Rural Honduras is like nothing I have ever seen before with dark green forestry tightly packing the mountains.
It’s clear that the country is rich with natural resources, that unfortunately are wide open to exploitation.
Last month, I travelled to Honduras, a country flanked by Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, with Trócaire to meet communities affected by massive extractivist projects encroaching on their territorial land.
The country has the most unequal society in Latin America, with four out of ten people living in extreme poverty.
When it comes to land ownership 5% of large-scale farmers control almost two thirds of all cultivable land; 71% of small-scale farmers have access to just 5% of it.
In a country where deep-seated corruption, organised drug crime and street violence, corporate abuses, and inequality intertwine to present an ìntricate set of problems, human rights violations and environmental concerns often go overlooked.
Denounced by the UN special rapporteur as one of the unsafest countries in Latin America in which to defend your human rights, activists in Honduras are at constant risk of attack.
Honduras is also the number one place in the world you are most likely to lose your life in for taking a stand on defending the environment.
While official figures can be difficult to verify, Global Witness found that 123 environmental activists have been killed over the last decade for challenging the actions of corporations.
Following a two-year investigation, the non-profit organisation also documented countless assaults on environmental defenders, including pregnant women beaten by soldiers, arson attacks and children held at gunpoint.
Trócaire stands over this investigation’s findings.
And while it is recognised as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists, at the same time Honduras has also witnessed a massive boom in ecologically destructive extractivist mega-projects over the last decade.
Mining, hydroelectric-power generation, forestry and the expansion of agriculture industry are priority areas of expansion and investment for the Hondurian State.
Following massive upheaval in the wake of its military coup in 2009, Honduras has granted a significant number of State concessions to mining projects.
This includes close to 300 mining projects, covering a total area of more than one million hectares, approved in 2013 alone.
Almost 50 hydroelectric power generation projects were approved in 2010, and countless others since then, according to Trócaire.
These projects pose the biggest threat to indignenous people and ‘campesino’ [peasant farmers] whose day-to-day lives are becoming increasingly more affected by their construction.
In particular, indigenous people, an already marginalised group, have been seriously affected by many of the mining and hydroelectric power projects as they often encroach on their ancestral lands.
A national convention requires companies to consult with indigenous people prior to the commencement of a project; Activists say that rarely happens.
To speak out against it is to single yourself out as a target. You risk being tarred as ‘anti-development’ and can expect to face threats and intimidation as a result.
Within this, the women who speak up, or who try to organise to take action, face another set of problems; Often berated for ‘stirring up’ the other women, they face sexist remarks, innuendo, disparagement and gender-based violence.
In Honduras, we travelled to the Zapotal river, near the city of La Paz in the southwest of the country, where one of these hydro-electrical dams has cut off the local indigenous people from their water supply.
“We were here before the dam was installed,” said Marta Gonzales Ordoñez, 51, an indigenous woman who lives in the area.
Her family is subsistence farmers, working on a small patch of land, measuring less than a hectare.
“I plant some seeds, whatever I can find, usually radishes. If we want to grow more, we need to invest more and this is expensive,” she explains.
The hydroelectric dam and its construction have brought nothing but problems to Marta’s family.
She recalls the river near her home being beautiful before the project initially began. “Surrounded by trees all around and overflowing and it was beautiful. Now, it is dried up,” she shrugs.
“Water is the most important thing. We have to make the most out of the little water that we now have. This has increased the chance of disease because we need water to clean everything and to clean ourselves.”
For the time being, her family has water because they have access to a community water system. “When the summer comes, it is usually dry.”
Clearing the river and the surrounding forests in order to make way for the dam involved the heavy use of dynamite, she explains.
Cracks developed in her house as a result. “This not only happened to me, but many other people.”
The construction of the dam also brought with it another set of problems for Marta and her family.
“The conflict came up because of this plot of land that we had, which was being used and entered by the company in the pursuit of this project,” she explains.
Asking for a fair price for the land that was taken from them was seen as causing trouble.
“They should have consulted us first. 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 came here without consulting us, and with lies and deception.”
Late one night, a drunk man arrived at her family’s doorstep and threatened Marta and her husband for denouncing the project. “He said we were going to be killed.”
They took his threat to be credible, and left the area shortly after. “Otherwise we would have been killed.”
Not only has the project caused her family problems but it has also divided the local community, she explains.
The hydro-electric company made them with a lot of promises, pledging to improve the lives of the indigenous people living in the surrounding mountainous areas of the river, but they haven’t fulfilled them, she explains.
