran military which has frequently been associated with the human rights abuses in the country.”
In a joint statement, civil society groups who have been coordinating the international response to Cáceres murder welcomed the decisions taken by FMO and Finnfund.
They called on CABEI “to now publicly clarify its role in the Agua Zarca project”, and to immediately suspend all payments to the project.
“We wish to reiterate our demand to FMO, Finnfund and CABEI that, following the murder of Berta Cáceres, after years of ongoing violence and intimidation in relation to the Agua Zarca project, they fully and permanently withdraw from the project,” the groups said.
The head of the European Union delegation in Honduras, Ketil Karlsen, said the delegation was “extremely shocked and worried about another murder of an indigenous leader”.
The EU delegation, Karlsen said, demanded an urgent and thorough investigation “to bring the perpetrators to justice” and called on the Honduran authorities to protect defenders of human rights.
Cáceres, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) last year, was one of the key opponents of the Agua Zarca dam project.
She told Changing Times last October that activists in Honduras had succeeded in stopping 14 hydroelectric dams, but more than three hundred were still planned. Forty-two dams were planned on Lenca land alone. “The government and the corporations want to privatise almost all of the rivers of Honduras,” she said.
Mega-dams, Cáceres said, were causing ethnocide and were the product of “predatory capitalism and the logic of extractivism”.
They had led to environmental, ethical, political, social, economic, and cultural conflicts and caused climate change, a loss of food sovereignty, and a loss of territory and culture, she said.
Since Cáceres’ assassination, there have been worldwide calls for the Agua Zarca project to be cancelled.
FMO said a delegation, including the company’s CEO and director for the energy sector, would travel to Honduras and visit the communities around the Agua Zarca project “to get a complete understanding of the current situation”. Finnfund will also be represented on the delegation, according to Development Today.
“FMO has invited NGOs to support it in those efforts,” FMO said. “This mission will be undertaken as soon as the safety situation allows for it.”
The company says it will also thoroughly investigate all other projects in which it is involved in Honduras. “On the basis of each investigation, further decisions will be made on the continued involvement of FMO.”
According to Development Today, FMO has invested US$15 million in Agua Zarca, while Finnfund has commited US$5 million to the project.
According to the pan–Latin American network TeleSUR, about 150 families who were members of COPINH had occupied the land at Rio Chiquito for the past two years.
Local sources told TeleSUR that twenty police officers, twenty soldiers, and twenty anti-riot police arrived at 8 a.m. on Tuesday to begin evicting the group.
“They said that they would be peaceful and they were not going to throw anyone out of their houses, but at midday they started to tear down the houses; they destroyed the maize, the banana trees, and the yuca plantations,” a COPINH coordinator, Tomas Gomez, told TeleSUR.
Gomez told TeleSUR that Garcia was killed by military police as he was heading home after the eviction.
There was an international outcry after Cáceres’ murder. Her assassination sparked immense grief. Environmental activists, politicians, and public figures raised their voices in shock and outrage at the murder of a woman who touched hearts and minds far beyond her home country.
The activist’s assassination has brought into sharp relief the dangers faced by environmental campaigners, not only in Honduras. It also turned a spotlight onto the causes Cáceres lived and died for – the fight for the rights of indigenous people, and the battle to defend their lands.
US senator Patrick Leahy said in a statement read at Cáceres’ funeral: “Berta was a champion of the rights of indigenous people and of the natural environment. She risked her life for those causes, braving the threats and the fear, knowing that any day could be her last.
“For her courage and commitment she was admired around the world, including in the Congress of the United States, and she will be forever remembered for it.”
Leahy says the investigation into Cáceres’ murder must be independent and comprehensive and include the participation of international experts.
“Those responsible for ordering and carrying it out must be brought to justice,” he said. “The Río Blanco and the territory that Berta devoted her life to defend should be protected. The Agua Zarca dam project should be abandoned.”
Leahy says the dam project has caused far too much controversy, divisiveness, and suffering within the Lenca community. “It clearly cannot coexist with the indigenous people of Rio Blanco who see it as a ‘permanent danger’ to their safety and way of life.”
Petitions have been launched calling for an independent investigation into Cáceres’ assassination and for protection for the Mexican activist, Gustavo Castro Soto, who witnessed the killing and was wounded during the attack. He is still being detained in Honduras and there are serious fears for his safety.
Gustavo Castro (pictured left) tried to leave Honduras on March 6, but the authorities refused to let him board a plane for Mexico. He was taken to the Mexican embassy in Honduras, but the Honduran authorities then insisted that he be brought back to La Esperanza.
Fellow activists say the Honduran authorities are treating him more like a suspect than a victim.
Castro is the coordinator of the environmental organisation Otros Mundos Chiapas (Friends of the Earth Mexico).
More than fifty international organisations have written a joint letter to the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, about Cáceres’ murder.
“We demand an independent international investigation into the circumstances around Mrs Cáceres’ death, and guaranteed protection for her family and colleagues,” the organisations stated.
There had been an increase in violence against, and intimidation of, people defending their indigenous land rights in Honduras, they said.
The organisations called on the Honduran state to ensure that the right of indigenous peoples to their land is respected “and that they are able to carry out their legitimate work without fear for their safety”.
They also demanded urgent action to protect Gustavo Castro, and to ensure his safe passage back to Mexico.
‘A tragedy waiting to happen’
Cáceres murder was described by Americas director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara-Rosas, as a “tragedy that was waiting to happen”. Cáceres had received many death threats, kidnap threats, and threats of sexual assault because of her opposition to the Agua Zarca dam.
