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Why Honduras is the most dangerous place in the world to defend the environment

The assassination of prominent environmental activist Berta Cáceres has demonstrated that anyone who opposes the powerful interests in Honduras is in serious danger. How did we get here?

In this 21 October 2006 file photo, a Honduran indigenous woman prays at a ritual for the earth and water during a rally against the planned construction of the El Tigre reservoir, 300 km north of Tegucigalpa
In this 21 October 2006 file photo, a Honduran indigenous woman prays at a ritual for the earth and water during a rally against the planned construction of the El Tigre reservoir, 300 km north of Tegucigalpa

AP Photo/Edgard Garrido

The first time I went to Honduras was in 2009, in the aftermath of the military coup, I was part of a human rights delegation, and it was to be the first of several trips I took to Honduras between 2009-2016 as a researcher, journalist, and human rights observer. I knew little of Honduran politics before the coup, and I rushed to bring myself up to speed on what was happening; the first article I remember reading was the transcript of a speech by Berta Cáceres, in which she noted that "no country in the world would have sat down to talk about Honduras… if it hadn't been for the struggle of the Honduran people." The coup, she insisted, had been a response to the strength and commitment of activists, defending their land, the environment, and their communities.

Flash forward to 2016 and, in the face of an ongoing military dictatorship, Berta was one of the most prominent names in Honduras, with an international reputation that included winning the Goldman Environment Award for her work protecting her Indigenous community from the destructive Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project. Companies like the one trying to build Agua Zarca offer bribes to officials, carry out fake consultation processes, buy land illegally, and sometimes directly seize it.

Meanwhile, environmental and community activists like Berta are subject to all manner of violence and manipulation in their efforts to defend the land. Death threats are common, often made against the activists' families, and land defenders often find themselves dragged through the justice system on trumped up charges. The companies in question use private security forces to impose their will and, in some cases, even have the direct support of the Honduran police and military.

After reporting countless threats against her life, most recently from men connected to the Canadian company Blue Energy, Berta Cáceres was assassinated on March 3, 2016. While it is only one of hundreds of cases of Hondurans who have been killed for defending the land, Berta's murder has elicited a significant international response, partly because of her high profile. For Berta to be killed with impunity sends a clear message: if they can get away with this, they can get away with anything.


Imperial Shadows

How did things in Honduras get so bad? In North America, we are typically encouraged to think that other countries got themselves into this mess, perhaps because they have limited experience with democracy or possess a cultural tendency towards irrationality and conflict. These absurd explanations often mask the real cause of the instability and violence: the legacy of imperialism.

Honduras has had a troubled 500-year encounter with "the West." After three centuries of violent Spanish conquest, Honduras emerged as an independent state that quickly came to be known as the "Banana Republic" because of its complete domination by U.S. fruit companies. Successive dictatorships sponsored by the banana magnates kept Hondurans disenfranchised for most of the 20th century, while the plantations ravaged the coastlines and lined the pockets of American and a few Honduran business owners.

It wasn't until the 1990s that Hondurans were finally afforded some space to carry out free elections, create a somewhat functional legal system, and build meaningful civil society structures.

The altogether predictable outcome of allowing average people to have some control over their lives was that people began to demand a more equitable share of the country's wealth. They demanded the freedom to express themselves without violent reprisal. Above all, they demanded that their land and environment be protected from foreign corporations seeking to build mines, dams, and plantations.

All of this ran in sharp contradiction to the way Honduras had been governed for centuries, and with every popular victory - a moratorium on new mining concessions, raising of the minimum wage, and especially a proposal to reform the Honduran constitution - the ruling class grew increasingly uneasy.


The New Honduras

By June 2009, the old elite had had enough of this experiment with responsible government. So they hatched a plot to kidnap the democratically-elected President, and take back complete control of the state. They then called upon their allies - most notably the United States and Canada - to tell the world that this was a legitimate transfer of power and there should be no interruption of "business as usual" in Honduras.

Needless to say, nothing in Honduras was "as usual" anymore. Hondurans like Berta Cáceres had struggled for decades to build a functional democratic system that would allow people to protect their communities, and now they found themselves under attack by police and military.

Hundreds were killed as people flooded the streets demanding the return of the President. The state enforced curfews, cracked down on dissent, equated all activist work with "terrorism" and wrote up lists of names of people to be arrested for their involvement.

The dictatorship held elections designed to create the appearance of democracy, but carried out targeted attacks on candidates from the opposition, including Presidential frontrunner Carlos H. Reyes, who dropped out of the elections after being bludgeoned in the head by a police baton.

But Honduras' land defenders did not back down, even in the face of violence. Radio stations continued to broadcast critical reports, even as journalists were attacked and equipment destroyed. Human rights advocates published the names and told the stories of the people who were threatened, attacked, arrested, and assassinated. Lawyers battled for the restoration of the rule of law in the courts. And all the while, land defenders set up blockades to stop the destructive mega-developments that would ravage the earth upon which Hondurans depend.

A woman spray paints the phrase
A woman spray paints the phrase "Always Alive" below a stenciled image of slain environmental activist Berta Caceres during the commemoration of International Women's Day in Tegucigalpa, 8 March 2016

AP Photo/Fernando Antonio


Berta Did Not Die…

Sadly, the Honduran resistance did not achieve its immediate goal of restoring democratic rule of law in the country. Despite the widespread recognition that the elections held under the dictatorship were fraudulent, the regime has held onto power with support from the United States and Canada.

In fact, its grip has tightened since 2009. The current President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has moved to consolidate his own long-term control of the country, having changed the constitution to allow himself to run for re-election and created a special military-police unit that is packed with his loyalists.

In the meantime, he has imposed painful austerity measures on the country, plunging Honduras' poor into ever more dire circumstances, and has exposed the country to ever more exploitative foreign concessions, reducing taxes on their profits and eliminating regulations that were designed to protect people and the environment. Though this is good news for companies like Canada's Goldcorp or Gildan, it has disastrous consequences for Hondurans, who find themselves drinking water poisoned by Goldcorp's runoff, or developing permanent disabilities in Gildan's factories.

These companies have no fear of reprisal because the Honduran state is now firmly in the pocket of big business, and has proven itself more than willing to use violence to protect its interests. Case in point: the assassination of Berta Cáceres.

This, perhaps, is where Honduras' story is most demoralising but, paradoxically, also most hopeful. On one hand, her assassination has demonstrated very clearly that anyone who opposes the powerful interests in Honduras is in danger. But at the same time, the defiant response to her murder has proven that Hondurans' courage and commitment to outlasting the dictatorship and defending the land is unfaltering, marked by massive demonstrations in her name, a swell of international attention to her case, and the promise scrawled on the walls of Honduras' cities that "Berta did not die, she multiplied."

The dangerous climate for environmental defenders in Honduras is a product of the actions of both the Honduran and the North American governments. As such, for those of us outside of Honduras who are committed to environmental and social justice, it is paramount that we, too, become Berta Cáceres. Human rights and environmental organisations in North America - like Rights Action and Global Witness - have stood in solidarity with those in Honduras - like COFADEH and COPINH - who have opposed the military government and demanded a return to democracy and the protection of basic rights. These networks will be crucially important to protect environmental and community defenders like Berta's daughter, who has taken up her mother's work and, by extension, the associated risks.

Tyler Shipley teaches politics, economics, and history at Humber College and York University in Toronto, Canada, and is the author of the forthcoming book "Ottawa and Empire: Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras".

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