“Most of the things that they promised to the people here was to help women with acquiring a basic bag of groceries and also that they would create a nursery for trees, and give an ambulance to the health centre. They haven’t fulfilled those promises.”
When asked if she is hopeful any of these promises will be fulfilled, Marta said: “Who knows? I don’t think so.”
Life has become very difficult for Marta’s family, and for her extended family.
“Most of the people that agree with it are thinking only about their generation. They’re not thinking about the upcoming generations. They may also have been gullible, by being promised all these things because they had no education.
“For example, in my own case, I have a child with disabilities and thank God that I can take him to the doctor but there were many promises made towards these people living with disabilities.
“Millions of lempiras promised in projects for them and it’s all been a lie. We need to be looked after, they need to keep us in mind and promises made to us should be fulfilled. A lot of our hopes rely on God, and on asking God for help.”
Rosa Aguilar Vásquez, 62, is an indigenous widow and a mother of ten who also lives in the surrounding areas of the Zapotal River. Eight of her children have migrated, she explains.
“The project has come to ruin our lives,” she tells us.
“The dam has cut off the mountain, which was dense and lush. I remember a time when people used to come from very far away places to bathe in the river, swim and take water. And now it’s impossible. How can you take a swim in the rocks?
“This river used to be huge and now it’s only a bed of stones. The water has been piped out and there is nothing left to fish. We have been left in a state of defenselessness. They took advantage of the fact that we are indigenous people, and we were gullible. Now, hectares and hectares of land have been taken up for building this dam.”
As part of its investigations, Global Witness discovered a clear conflict of interest between the local congresswoman for La Paz who granted concessions to the company backing many of the hydro-dam projects.
The owner of the project happens to be her husband, despite it being illegal for spouses to obtain contracts or concessions granted by the state.
“What should be known is that we have had a very hard struggle that entails opposing people of this magnitude, of this calibre,” Rosa said.
The business behind the hydro-dam deployed dirty tactics to divide and conquer the community, she believes.
Perhaps the dirtiest tactic used by the company was the construction of a new blue church, built in blue to match the colours of the congresswoman’s political party.
“This caused a split within the community on a religious aspect because people who were in favour of the project were now attending this church. While the people who were against the project were attending the previous church, which has a more simple infrastructure.”
The indiginous company attempted to fight the project, Rosa explains. They even had help from Berta Cáceres, a famous Hondourian environmentalist who was brutally murdered in 2016 for her work.
“But ultimately, we have lost. They have achieved their purpose here. People will keep suffering, especially the youth. Not us because we’re old but they will suffer. It will be very difficult for them, they will need to find support because there is no water. There is one small source of water but it’s not enough. The population is growing.”
Marta and Rosa and their community is supported by CEHPRODEC, a non-profit organization specialising in the rights of indigenous people. The organisation is also supported by partnering with Trocaire.
The support of CEHPRODEC has been important, Rosa explains.
“We wouldn’t even find out what’s happening. The people who build these projects build them and then they leave. They don’t say anything to us. If it wasn’t because of these organisations, we wouldn’t know anything about these projects. They have helped to strengthen my organising skills, and my daughter’s.”
Later, CEHPRDOEC takes us to its base where we meet Padre José Adán Martínez Lizardo, a local priest who vehemently opposes the hydro-dam and those behind it.
So much so that he refuses to celebrate Mass in the new blue church.
Inside the compound, there is a network of CCTV cameras set up to monitor the comings and goings to the site.
“I’m an easy target, they can shoot me at point blank,” he said.
“I have word that the people who own the project and politicians who have an interest in this project going forward are constantly having meetings.
For Padre José, he sees protecting the land as his God-given duty. “It’s in the Bible; in Genesis. It says that God placed man on earth to take care of it. Not to become its owner or to destroy it ever.”
He is passionate about protecting the environment, screening videos to his parish of indigenous people about climate change, the importance of clean water, ecological pollution and the consequences of mining.
Last year, he organised a parish climate awareness week, and his sermons often focus on environmental issues.
The blue church divided his community, he explains. “It was a way for the hydroelectric dam project to weaken the unity in the church.”
This was because he has always opposed the project and what it stands for, he tells us.
“I always attempted to keep unity in the community through the mass through my message. The construction of the new church was a heavy blow and it represents an acute division in the community. And also it’s a statement from the owner, it’s like a show of power. There was no consultation, not with the Bishop or with me. It was just built.
