While the role of the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, in a narcotrafficking ring led by his brother, Tony Hernadez, slowly unfolded in a court of Manhattan, New York, a little known group of environmental activists from Tocoa, a remote city in the northern Atlantic coast of Honduras, were awarded the prestigious Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award in a packed ceremony held in Washington DC..
The award has been presented by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) to individuals and organizations who are role models in the fight for the defense of human rights in the US, Latin America and Caribbean since 1976. “IPS has hosts the Letelier-Moffitt Awards to honor our fallen colleagues, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, and celebrate new champions of the human rights movement”, reads a statement from IPS.
This year the award was granted to the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Commons of Tocoa, a coalition of community groups, NOGs, faith and social organizations who since 2010 have fiercely defended their main water source, the Guapinol River, from being contaminated by an Iron Oxide mine, owned by one of the most powerful families of Honduras.
Reynaldo Dominguez a leader from the community of Guapinol and member of the Committee who travelled to Washington to receive the award, along with a delegation of six community leaders, described the event as a “testament to the human dignity of those who defend the commons in Guapinol, Honduras and the world.” He further stated, “In a time when we are living a climate crisis, the Honduran narco-government is more concerned with implementing an economic agenda based on the plunder of our natural resources. But in the communities of Tocoa, we are fighting for the defense of the environment”.
Land conflict in the Bajo Aguan
The Bajo Aguan Region in northern Honduras has historically been the setting for violent territorial disputes. Conflicts in the region can be traced back to the 1960s and 70s, when the Honduran government developed agrarian reform laws, giving collective land to thousands of farmers organized in farming cooperatives. In 1992 the Law for Land Modernization gave way to the formation of large private monopolies which were consolidated with a combination of legal privilege, fraud, coercion and violence – the most infamous figure to emerge after the land accumulation period was Miguel Facusse, known to have accumulated over 60% of the land previously owned by farmers’ cooperatives. The Facusse family is the sole owner of Dinant Corporation, responsible for the expansion of African Palm plantations that have caused an escalating conflict between big landowners and small farmers whose lands are being illegally occupied to make way for the palm oil industry.
The impacts of the conflict on the rights of the local rural population have been devastating. A report from the Permanent Observatory of Human Rights in the Lower Aguan, a local human rights organization that monitors human rights violations, reported in 2014, that from 2009 to 2013, more than 123 people had been assassinated and six had been disappeared as a result of land related conflicts.
But conflict is not restricted to the expansion of large monocrop industries, disputes related to the implementation of large tourism complexes, control routes for narcotrafficking and more recently the introduction of mining have added to the complexity of the land related disputes.
In August 2018, some 200 community members organized under the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Commons of Tocoa, established the "Guapinol Camp in Defense of Water and Life" to protest the irregular allocation of mining exploitation permits, known as ASP and ASP1, to Inversiones los Pinares mining company, formerly known as Emco Mining.
The company is owned by Lenir Perez, a powerful businessman previously linked to the execution of construction contracts illegally granted by the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez. Perez has also been accused of environmental crimes by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (SERNA) and is known for his family ties to the powerful Facusse clan. A SERNA report in 2012 found that the Buena Vista I mining project, owned by Pérez, caused excessive deforestation, contamination of water supplies and the disappearance of fish from the rivers due to mining waste that was not properly discarded.
According to Dominguez, before the concession was granted to Inversiones los Pinares there was a suspicious legislative reform of Decree 127-2012, which declared the current mining site as a protected area known as the Montaña of Botaderos or Carlos Escaleras National Park. The reform, now called decree 252-2013, reduces the size of the protected area in order to give access to mining exploitation.
“Following the legislative change there has been a collusion of the Honduran Institute of Geology and Mines (INGEOMINH), the Secretariat of Energy, Natural Resources, Environment and Mines (MiAmbiente), the National Institute for Forest Conservation and Development, Protected Areas and Wildlife (ICF) to clear all environmental prerequisites for the project and to grant an expedited exploitation license for an Iron Oxide mine.” Dominguez argued.
At the local level, the Municipality of Tocoa failed to consult with affected communities before extending a construction permit. The right to be consulted is imbedded in the Honduran Municipal Code through a requirement to hold town hall meetings (Cabildo Abierto) on matters that affect the lives of local communities. As a result, local organizations organized under the Committee have launched a campaign to demand that the municipality holds the town halls, required by law, to determine if the affected communities are in agreement with the project.
The main concern for Tocoa residents is the destruction of ecological reserves within the Carlos Escaleras National Park, where the head waters of rivers Cauca, San Pedro, Guapinol, Ceibita and Tocoa are located; these rivers supply clean water for the Bajo Aguan region which extends though the Colon, Olancho and Atlantida departments.
Criminalization as a response to dissent
In October 2018, residents and alternative news outlets reported the deployment of more than fifteen hundred military personnel and police patrols of the Honduran government armed with tanks and heavy weapons into Tocoa. The state security forces proceeded later to forcibly dismantle the Guapinol camp occupied by some 200 community members. According to testimonies, excessive use of force was employed against the civilian population. Hundreds of tear gas bombs were exploded harming many, dozens more were wounded, three people were detained by the authorities and Levin Alexander Bonilla, a 32 year-old from the community of Ceibita, was killed.
The military action was followed by a permanent militarization of the region that has caused various local leaders to flee in fear of further persecution. In addition, there have been reports that private security forces have since been responsible for kidnappings, death threats, and attacks with firearms against members of the resistance.
In November 2018, A public relations campaign led by local politicians, corporate media and businessmen against environmental defenders who opposed the mine resulted in the indictment of 32 members of the Committee for the Defense of the Commons and Natural Resources of Tocoa.
Originally, the Honduran judicial authorities fabricated charges of kidnapping, robbery, and aggravated arson. In January 2019, however, when 12 of the 32 indicted reported to the court on their own accord, their charges were upgraded to illicit association against the Honduran state. These charges carry excessive jail terms under anti-terrorism laws.
After the legal defense team pointed to numerous inconsistencies in the evidence and violations of the right to due process, including the fact that one of the defendants has been dead since 2015, all 12 were cleared by a National court in March2019. The Attorney General´s Office, however, has decided to appeal the decision.
In August 2019, a second group of seven activists presented themselves to the tribunals to face similar charges and, like those cleared in March, the legal team expected that their charges would be dismissed. This time however, the judge transferred the case to a military court where the lawsuit was allowed to proceed and bail for the defendants was denied. Although the judge ordered the defendants to be held at a medium security prison, closer to their relatives, they were illegally sent to a military prison known as “La Tolva”, designed to hold high profile criminals, terrorists and narco traffickers.
Dominguez hopes that winning the Letelier-Moffitt Award will increase the profile of their struggle and it will inspire international human rights organizations to keep their attention on the Lower Aguan situation, particularly the case of the land defenders who are victims of Inversiones los Pinares. He continued,
“We still have a long way to go before our colleagues are released and we need to put international pressure on the government. We have issued complaints with the National Commission for the Prevention of Violence and Torture, MNP-CONAPREV, and the Honduran National Commissioner for Human Rights, CONADEH, denouncing the arbitrary detention of land defenders from Tocoa, but despite the fact both institutions have issued resolutions asking the government to comply with due process nothing has been done”.