Honduras: Who Should Really Be On Trial For the Rio Blanco Dam?

María Santos was walking home on March 5th, 2014, when seven people suddenly jumped out of hiding, surrounded her, and then attacked her with machetes, striking her head and chest. María has been a vocal leader in the struggle against the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Dam, defending the Lenca territory of Rio Blanco and the Gualcarque River for her children and grandchildren to come. She is a tireless fighter in the struggle of the Lenca people of Rio Blanco to prevent DESA, a private dam company, from privatizing and building a dam on their river.

María Santos was walking home on March 5th, 2014, when seven people suddenly jumped out of hiding, surrounded her, and then attacked her with machetes, striking her head and chest. María has been a vocal leader in the struggle against the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Dam, defending the Lenca territory of Rio Blanco and the Gualcarque River for her children and grandchildren to come. She is an active member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH, Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras), and a tireless fighter in the struggle of the Lenca people of Rio Blanco to prevent DESA, a private dam company, from privatizing and building a dam on their river.

Image: María with her nephews.

When María’s husband heard that she was surrounded, he and her 12-year-old son ran and found her. Her husband pleaded with the attackers not to kill her and her young son ran to his bleeding mother’s side. One of the attackers swung his machete down on the young boy, splitting his ear and part of his face. Her husband was also attacked. All three are seriously injured and had to be hospitalized. Doctors found that María’s son’s cranium was fractured.

María’s husband, Roque, had previously been attacked by several men as he was leaving the site where the community has physically blocked the dam company from accessing the river, and has been effectively preventing the construction of the dam for over a year.  Even though the identities of the men who attacked him are known, that crime has been left in complete impunity.  The collusion between powerful interests and the Honduran justice system means that the justice system routinely serves those interests and that attacks against those who stand for their rights are rarely brought to justice.  Before the most recent attack on her life, María had received numerous death threats for her vocal opposition to the dam, including threats from this same group of people who have now put her in the hospital. One Sunday evening, when María was walking to her house from the roadblock, a man came up her, took out a pistol, and threatened María, asking, “Do you want to be shot?”  None of these death threats have been investigated.

In Honduras today, the men who hacked María’s head and chest with machetes are unlikely to be investigated or tried in court. Instead, it is the COPINH leaders who support the Rio Blanco community who have been criminalized. In September 2013, Berta Cáceres, the Coordinator of the Indigenous Lenca organization COPINH, to which the Rio Blanco people belong, was sentenced to a prison term in one of two bogus cases against her.  After months of national and international outcry, on February 10, one set of outrageous charges – in which Berta was accused of the illegal possession of a weapon intended to be used against the internal security of Honduras – were finally dropped. These charges were part of a campaign of political and judicial persecution against Berta for her support of the Lenca people of Rio Blanco. In fact, it was when she was driving to Rio Blanco in May, 2013, that she was stopped by 15-20 soldiers who were waiting for her on an isolated road.  They then carted her off to jail on fabricated charges of being armed. The campaign to quash dissent in Rio Blanco has come from the highest levels of the Honduran government, involving even the President of Honduras, the Honduran military, police, judicial system, and numerous government agencies – all acting to serve the interests of the dam corporation.

Just a little over a month later, another case was lodged against Berta, together with COPINH leaders Tomás Gomez and Aureliano Molina, accusing the three of them of coercion, usurpation, and damages of over $3 million to the dam company. Berta was ordered to jail. An appeals court has ordered provisional dismissal, but this case can be appealed and will likely continue on for some time. In another case, Disiderio Mendez, a Rio Blanco resident who was grazed by military bullet when a soldier opened fire on Rio Blanco protesters, subsequently had his home ransacked by police who took Disiderio away and filed a legal case against him as well.

With all of these criminal cases, one must ask the question: Who should really be on trial in Rio Blanco?

In a just world, COPINH and the Indigenous people of Rio Blanco would not be forced to defend their rights to land, water, and self-determination. In a fair and equitable world, it is DESA and the Honduran government who should be on trial for their actions in Rio Blanco. DESA and the government have clearly violated ILO Convention 169, which the Honduran government has ratified, meaning it is national law, and its requirement of free, prior, and informed consultation of Indigenous peoples about projects in their territories.  Not only were the Rio Blanco residents not consulted, but at every possible step they have expressed their rejection of the project, and at every step DESA and the government have refused to listen. Instead, DESA and the government have violently forced their way into the Rio Blanco peoples’ territory, terrorizing and dividing the communities and creating situations like the one that has now led María to be hospitalized.

NO means NO

Several years ago, unknown people appeared in Rio Blanco making measurements and installing cement posts. They destroyed corn that had been planted for the harvest and made paths through the fields. They informed nobody of what they were doing nor asked permission to go into people’s fields and destroy corn or put cement. In fact, they hid when people approached. Rio Blanco residents recognized one person as being from the other side of the Gualcarque River, and went to tell him they did not give permission and that the measuring people needed to leave their land. However, the measuring continued.

Image: Río Gualcarque

In 2007, the Community Council of La Tejera, Rio Blanco, passed a resolution to inform the Municipal Council that they did not want to negotiate regarding any more of their natural resources. The resolution was created in light of the residents’ long history of defending their natural resources, including committees to defend their forests, their water sources, and municipal measurements of their territory to clearly delineate it. As a result, they have ample water sources, beautiful forests, and clean rivers, enabling them to harvest two corn and bean harvests a year as well as numerous other fruits and vegetables. Once again, the residents were ignored.

