Honduras is known as one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world because of high levels of crime and gang violence. It is the most dangerous place on earth to be an activist, especially since the coup in 2019. More than 120 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2017 and many others were threatened, attacked or imprisoned. These were ordinary people who stood up against big companies who planned to build dams and mines or other projects on their land.

Global Witness showed that these projects are at the heart of conflicts that are linked to Honduras’s rich and powerful elites, including politicians. Their investigation uncovered back-door deals, bribes, and lawbreaking used to impose projects and silence any opposition.

Moreover, for many years, the USA has been providing financial aid to Honduras via the USAID programme for poverty relief. In 2016, for instance, the programme contributed 100 million USD in aid. While some of this money went into projects expanding education and strengthening health services, another part of it goes to the Honduran military and police. These are heavily involved in efforts to silence human rights defenders and activists, implying the USA in these crimes.

So, who are Honduras’s brave faces of change and resilience. Activists and communities who stand threats, attacks and imprisonment to fight for their rights and their land.

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres; taking up her mother’s fight for indigenous rights in Honduras

In March 2016, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres took over her mother’s role as an advocate for the rights of indigenous groups and environmental justice. After years of threats, her mother Bertha Cáceres was murdered in her home. She was the co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), which fights for the environmental, social, health, economic and educational rights of Honduras’s largest indigenous group, the Lenca people.

Bertha Cáceres fought against a dam project from Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA). This project was planned to be built along the Gualcarque River, which is considered sacred waters to the Lenca people. After the murder, the dam’s investors decided to withdraw from the project.

Over the last years, Bertha Cáceres’ family and community have been fighting for justice for her murder. Last November, after a long process plagued by delays and accusations of cover-ups, seven men were convicted. The court found that the men were hired by executives within DESA.

After her mother’s death, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres left her Latin American Studies to take up leadership of COPINH. In May 2017, she was elected general coordinator, the same position that her mother had held. Ever since, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres has been protesting big development projects that threaten the rights of indigenous people. But of course, this position comes with threats and attacks. A few weeks into her new role, she and members of COPINH were attacked. Their vehicle was held by armed attackers who tried to force them off the road and over a cliff.

Moreover, other members of COPINH have also faced threats, and some even have been murdered. Alan Garcia was protesting the DESA dam project in 2013, three years before the murder of Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, when he was shot in the chest by the military. In the same attack, Tomas Garcia, Alan’s father and one of the leaders of the protest, was shot multiple times at close range after which he died (8). Nelson García was shot in the face when going to his family home in north-west Honduras shortly after the death of Bertha Cáceres and Lesbia Yaneth Urquia’s body was found abandoned on a rubbish dump only a few months after.

For a full report on DESA and the situation of the Lenca community, read this report by Global Witness.

The Tolupan Community

Living in very remote areas, the Tolupan people of northern Honduras have limited access to basic services, and poverty levels are high. Ever since they took a stand against illegal logging and mining operations approximately ten years ago, they have experienced threats, criminalisation, and community members have been murdered.

While Honduran communities have a right to be a part of the decision in case of projects taking place on their land, the Tolupans were not consulted when illegal mining and logging permits were given out. When the community protested these developments, a criminal case was filed against their leaders for ‘obstructing the implementation of forestry management plans’. While this case was dismissed and the judge emphasised that local communities have a right to be consulted, illegal logging and mining have continued since then.

When in August 2013 the community held a peaceful sit-in to stop mining and logging trucks from passing through their land, they first received threats to leave by text message. A week later, the protesters were approached by gunmen who worked for the mining project, who opened fire on them. Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez, two community leaders, were killed. Another leader, María Enriquate Matute fled to her home but was found and killed by the gunmen.

A year later, the house of indigenous Tolupan leader Santos Córdoba was broken into. After Santos was killed, his corpse was burned down, and his children were threatened at gunpoint. Moreover, in June 2015, another Tolupan leader, Erasio Vieda Ponce, was killed by the same hitmen who had killed protesters in August 2013. Meanwhile, these protesters are still walking free.

While members of the community have been granted emergency protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), this does not mean they are safe. The implementation of protection measures is the responsibility of the Honduran state, which has not made many efforts to do so. For instance, after filing a police complaint for receiving debt threats, Luis de Reyes Marcía was murdered in April 2015. His wife, Consuelo Soto now lives in hiding, after hitmen shot at her house.

Click here for a full report on the situation of the Tolupan community.

Concepción Gutiérrez

In the hills of Nueva Esperanza near the Carribean coast, the last six years have been coloured by a conflict over the build of an iron oxide mine. The Buena Vista I mine threatens to drastically change the environment and way of life for locals that live from the land. When the build of the mine started in 2013, locals organised a protest movement to stop it. While the movement was peaceful, its leaders immediate started to receive death threats, and the community was visited by armed men that fired warning shots in the air.

Concepcíon Gutiérrez was one of the leaders that were threatened. In July 2013, 12 armed men entered her home. They threatened to kill her because she refused to sell her land to the company. Concepcíon had already received death threats before and was under the protection of two international human rights observers. The observers were taken hostage and were made to delete all photographs they took to make Concepción’s case. The female observer was sexually harassed, and the community was threatened not to report the violence to the police. Still, Concepción continues to defend her land and stand up to authorities.

For a full report on Concepción’s situation, read this case study by Global Witness.

The Garifuna and their struggle with tourism

On Honduras’s, northern Caribbean coast lives a small community of descendants of black slaves that were brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century. These 150 Garifuna families live in little wooden shacks on the beach at Barra Vieja, next door to a brand new luxurious Indura hotel. While this land used to be part of the Jeanette Kawas National Parks, the borders of the park were redrawn to allow for this construction.

From the start of this development project, the Minister for Tourism, Ricardo Martínez Castañeda has been pushing for the removal community, calling them ‘illegal squatters’. To justify the eviction of the Garifunas, the Honduran government has brought legal charges against them, saying that they were illegally occupying the land and that the Garifunas is not an indigenous population. Members of the community were found to be not guilty, and the IACHR ruled that the Honduran State violated the community’s right to consultation when agreeing on tourism projects on Garifuna.

However, this has not stopped the project from building hotels and expanding. In 2014, it was even announced that two more luxury hotels would be built, meaning that the whole community will have to move.

For a full report on the situation of the Garifunas, click here.

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