HONDURAS’S economic growth strategy is founded on tourism, energy projects, mining and agri-business – all of which are potentially damaging to the environment.
The government has awarded licenses to hundreds of controversial projects and critics say it is selling off the country’s rich natural resources to the highest bidder.
Logging, mining and dam projects are often sited on the ancestral territories of indigenous people and there have been accusations of land grabs.
Indigenous communities are vulnerable because their ownership – or collective ownership – of tribal land goes unrecognised.
Human rights organisations believe the expansion of these businesses has fuelled violence against local communities and land rights activists.
Rural poverty is high, with around six in 10 households living in extreme poverty, on less than US$2.50 per day.
One reason is inequality in land ownership. Five per cent of large scale farmers control 61 per cent of cultivable land while many small scale farmers scratch a living from pockets of land, growing enough to feed their family and selling whenever there is for a little extra. These communities know hunger.
Trócaire, established by the Irish Catholic bishops in 1973 for donations to development and emergency relief overseas, partners with a number of organisations which support rural communities, educating them on their rights to consultation and consent and providing legal support in the face of oppression and criminalisation.
The projects often divide communities, with those in favour viewing it as an opportunity for their area. Companies promise jobs and improvements to roads, health centres and schools. Too often these promises are broken and communities are left in a worse situation.
Below are three case studies featuring indigenous women from different areas who have first-hand experience of what happens when an extractive company sets its sights on their land.
- Part one – Berta Cáceres was murdered one year after receiving a prestigious environmental prize for her work defending natural resources in Honduras
- Part three – Fleeing poverty and violence in Honduras – a migrant’s journey to the US
Los Encinos project on Río Chinacla in La Paz
María Felícita López (31) says a hydroelectric dam project in her area in the La Paz region has “resulted in neighbour being against neighbour”.
With the help of Trócaire’s partner Cehprodec (Honduran Centre for Promotion of Community Development), her community was prepared and able to prevent the Los Encinos project from being sited on the Chinacla River on the Lenca people’s ancestral land.
Security cameras and a large gate have been installed at the offices of Cehprodec (Honduran Centre for Promotion of Community Development) which is a partner of Trócaire. Picture from Trócaire
Los Encinos is one of five case studies featured in a 2017 report by Global Witness, a non-profit organisation dedicated to exposing environmental abuses.
Its company director is Arnold Castro Hernandez, the husband of former president of the National Party Gladis Aurora López who is the vice president of Congress.
Gladis was in congress when the licences for the Los Encinos and Aurora dams were granted. Under Honduran law it is illegal for members of congress or their spouses to obtain contracts or concessions granted by the state.
Both Gladis and her husband deny any conflict of interest or illegality in the approval of the Los Encinos project. Arnold Castro said his wife had not participated in the session when the contract was approved. Both also said they had no links to violent attacks on opponents.
With Los Encinos there was a breach of International Labour Convention 169 which requires a company to receive community consent before beginning work. Instead, Global Witness claims that 600 people were bussed in from the neighbouring country of El Salvador to sign consent forms with the promise of employment and were then promptly bussed home again.
Worse still, three indigenous activists have been killed and others have been victims of threats, intimidation and smear campaigns.
María’s home was raided by police and army claiming they were searching for weapons and drugs. Her husband fled to El Salvador after she says he was wrongly accused of murder.
Residents are not united in opposition. Assurances were given that, in return for community support, schools and infrastructure would be improved and María says the challenge has been convincing local people that promises are sometimes empty.
“Individuals who oppose these projects face the stigma of being labelled anti-development,” she says.
María is an executive member of Milpah (Lenca Indigenous People of La Paz) and also works with victims of gender-based violence in a country where machismo is ingrained and the UN notes that “discrimination against women persists in all spheres of their lives”.
Her profile means intimidation and threats are a constant and she worries for the safety of her four children who she describes as “the engine that keeps me going”.
Aurora project on Río Zapotal in La Paz
Rosa Aguilar Vásquez (62) lives with two of her 10 children. The other eight have migrated. She says the Aurora dam on the Zapotal River “has come to ruin our lives”. Picture from Trócaire
The Zapotal River was dammed eight years ago. Now there’s a dry river bed and the water is diverted into concrete pipes and sent cascading down the mountainside to a power station.
This area of La Paz is verdant and the river is essential for daily life but four communities no longer have access to it.
Rosa Aguilar Vásquez (62) lives with the two of her 10 children who have not migrated and describes what life used to be like.
“This has come to ruin our lives. The dam has cut off the mountain which was dense and lush. I remember a time when people used to come from faraway places to bathe in the river and swim and take water. Now that’s impossible.
“This river used to be high, now it’s just a bed of stones. There’s nothing left to fish. There’s nothing left to eat.”
