The Guapinol Case: Why it is dangerous to protect water in HondurasOct 15, 2020
Honduras has become one of the deadliest countries in the world for environmental and land defenders. More than 120 people have died since 2010, according to Global Witness research, and many more have been silenced as a result of fabricated criminal charges. The latest case was Arnold Joaquin Morazán Erazo, who was murdered 3 days ago. He was one of those facing a criminal inquiry due to a community protest in defense of the Guapinol river.
Guapinol is a village located in the valley of Bajo Aguán in the municipality of Tocoa, the north of Honduras, about 100 kilometres from the Caribbean town La Ceiba. The population of the Bajo Aguán valley has long suffered due to land and water conflicts, leaving over 150 people dead or disappeared.
For the residents of Guapinol and surrounding areas in the valley, the Guapinol rivers are an essential part of life as their principal source of drinking water. In 2014, these rivers and lives of people dependent on the water source were put into danger when the state of Honduras gave a mining concession in the Carlos Escaleras National Park to Honduran company Inversiones Los Pinares (ILP). It was done without sufficient prior consultation of the residents of the area despite the effect mining activities and the contamination of rivers can impose on their daily life.
ILP is now licensed to use a vast area of land to build facilities and roads for the mining operation. Although the mining has not yet begun, the construction of mining facilities has already polluted the water several times. According to the latest report of Guapinol Resiste (2020), both Guapinol and San Pedro rivers were polluted when roads were built for the mining project and an estimated 14,000 residents were affected. During the course of three months in 2018, the contaminated and muddy water reached the homes of the residents of the Guapinol community, preventing its consumption and use for domestic purposes. Guapinol residents fear the planned large-scale iron oxide mine will severely contaminate rivers, depriving them of the essential water source even further.
Eight defenders behind bars
To oppose ILP’s extraction plans, members of tens of communities including Guapinol and San Pedro in Tocoa stood up to defend their environment and organised a series of protests. It came with the establishment of the Municipal Committee in Defence of Common and Public Goods in 2015 which comprises several local organisations defending the land, environmental and human rights of people in Tocoa.
The efforts of activists in Tocoa has been met with a systematic crackdown including arbitrary detentions enforced by the state and violence used by ILP’s private forces. Interventions by police and the military also have supported the company’s interests. ILP is the largest landowner in Honduras with close ties to the Honduran ruling party, allegedly being linked to former attempts to kidnap and intimidate activists as well as bribing officials.
The state criminalizes rights defenders in an effort to silence their voice. In the time of writing, 8 environmental and human rights defenders have been in prison for more than a year. They are facing various accusations ranging from land usurpation and robbery to unlawful association. Amongst many environmental defenders those who are most visible and influential have been targeted for persecution and imprisonment.
After ILP filed criminal complaints, 31 people, including one man who died three years before the alleged incidents, were charged with multiple offences. On October 13 2020, Arnold Joaquin Morazán Erazo was murdered in the community of Guapinol. He was one of those facing a criminal inquiry due to a community protest in defense of the river.
Whether jailed activists will be liberated or not is rather a matter of politics than of law. To aid political interests, Honduran law has been changed to support the criminalization of environmental defenders. Repressive measures subjugating dissenting voices also take forms other than violence and criminalisation. It is not uncommon for protesters to face defamation, stigmatisation, death threats, vigilance and harassment of their friends and family members.
The International Community needs to back Guapinol defenders
Support from the international community plays a significant role in amplifying the voice of Guapinol defenders. In October, the European Parliament selected Guapinol defenders, together with activist Berta Cáceres who was shot dead in 2016, as 2020 Sakharov Prize finalists.
International advocacy and campaigns, combined with pressure from local movements, can serve as a powerful force generating political pressure on the Honduran government.