“The project hasn’t helped decrease levels of poverty and hasn’t provided sources of income or development for the people. They don’t have electricity themselves - that was promised to them.”
By granting concessions to these companies, the State of Honduras is allowing this destruction to happen, he explains.
“If this concession hadn’t been given, then the people wouldn’t be in this situation. They are defenceless right now. Giving these companies concessions is giving them power.
“Under the name of development, it seems like it doesn’t matter if we take away everything from the poor. Their land, their culture, their ancestral habitats. That’s where their grandparents used to live and now they are forced to leave. They have been kicked out.”
María Felícita López knows that her life would be much easier if she hadn’t stood up to the hydroelectrical company that encroached on the indigenous territory surrounding the Chinacla river.
The 31-year-old mother is a member of the Lenca community, an indigenous people living between Honduras and its neighbour to the south, El Salvador.
Today, there are approximately 300,000 Lenca living in Honduras.
Almost 90% of Lenca children are estimated to live in extreme poverty, according to Trócaire.
Her community near La Paz in western Honduras was divided in two when work on the hydro-dam first began in 2009.
“It has resulted in neighbour being against neighbour,” María Felícita explains.
Like the dam on the Zapotal river, the company behind the project made many promises to the indigenous people living in the area.
None of these have been fulfilled, according to María Felícita.
The company promised schools and infrastructure for locals, but and they believe they will not see any of the benefits as they haven’t materialised elsewhere.
“They will evict communities, steal our land, and dry up the river. They will destroy the richness of our land. Some people are in favour of the hydro project, as they think it will result in better job employment opportunities for the children, and the provision of a solar energy park.
“This is really challenging. We try to tell them that these promises have been made before elsewhere and nothing came from them.”
According to Trócaire, work on the dam began in violation of the International Labour Organization Convention 169, which requires that free, prior, and informed consent must be given by the local community.
Locals first found out about the project when heavy machinery started arriving. It is suspected that 600 Salvadoran nationals, promised work on the dam, were bussed in to sign the agreement as if they were members of the affected community; However, when the consultation documents were sought, they were told this documentation had been lost.
When her children started being bullied due to the family’s opposition to the project, María Felícita and her family left to start a new community along with other Lenca against the dam.
Opposing the hydroelectrical project has also been dangerous, resulting in deaths, persecution, and the criminalisation of members of the indigenous community.
In 2015, her family home was raided without a search warrant by military police, police, and civilians armed with machetes and sticks.
During the raid, her son, who was eight years old at the time, was shot at three times.
Thinking her son had been killed, María Felícita describes being out of her mind with fear.
Luckily, her son had slipped and fell as he ran from their home, meaning he narrowly avoided the incoming bullets.
As her home was ransacked around her, María Felícita was verbally abused and accused of stashing drugs. She was accused of being anti-development, and called a ‘land-grabber’. Her children were also marched out of their beds. “My mind went blank with fear,” she says.
Following the ordeal she suffered a miscarriage, which she believes was as a result of the stress she was under during the raid. Although she filed a complaint, nothing came of the incident, and those responsible went unpunished.
Tensions haven’t improved since. Recently, María Felícita passed by a gatepost with a skull painted on it. Underneath it said ‘Felícita — death’. Her family has also been the victim of smear campaigns. Her husband was forced to flee to El Salvador due to false accusations levelled against him.
A committed land rights and women’s rights activist, today María Felícita is the women’s co-ordinator of the Lenca Indigenous Independent Movement of La Paz-Honduras (MILPAH).
It was her own experience of gender-based violence, and of State-backed intimidation, that motivated her to train in these areas.
Sexism is prevalent throughout Honduras; This is seen in its deep-seated ‘machista’ male chauvinist culture. which roughly translates to ‘chauvinistic’.
Due to established traditional roles, many partners or spouses of women defenders disagree with their work.
“Everyone suffers under the machista culture,” María Felícita said. “I want my sons to unlearn this culture that, ever since we are born, teaches us that girls are worth less than men.”
The people who suffer the most from this are indigenous women, she added.
“Violence is widespread, but the people most affected are women defending their territories,” she explains.
Indigenous women defending their land from such projects often face sexual harassment, rape, threats, and stigmatisation, according to María Felícita: “It goes unspoken.”
Aged just seven, María Felícita was sent by her mother her mother sent her to Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, to stay with a family who forced her to look after their baby.
Later she was forced to work as a maid, feeding five men in a house three times a day. She earned 200 Lempiras (€7.30) a month for this work. That money went directly to her grandparents.