The Aurora company is also run by Arnold Castro Hernandez and the energy produced is sold to the state.
Local people we spoke to on our visit said Gladis Aurora López had visited when the project was in its infancy and offered assurances about job creation.
Marta Gonzales Ordoñez (51) does not support the business.
Marta Gonzales Ordoñez (51) is a mother of two who lives close to the Zapatol River. She says her husband complained that the community had not been properly consulted about the Aurora project and that his family had not been paid a fair price for land. The family was threatened and left the area for two years. Picture from Trócaire
Her family survives on what they can grow on a small parcel of land and she says they fled their home and stayed away for two years after a drunk man came to their house and warned her husband he would be killed because he had complained that the company had not properly compensated them for land it had vested.
“My husband was denouncing the fact that his right to be consulted was violated. They may have taken advantage of the fact that we lack some literacy, they may think that we are not educated and that’s why they come here without consulting us.”
Nearly one in five women in rural areas are illiterate, according to the UN.
This community now has access to a limited water source which dries up in summer and this “has increased the chance of disease” because they depend on it to bathe, wash clothes, dishes and clean their homes.
Dynamite blasting during construction also caused cracks to appear in homes, she said.
Marta tells us something which is to become a common thread running through stories of dealings between powerful business and vulnerable communities.
“They came here with a lot of promises of improving the lives of the people and they haven’t fulfilled those.”
The commitments made highlight the impoverished circumstances in which these people live – a bag of groceries for households, a tree nursery and an ambulance.
Rosa Aguilar Vásquez says residents were initially told that construction would only encroach on a “table sized” area of land “and now hectares and hectares of land have been taken up to build this dam”.
Her daughter is president of the community board and has faced threats, including one occasion when she was threatened by a machete-wielding man, Rosa says.
Dividing communities and eroding the cohesion that has existed for generations is one tactic employed by companies facing organised opposition.
Here, a new, blue church was built. Blue is the colour of the National Party. Those in favour of the dam attend the new church.
Fr José Adán Martinez Lizardo (61) has ministered in the area for 24 years and is an environmentalist. He
is pictured outside the offices of Cehprodec (Honduran Centre for Promotion of Community Development) which is a partner of Trócaire. Picture from Trócaire
Fr José Adán Martinez Lizardo (61) has ministered in the area for 24 years and is an environmental defender.
He says the diocese wasn’t consulted about the new church and is under pressure to move him to a new parish.
Fr José believes he has placed his life in danger by speaking out.
Damming the river affected 500 families in the municipality’s four poorest communities, he says, adding that they’re “defenceless” against the might of government and business elite.
“They are getting wealthier and the people are getting poorer,” he adds.
“In the name of development it seems that it’s desirable if you take away everything from the poor; their identity, their habitat, their culture.”
The Aurora dam can be seen in the top right of the picture. Water from the Zapotal River is diverted into pipes and runs down the mountain to the hydroelectric power station. Picture from Trócaire
Logging in San Francisco Campo
Ángela Murillo Bardales (39) is a member of the indigenous Tolupan people and has five children. These are the three youngest – Helen, Jocsan (5) and 14-year-old Robersy. Picture from Trócaire
Ángela Murillo Bardales (39) is a member of the indigenous Tolupan people and lives in a community of 50 households in San Francisco Campo.
Ángela says illegal logging taking place without their consent in their forest is causing water sources to dry up and local families believe mining has polluted their water source as they developed skin rashes.
The community mobilised and in 2017 set up a roadblock preventing logging lorries accessing the site. Last year police fired tear gas at these peaceful demonstrators.
An indigenous father and son have also been shot dead. Human rights defenders, including Ángela, are being prosecuted. She says she has been beaten and received death threats for her work as a land defender and women’s rights activist.
Angela is one of the ‘Tolupan Nine’ who are due to stand trial accused of obstructing a forest management plan. Legal support is being provided by MADJ (Dignity and Justice Movement), another of Trócaire’s partners.
“Trócaire demands an immediate end to the prosecution of the nine Tolupan land defenders currently charged,” the charity says.
“Likewise, we ask the authorities to cease the violence, discrimination, and criminalization of the Tolupan tribe of San Francisco Campo and to guarantee their rights over their ancestral territory, protect their lives and punish those who have systematically violated their human rights.
“Finally, we lend our solidarity to the legitimate and dignified defence exercised by the Tolupan defenders and call on the national and international community to closely follow and demand justice for their case.”
Angela and her husband have five children and their land is a 90-minute walk from their home. You might recognise Ángela and her children from this year’s Trócaire box.
Big business is “making millions off our resources while we live in poverty,” she says.
Trócaire is also supporting another group of water defenders facing criminal charges.