Honduras: Brave land and water defenders face dangerous new attacks

By Kathy Price, Amnesty International Canada’s Latin America campaigner

It is a story of immeasurable courage and the lengths to which shadowy and not-so-shadowy forces will go in brazen attempts to extinguish it.

The place is Honduras, a country of staggering poverty and a tiny minority with enormous wealth, who will go to extraordinary lengths to protect it.

It was just eight years ago that a military coup was executed in order to remove a democratically-elected president seeking to make changes that threatened the rich and powerful. What followed was a wave of repression against opponents of the coup and those speaking up for the rule of law.

Deadly violence and injustice has only continued in the years since.

Among the targets are the women and men of COPINH, acronym of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Its co-founder Berta Cáceres, winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, was gunned down in her home in March 2016.

Other COPINH leaders had been killed before her and Berta knew without a doubt that her life was in danger. She told authorities about the death threats made against her as she led efforts to stop a hydro-electric dam that violated the rights of Indigenous communities along the Gualcarque River. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission called on Honduras to take “precautionary measures” to ensure Berta’s protection. Yet nothing prevented those who came in the night to silence Berta’s voice.

Killers are still on the loose, and those who give them their orders feel free to do so, confident they will be allowed to get away with it.

Berta’s daughter Bertha Isabel, who refused to be paralysed by her mother’s assassination and courageously stepped forward to continue her work, is now in danger.

Shocking news of attempts on her life came just weeks after Bertha Isabel provided moving testimony about ongoing aggression against COPINH to Canadian MPs on parliament’s international human rights committee via videoconference from Canada’s consulate in Honduras.

Bertha Isabel and other COPINH leaders Sotero Chavarría Fúnez and José Asunción Martínez were traveling back from a meeting in the community of Cancire to discuss strategies to defend territory and the environment when their vehicle was stopped and attacked by men wielding machetes and rocks. Thankfully, Bertha Isabel and her colleagues were able to escape but suffered a second terrifying attack, aimed at forcing their vehicle off the road.

It may sound like a horror movie but it’s all too real in Honduras where authorities look the other way and fail to investigate who is behind such attacks or the death threats made against COPINH leaders and their families.

The message is chilling: there will be deadly consequences if you do not stop organizing to challenge big dam, mine and logging projects, even though they threaten Indigenous communities and violate their rights.

That’s why it’s vitally important that Amnesty supporters in Canada respond without delay or hesitation to prevent further harm. It’s crucial that we raise our voices to say we stand with Bertha Isabel, Sotero and José and all members of COPINH as they defend their right to meaningful consultation and decision-making about resource extraction projects that impact their lands and lives.

The solidarity messages recently created by young Amnesty supporters in Timmins, Ontario are an inspiring example. It is time to send a message to Honduran authorities that cannot be ignored. The cause of COPINH and all water, land and human rights defenders in Honduras is our cause too.

Together we are stronger. Together #WeDefend!