The threats had escalated in recent weeks since construction of the dam had restarted.
The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) raised concerns about Cáceres’ safety with the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, last year and called on the government to apply “precautionary measures”.
Anti-dam activists from the US, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Brazil, who, along with Cáceres, attended the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER), held in Sarawak, Malaysia, last October, have written a joint letter to Honduran embassies worldwide urging the Honduran government to conduct a prompt, independent, and thorough investigation into Cáceres assassination, stop the Agua Zarca dam, and provide human rights defenders with the necessary protection.
The activists expressed their grief and anger over Cáceres’ murder. “Her death comes at a time when Lenca communities are being violently forced from their land and the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, defeated in 2013, has resurfaced.”
Cáceres told delegates in October how the military, paramilitaries, police, and hitmen were sent into Lenca territory, and activists were victims of vicious smear campaigns.
“Ten members of our organisation have been murdered; four of them for defending the Gualcarque River,” she said at that time.
According to Global Witness, Honduras has become the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists. At least 109 people were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015 for taking a stand against destructive dam, mining, logging and agriculture projects.
Of the eight victims whose cases were publicly reported in 2015, six were from indigenous groups. “This is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” Global Witness stated. “It is safe to assume that some deaths are not being publicly reported.”
In its report How Many More, published in April last year, Global Witness states that, in 2014, at least 116 environmental activists were murdered. Forty percent of the victims were indigenous people, “with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business”. Nearly three-quarters of the deaths were in Central and South America.
“Globally, it’s likely that the true death toll is higher. Many of the murders we know about occurred in remote villages or deep within the jungle, where communities lack access to communications and the media. It’s likely many more killings are escaping public records.”
In a statement issued on March 15, Senator Leahy said: “Why are the world’s most vulnerable people, who traditionally live harmoniously with the natural environment, so often the victims of such abuse and violence?”
There are multiple reasons why indigenous people are such frequent targets of threats, persecution, and criminalisation by state and non-state actors in scores of countries, Leahy says, and these include racism and other forms of prejudice.
“But I put greed at the top of the list. It is greed that drives governments and private companies, as well as criminal organisations, to recklessly pillage natural resources above and below the surface of land inhabited by indigenous people, whether it is timber, oil, coal, gold, diamonds, or other valuable minerals. Acquiring and exploiting these resources requires either the acquiescence, or the forcible removal, of the people who live there.”
In Berta Cáceres’ case, Leahy says, the threats and violence against her and other members of her organisation were well documented and widely known, but calls by the IACHR for protective measures were largely ignored.
“This was particularly so because the Honduran government and the company that was constructing the hydroelectric project that Ms Cáceres and COPINH had long opposed were complicit in condoning and encouraging the lawlessness that Ms Cáceres and her community faced every day.”
Leahy expressed his concern about Gustavo Castro, who, he said, “has ample reason to fear for his life in a country where witnesses to crime are often stalked and killed”. In the meantime, Leahy said, “for reasons as yet unexplained”, the Honduran government suspended for 15 days Castro’s lawyer’s licence to practice.
“A professional, comprehensive investigation is essential and the Honduran government has neither the competence nor the reputation for integrity to conduct it themselves,” Leahy said. The Honduran police, he said, “seemed predisposed to pin the attack on associates of Ms Cáceres”. The Honduran authorities, he added, refused the family’s request for an independent expert to observe the autopsy.
“The family has also asked that independent forensic experts be used to analyse the ballistics and other evidence. The internationally respected Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which has received funding from the US Agency for International Development for many years, would be an obvious option, but the Honduran government has so far rejected this request too.”
Leahy says it is a common practice of extractive industries, energy companies, and governments to divide local communities by buying off one faction, calling it “consultation”, and insisting that it justifies ignoring the opposing views of those who refuse to be bought.
“When a majority of local inhabitants continue to protest against the project as a violation of their longstanding territorial rights, the company and its government benefactors often respond with threats and provocations, and community leaders are vilified, arrested, and even killed. Then representatives of the company and government officials profess to be shocked and saddened and determined to find the perpetrators, and years later the crime remains unsolved and is all but forgotten.”
Peter Bosshard says indigenous peoples are disproportionally affected by dams, plantations, and other resource extraction projects and by the violence that is often part of such projects.
“FMO and other development financiers have a long and sorry history of projects that have engendered violence against indigenous peoples, including the Agua Zarca, Barro Blanco, and Santa Rita dams in Central America,” he said.
“FMO, Finnfund, and other financiers must unequivocally recognise the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior informed consent regarding projects on their territories.
“The world’s governments have recognised this right in a UN declaration, and it cannot be watered down to some kind of consultation in which the final decision rests with the investor.”
Bosshard says Cáceres’ murder has become a symbol and a rallying cry for people around the world “who are shocked and outraged by the price which marginalised people, and indigenous peoples in particular, frequently have to pay for projects that are supposed to bring economic and social development”.
Today (Thursday), indigenous groups in Honduras will march through its cities demanding justice for Cáceres. A rally will also be held outside the Honduran mission to the UN in New York.
There were numerous demonstrations in the days following Cáceres’ assassination, not only in Honduras, but in other countries, including Colombia and the United States. A protest vigil took place outside the Honduran embassy in London on March 7 and there was a demonstration in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on the same day.
Photos of Berta Cáceres courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
Article updated to include new comments from Senator Patrick Leahy and reaction from Peter Bosshard.