Saturday 20 July 2019

Natives pay price for defence of environment against industry

Rubbish strewn river flood plain at the Esquipulas Bordo. Trócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction. Picture: Frank Mc Grath
Rubbish strewn river flood plain at the Esquipulas Bordo. Trócaire are working with their partners CASM to educate residents on urban disaster risk reduction. Picture: Frank Mc Grath
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

In Honduras, those who oppose the state and companies intent on exploiting the country's natural resources face arrest and death. The Tolupan indigenous community, who live high in the mountains above the city of El Progreso, knows this better than most.

Over the past 20 years, more than 100 members have been killed. It's not surprising Honduras has been described by the Global Witness charity as among the deadliest country in the world in which to be a defender of environmental rights with conflict over mining, logging and hydropower.

José Maria Pineda (58) is a leader in San Francisco de Locomapa, and member of the Tolupan community, who number about 150 people. Thirteen have been killed in recent years. No one has been prosecuted.

Twice arrested during protests, he says that without the support of aid agency Trócaire, the community would struggle to defend its land and homes. "We had no protection before," he says. "Organisations supposed to look after us were collaborating with the companies and not protecting our rights.

"When we discovered a plan to exploit a forest nearby, we started protesting. Eight people were imprisoned, and three people were killed by assassins hired by the company. We are afraid for our lives but better to kill me quickly with one shot than slowly. We have to keep fighting. We will only bend the knee in front of God."

The community survives on agriculture, and works land to which it was given the rights in the 1860s. But from the 1980s, the government began to engage in a land grab in resource-rich areas.

The community is in doubt as to its legal entitlements. Despite this, companies and people with links to the government and military have taken over these lands, felling the timber and sinking illegal mines.

A former general has burned down neighbours' houses, destroyed crops and threatened residents to try to secure more land.

"We are so happy we're fighting a former army officer," Mr Pineda, a father of seven and farmer who grows coffee, beans, bananas and corn, said. "We will not back down. We are protected by articles in the constitution and also by international treaties. We know our rights and we are fighting."

The problem is not confined to this area. One of the most high-profile cases involves the assassination of mother-of-four Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in her home last year.

She had campaigned against construction of a hydroelectric dam on her community's lands and the Gualcarque River by a Honduran company called Desarrollos Energéticos SA, and had filed dozens of reports of death threats. None was ever investigated.

Her lawyer, Victor Fernandez Guzman, told the Irish Independent that eight people were now being investigated for her murder.

"One of the theories is high officials in the government and political parties are behind the killing. Before the murder, there was a smear campaign against her," he said.

"This case could take up to two years, but there is a huge level of cases that never get a final resolution."

The Tolupan community continues its fight, and many community leaders who were in hiding have returned to their homes after being granted protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The problem is that police are supposed to provide that protection, and they're not trusted. Many of those carrying out the murders are members of the indigenous community, who have "betrayed" their people, locals say.

The Tolupan people are responding and marched for 13 days to the capital to protest. There have been achievements, with less illegal removal of timber, less mining and more women involved in the struggle.

Mr Pineda is prepared to go to prison again, despite the risks.

"The state institutions are totally corrupt," he says. "People are killed and there is no investigation."

Does he feel under threat? "Yes, because of the fight. But I'm not the only one," he adds.

Irish Independent

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