By Graciela Martínez González, campaigner at Amnesty International’s Latin America Regional Office. This piece was published in Newsweek en español
When Honduras President Xiomara Castro took office in January 2022 with a promise to protect national parks and end open pit mining, members of communities in the municipality of Tocoa who lived in a protected area in the north of the country, were hopeful. Two years on, most of them are terrified, harassed and demanding justice for the killings of their loved ones who were fighting to protect the local rivers, on which the survival of their community depends. This is their story:
“With water, there is life. Without it, we die”, environmental activist Reynaldo Domínguez says as he fights back the tears. The phrase, which he has been repeating like a mantra for years, summarizes a long struggle his community has been leading to save the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers, which serve water to hundreds of people in the Bajo Aguán region in northern Honduras.
Members of the community say that an iron mine established in the area in 2018 is having a negative impact on both rivers and affecting the agriculture and fishing they depend on. Since then, they have reported suffering harassment and attacks by Honduran authorities and the company that runs the mining project.
“Things have been getting increasingly worse,” Juana Zúñiga, environmental defender and leader of the Guapinol Community Council, says. “There is a lot of fear in the community. People are scared to walk the streets after all the attacks we have suffered but we know we have to be strong and continue, there’s no other choice.”
The story of the Guapinol community and their struggle dates back to 2012, when the Honduran congress declared the area where both rivers met, in the Botaderos Mountain, a National Park. The idea was for the park – which in 2016 was named Carlos Escaleras Mejía after a farmer who dedicated his life to defending the local land and water – to be protected from the effects of heavy industries, including mining. Authorities designated areas that were meant to be free of activities that impact the environment and “buffer zones” where mining could take place only after a series of evaluations, including an environmental impact assessment.
The provisions, which looked good on paper, did not last. A year after the area was declared protected, Congress decided to decrease the core zone of the protected area. This opened the door for the Honduran National Institute of Geology and Minerals to grant permits for mining exploitation in this area. In 2014, a first concession was awarded to a mining company.
With water, there is life. Without it, we die.Reynaldo Domínguez
Local communities say they were not properly informed or consulted about the concession and the impacts it would have on their lives.
“The company says that there is no contamination in the river but the exams we organized with independent experts show that there is. It’s very concerning. It’s forcing us to displace entire communities who cannot drink from that water,” Reynaldo says.
Juana Zúñiga, who everybody calls Monchi, says fishing in the river has been affected. “It’s very worrying and makes us incredibly sad. We had never seen anything like this.”
Seeing their home threatened, members of the community quickly organized. In 2015, they formed the Municipal Committee for the Defence of the Common and Public Property of the municipality of Tocoa and, in 2018, the Guapinol Community Council. They started requesting information and filing complaints with Congress, local courts and government agencies, which were mostly dismissed or ignored.
After feeling that no one was listening, the community led a number of actions, including a protest camp. Over time, they faced increasingly brutal repression. On 27 October 2019, security forces violently evicted the camp, according to various reports.
The Public Prosecutor sought an arrest warrant against 31 members of the Guapinol community in 2019. They were charged with deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson allegedly committed against the mining company and one of its contractors. The Public Ministry also charged the defenders with organized crime, but the evidence was weak, and a National Court finally dismissed it the same year. Eight of the community leaders spent more than two years in prison. Reynaldo was one of them. Amnesty International declared them “prisoners of conscience”, saying there was no evidence to justify the criminal charges and that they had been prosecuted solely for exercising their human rights. They were released in February 2022.
This should have been good news, but things only got worse.
Defending natural resources in Honduras is not an easy task. The country is one of the most dangerous in the world for environmental defenders working to protect the land and other natural resources, according to figures from Global Witness. In 2022, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights documented 11 killings of human rights defenders in Honduras, six of whom were striving to protect land and environmental rights. These figures dramatically increased last year, with eight land, territory and environmental defenders killed as of May 2023.
The Bajo Aguán region, where the Tocoa communities are fighting to protect their water resources, has faced a historic conflict related to land tenure, with over 160 community members killed there since 2010.
Honduras has a long and troubled history with environmental exploitation and corruption that has led to the establishment of international mechanisms of investigation. Seven years ago, Berta Cáceres, the renowned human rights defender and indigenous Lenca leader, was assassinated for campaigning against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, in the community of Río Blanco in western Honduras.
Despite this context, Honduras has not yet signed the Escazú Agreement, the first regional environmental treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean. Its purpose is to set new standards for protection of the environment and human rights that guarantee access to information, citizen participation and access to justice on environmental issues in the region, including the protection of environmental defenders.
The pattern of harassment and repression against Reynaldo and his community took a tragic turn in early 2023.
On 7 January, Reynaldo’s brother, Aly Magdaleno Domínguez Ramos, and Jairo Bonilla Ayala were killed when they were returning home from work on a moped. Five months later, Reynaldo’s other brother, Oquelí, was also shot dead in broad daylight. The three had been some of the most prominent community members working to protect local rivers.
Reynaldo says the killings were devastating for the community. The killings forced him and his family to leave the community. Staying home was no longer safe.
“They were all so important for the community. When all of this started, we promised ourselves that we would stand strong together, that we would always fight together to protect the rivers,” he says, before lamenting the state of the investigation.
“The authorities don’t care. They haven’t done anything, they haven’t arrested anybody, the investigation has completely stalled. This is Honduras, no investigation ever moves forward. They are waiting for us to give up before they just close the whole case. They are sending the message that they can make us all disappear and that nothing will happen.”
Members of the community have reported other attacks. After authorities in Honduras continued to fail to protect the community, in October 2023 the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights granted precautionary measures to 30 people: members of the Municipal Committee and their lawyers from the legal collective Justice for the People (Bufete Jurídico Justicia para los Pueblos). The Honduran government has also failed to respond to a letter sent by Amnesty International in November 2023 urging the authorities to effectively investigate the attacks against human rights defenders and protect their communities.
The authorities don’t care. They haven’t done anything, they haven’t arrested anybody.Reynaldo Domínguez
Edy Tábora, Honduran lawyer and co-founder of Justicia para los Pueblos, has litigated cases of attacks against environmental defenders. He says there hasn’t been any progress in investigations into the aggressions against community members and that the lack of proper oversight over these projects is concerning.
“There is a development model based in the exploitation of natural resources that does not take into consideration the full participation of the communities. A model that is only after earnings and does not take into consideration people’s suffering and the criminalization of communities.”
While members of local communities continue with their fight, parts of the mining project continue to operate. On 9 December, hundreds of Tocoa inhabitants showed up to a town hall meeting to reject a petroleum coke thermoelectric project, part of the wider mining project. Erick Tejada, Minister of Energy and manager of the Honduran state power company Empresa Nacional de Energia Electrica, promised to respect the decision of the communities of Tocoa.
In the face of so much pain, Reynaldo and Monchi are convinced that the fight is worth it.
“We feel like we’re trapped and living in fear for everything that has been happening. We never thought all of this was going to happen. I continue to fight for the rivers because this is my community, our land, and I have been protecting it for 60 years. I’m a man who believes in the collective and I will always continue to fight for Guapinol to be what it used to be,” says Reynaldo. “Development doesn’t have to be harmful. Our fight is for everybody because this planet is everybody’s home, and we must protect it.”
“I would ask the president to listen to us and to follow her promise to end open mining. I continue fighting for my daughters, for what we have achieved. It’s all worth it to protect our river,” she says. “As long as God gives us life we will continue to fight.”
Photo credit: PBI