Another Environmental Activist Slain in Honduras

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March 17, 2016; New England Public Radio

Last week, another environmental activist in Honduras was brutally murdered outside of his home, less than two weeks after the death of renowned activist Berta Cáceres. Like Cáceres, 39-year-old Nelson Garcia was a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The shooting came following the evacuation of approximately 150 families from the settled community of Rio Chiquito.

COPINH has been active in the area for more than twenty years. Tomas Gomez, who works for the organization, told Telesur the families of the community-occupied land were promised a peaceful evacuation. “They said that they were not going to throw anyone out of their houses, but at midday they started to tear down the houses, they destroyed the maize, the banana trees and the yucca plantations,” he said. “When they finished the eviction, our companion Nelson Garcia went to eat in his house, they were waiting in the zone that the commission of COPINH pass, but it was diverted. Garcia arrived first and they killed him.”

As reported here two weeks ago, Honduras is ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental activists. According to a report published by Global Witness, at least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014—almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period, with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business.

“By no means is the problem getting better,” Billy Kyte, senior campaigner at Global Witness, told ThinkProgress. “The increase in demand of natural resources is fueling ever more violence.” He noted that the group will be releasing an updated report and expects 2015 to be even deadlier.

Dutch development bank FMO, one of the investors in the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project that COPINH has been opposing on the Rio Gualcarque, announced last week that it was suspending all activities in Honduras effective immediately. As stated in its press release, “The right of speech for those who speak up for their rights and the livelihoods of people are of very high value to FMO. Every individual should be safe when defending their position. FMO rejects and condemns any violence against those individuals or groups.” Following FMO’s lead, the CEO of Finnish investment fund FinnFund announced that it, too, is suspending its activities in the project, citing the ongoing violence.

Activists across the globe are responding to these two recent deaths, demanding that the Honduran government find those responsible and that the U.S. stop the flow of funding to this and other projects. Many are also pointing to the U.S. role in the 2009 coup in Honduras, in which democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya was ousted, paving the way for growing militarization and brutal assaults against women, the LGBT community, and environmentalists like Cáceres and Garcia. The Nation and others have been particularly vocal in their insistence that the Obama administration and, by extension, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are culpable for their knowledge of and support for the coup, and their subsequent steadfast resistance to holding Honduras responsible for the country’s increasing repression.

Silvio Carrillo, a nephew of Cáceres, was in Washington last week, speaking to lawmakers about his aunt and the danger for those risking their lives to safeguard their communities against commercial interests they believe are destroying their environments and communities. Carrillo believes the U.S. has the power to move the Honduran government in the right direction.

Some U.S. lawmakers are listening, including Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota who spoke passionately on the floor of the House: “We need to do more than mourn their loss. It’s time to act and suspend assistance to the Honduran security forces until such time as we know that when they say they’re going to protect somebody those people are protected. Then we can have confidence that the American taxpayer dollars are not being used to assassinate leaders who are doing nothing more than trying to improve the environment and increase the rights of indigenous people.”

According to Earth Justice, until the international community can better coordinate its efforts and implement strong and effective protections for environmental defenders, “many more acts of intimidation, threats and deaths will take place.”

The Sierra Club, through its digital platform AddUp, is demanding that the U. S. Department of State launch an independent, international investigation into the murders of Cáceres and García while the American Jewish World Service is also calling on the Honduran Government to arrange a direct meeting for members of Cáceres’s family with the president and attorney general.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International is keeping a close eye on the case of Mexican human rights activist Gustavo Castro Soto, who is being held in Honduras. Castro Soto, who was the sole witness to the murder of Cáceres and was himself wounded in the attack, is being detained in the country as a key witness. According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), Castro Soto was not provided medical attention until three days after he was injured. Moreover, the Honduran attorney general’s office issued a 30-day immigration alert against him, preventing him from leaving the country. In an open letter, Castro Soto alleges that the crime scene was tampered with and that the government has been trying to discredit COPINH’s role while giving the real criminals the benefit of a doubt. As COHA reports, more than 700 organizations and Latin American scholars have delivered a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing concern over the Honduras situation and requesting policy initiatives to ensure proper investigations into the cases of the slain activists and the detention of Castro Soto.—Patricia Schaefer