My taxi was pulling into the carpark of the Honduran Environment Ministry when I got a phone call from the UN. ‘You probably shouldn’t go to that meeting’, they said, ‘the Environment Minister just called for your colleague Billy’s immediate arrest on live TV!’
My confused driver was instructed to reverse straight back out and take me to the UN. From there, UN representatives and I drove over to the TV studio, to salvage Billy from the media scrum which had formed outside it.
Once we had him, we pushed our way back through the aggressive crowd to our car. One journalist shouted, “You’d better make sure that’s bullet-proof!”
Billy and I were in Honduras to launch our new report detailing the reasons why, with more than 120 murders since 2010, the country is the most dangerous place on earth to defend your land or the environment.
The fact that government ministers and industry spokespeople took to the airwaves to question our report and discredit our organisation speaks volumes for the context in which environmental defenders there operate.
Our glimpse of this reality had begun before we’d even reached the country. Switching planes in Miami, our phones were abuzz with news that a doctored version of the flyer advertising our launch was doing the rounds on social media. The phony flyer claimed that our aim – together with local NGOs – was to taint the image of the nation as part of a left-wing conspiracy. Some of the social media posts even included bizarre accusations of links to drug trafficking.
Campaigns to demonize human rights defenders will fail. pic.twitter.com/51H6FmzNfc— US Ambassador HN (@USAmbHonduras) January 29, 2017
Such stigmatisation is commonplace in Honduras and contributes to a culture of fear around speaking out. But it was the hard-hitting nature of our report which made state and industry representatives turn their attention to us. We had uncovered evidence of widespread corruption and illegalities linked to hydropower, mining, logging and tourism, which had been used to impose projects without the consent of local communities and silence dissent.
Indigenous activist Ana Miriam Romero held her baby in her arms when she took me to one side during our report launch. She was angry. “What they say about us isn’t true”, she said. “All we want is our rights respected and a good future for our children. But they say we’re criminals just because we stand in the way of their interests.”
In 2015, she and her sister-in-law Rosaura were both pregnant when brutally beaten by Honduran security forces, having opposed an illegal hydropower project controlled by the husband of Gladis Aurora Lopez, President of the ruling National Party. Ana Miriam spent over a week in hospital as a result. Rosaura lost her baby.
While in Honduras we held some constructive meetings with officials who are attempting to provide protection for land and environmental defenders and investigate abuses. However it is clear their efforts will only ever be partially successful until high level officials make strong, public commitments to prioritise this issue.
This includes the President. Rather than questioning the veracity of our report, Juan Orlando Hernandez – like all candidates for the upcoming elections – should lay out exactly how he will protect the nation’s land and environmental defenders, address the root causes of the violence they face, and guarantee that local communities can participate in decisions regarding the use of their land and natural resources; just as international law says they ought to.
The government must also bring an end to the impunity that surrounds these crimes. This means arresting whoever ordered the murder of Berta Caceres, and investigating Gladis Lopez for corruption related to her husband’s hydro projects, in relation to which three indigenous opponents have been murdered. (1)
Our week in Honduras was emotional. The solidarity shown by local civil society was as moving as their mobilisation to demand justice for the cases in the report was inspiring. We left on a flight to Washington for a week of advocacy in the US, determined to carry their voice to the corridors of power. US policy on Honduras requires a drastic overhaul if attacks upon defenders are to be prevented and the root causes of mass migration stemmed.
Recent weeks have seen a fresh escalation of threats, harassment and attacks on land and environmental defenders in Honduras. This is all the more tragic given that this week much of the country is commemorating the one-year anniversary of Berta Caceres’ assassination.
So far, the Honduran government’s ‘shoot the messenger’ approach has only served to shine a stronger international light on abuses within the country. It is high time for it to show some conviction in addressing the issues at stake, paving the way for a more positive year ahead.
Download Global Witness's new report 'Honduras - the deadliest place to defend the planet' here.
Ben Leather campaigns for the protection of land and environmental defenders globally. Follow him on Twitter at @BenLeather1
(1) When asked to comment by Global Witness on these allegations, Gladis López denied any involvement in the consultation meeting for the Los Encinos hydropower project or in a violent police incursion of September 2014. Her husband Arnold Castro denied any responsibility for attacks against indigenous activists opposing his projects or having left communities without water through the construction of the La Aurora project. Both denied any conflict of interest or illegality in the approval by Congress of contracts for the projects.