In fact, in October, 2010, the people of Rio Blanco learned through COPINH that the National Congress had granted a concession on the Gualcarque River for a dam– without ever consulting, asking, or even bothering to tell them. When they found out, almost 500 residents hailing from many Rio Blanco communities held a community assembly in which they publicly declared, “Faced with the aggressive, illegitimate, and servile decision of the National Congress to turn our rivers and water over to private hands with the aim of creating profit for businesses, … we express our total rejection of this decision.” Just three days later, Rio Blanco representatives joined with other COPINH members to protest river concessions in Tegucigalpa. COPINH filed a complaint with the Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Groups denouncing the Congress for violating ILO Convention 169 by granting concessions on the rivers.

Despite their protest, filing with the Public Ministry, and public denouncement, the Lenca people of Rio Blanco were completely ignored by the government. When officials from the Secretary of Natural Resources and the Environment (SERNA) convoked a meeting of local authorities in the neighboring municipality of San Francisco de Ojuera to evaluate the dam on December 8 and 9, 2010, they did not invite anyone from Rio Blanco or even the municipality of Intibuca of which Rio Blanco is part. Nevertheless, in a public relations document signed by the Honduran government and DESA in September 2013, they claim that this was a consultation of the Rio Blanco people. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

On March 25, 2011, SERNA issued a 50-year Environmental License for the Agua Zarca Project to DESA, without any consultation with Lenca people in Rio Blanco. In fact, DESA’s whole initial environmental application and SERNA’s evaluation in 2010 does not once mention Rio Blanco or Indigenous people. It is as if they do not exist.

However, DESA did know that the Rio Blanco people existed because they came to Rio Blanco to try to convince the communities of the benefits of the dam. According to the community’s book of acts, which contains minutes from meetings with DESA, DESA told the communities that the dam would create 300 construction jobs and 1000 indirect jobs, while they themselves say in their filings with the government that the dam would only create 120 jobs. Even with these empty promises from DESA, community members were not convinced – they raised numerous concerns about losing the land they use to grow crops and expressed their rejection of the dam, telling DESA they didn’t even give permission for a feasibility study much less the dam. However, they were once again ignored because a few months later DESA arrived with a tractor to begin excavating a road to the river.

Faced with the tractor excavations, and both DESA and government officials turning a blind eye, the Lenca people promptly went to block the tractor from constructing an unwanted road through their ancestral territory. DESA called the Mayor of Intibuca, who responded by coming to Rio Blanco for a Town Hall Meeting about the dam, which seems to be the first time any government official held an official meeting with the community, despite the fact that a permit for the tractor had already been given to the company.  The Mayor used the fact that the project was already approved to pressure the population to accept it. As one community member recalls, “the mayor wanted to force or humiliate us” into accepting the project.

Despite the Mayor’s efforts, the community clearly and vocally rejected the Agua Zarca Dam in their territory. When one of the community leaders called for a vote on the project, a few hundred voted NO and only a very few supported the project. Instead of listening to the community, the Mayor got upset and left the meeting, going to meet with DESA at a private home. Nobody knows what the Mayor and DESA came up with at that private meeting, but DESA continued work. Likewise, people from Rio Blanco mobilized and went to the Honduran capital to protest the construction of the dam, demanding that the government consult them. But again, they were ignored. When the Mayor of Intibuca finally came back to Rio Blanco for a meeting with members of La Tejera, Rio Blanco, it was to try to convince them to cede a water source. This was disguised as supposedly for use by another community, but everyone knew it was for the dam. The community vocally voted ‘no” and once again rejected the dam. Not only did the Mayor not listen, but Meeting Minutes were falsified, declaring that the community had voted unanimously in favor of the dam.

Image: Working The Collective Corn Harvest in Rio Blanco.

DESA and the Mayor began a campaign to divide the communities and buy off community leaders. After the community rejected the dam, they said they were going to eat lunch and then went to hold a secret meeting with leaders of different communities, pressuring them to sign documents and making promises to them. This intentional sewing of division within the communities continues to this day, using both intimidation and offers of money to turn individuals against the rest of the community and foment conflict and violence. People have overheard dam supporters talking about the quantities of money offered for the murder of Francisco Sanchez, President of the Rio Blanco Indigenous Council, and Lucio Sanchez, President of the La Tejera Community Council, both key leaders in the struggle against the dam.

The Rio Blanco Lenca people face constant threats. When they go to work their collective corn fields on land that the dam company claims, company security guards threaten them and fired shots into the air. When they are at home, they never know when the police will return to ransack a house, turn over bags of beans, thrust guns at children, or arbitrarily arrest them. When they walk from place to place, community leaders never know if they will return. They live with the reality of death, yet they could not be clearer that they are struggling for life for their children. As María has said, “If I die, I will die defending life…We know that this land belongs to us as Lenca people.  Our ancestors struggled to defend this land for us. We also will have grandchildren and we are going to defend this land for them.”

One must ask, when will the Honduran justice system investigate and charge the people who attacked María, Roque, and 12-year old Paulo? Their identities are known. When will it try SERNA and the Mayor for consistently violating ILO Convention 169? When will there be accountability for the soldier who murdered Tomás Garcia in Rio Blanco in July of 2013? When will the constant death threats and the vehicles that have pursued COPINH leaders be investigated? When will DESA and the government actually listen to the people of Rio Blanco and leave them their river?