“I was treated as an object, as a slave,” she explains.
When María Felícita was 10, At the age of ten, her mother attempted to force her María Felícita into marriage. Terrified, she fled and went on to spend her teenage years in the city of La Paz.
In 2007, she gave birth to her first child: Her baby passed away at nine months-old due to pneumonia. There were no doctors or medicine at the hospital at the time, as it was a holiday.
Today, she lives with her four children, Joel Alejandro, 12, Deyvis Ivan, 10, Hilda Paola, 8, and Rodrigo Anunciación, 5.
“I want my children to have a different life to mine,” she says.
“It’s important for women to study, to be educated and to know their rights.”
She is now at a point with MILPAH where she is training girls in women’s rights, in schools and in communities.
“The first school is at home. All we want is a life free from violence and femicide.”
María Felícita adds that she is grateful for meeting Trócaire and CEHPRODEC.
“Then where would I be? I wouldn’t be here. There would be no story for me; I was just an abandoned girl.”
Angela Murillo Bardales may look familiar. This year, Angela and three of her children, Robersy Nicole, Jocsan Amalec, and Helen Abigail (above) feature on the 2020 Trócaire box.
Angela, 39, is a member of the indigenous Tolupan people, living in San Francisco Campo along with 50 other families.
The community is currently being supported by Trócaire’s partner, Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia (MADJ), in their struggle against illegal logging.
A member of the ‘Tolupan Nine’, Angela is shortly due to stand trial for her part in allegedly obstructing a forest management plan.
Her struggles began in 2010 when a mining company first entered their land. She says the local people were not consulted.
“We discovered the stream had been polluted by the mining,” she told Trócaire.
“We knew it was polluted because we started getting rashes — including the children. We used the water to wash clothes and dishes — it wasn’t drinking water thankfully.”
Indigenous people and their land rights in Honduras are protected under a convention called IOL C169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989). However, this is often completely disregarded by business companies and the government.
Approximately 17,000 square metres in the surrounding areas of her community have been logged, according to Angela.
“Our water sources, rivers, are drying up because of the logging,” she said.
“The water is our life. If you log close to water sources they will dry up. The company is ignoring the law.
“They are logging more than double what they are reporting.”
Her opposition to the project has led to her facing threats. She has also been offered bribes to stop her campaign.
“The threats that we face daily have marked us and have restricted our freedom,” she said. “We have a self-imposed curfew as we are afraid to be out in the evening. Everyone in my house has been threatened — both by the company and by community members who have been influenced by the corrupt tribal council.
“I also work on defending women and I have received threats for this. Some people blame me for women not being compliant anymore.”
In October 2017, the group opposing the logging set up its first peaceful protest at the company’s base in the forest. “We needed a permanent presence to try to stop the logging lorries coming in and out,” said Angela. “We all faced huge risk because of this.”
Police repression started in January 2018. Tensions escalated quickly, coming to a head in January last year.
“We had stopped a number of trucks by placing rocks in the road and the police came. We were being peaceful. We have protection measures in place from the Inter-American Commission and we showed the police proof of this. It made no difference.
The police removed the rocks we have blocked the road with. We refused to move and so they shot 25 canisters of tear gas at us.
“I thought he was going to kill him. I had to run into the gas and take him out.”
In February 2019, Solomon Matute and Juan Samuel Matute, the father and brother of two of the Tolupan leaders, were murdered.
Both had precautionary protection measures in place before their deaths. “We have all been told that we will be ‘taken out’ — both directly and indirectly,” Angela said. “This is why I am afraid for my children.
“We have been arrested several times in the past. On one occasion we were held for 12 hours. If it wasn’t for Trócaire’s partner [MADJ] we would still be there.”
Angela and eight other Tolupan people are facing prosecution for their role in protesting against the project.
Trócaire is demanding an end to the charges.
“Likewise, we ask the authorities to cease theviolence, discrimination, and criminalisation of the Tolupan tribe of San Francisco Campo and to guarantee their rights over theirancestral territory, protect their lives, and punish those who have systematicallyviolated their human rights,” it said.
“We lend our solidarity to the legitimate and dignified defence exercised by theTolupan defenders and call on the national and international community to closely follow and demand justice for their case.”
The Covid-19 crisis cut short our travels in Honduras and we did not get to meet Angela in person. She previously spoke with Trócaire about her experiences and a transcript of that conversation was shared with the Irish Examiner.