Donald Hernández is a Honduran lawyer and human rights defender specialised in environmental issues especially mining and hydroelectric projects.
He is a member of the Honduran Centre for Community Promotion and Development (CEHPRODEC) and coordinates the legal as well as Human Rights and Environment department, legally representing communities affected by mining projects.
He plays a prominent role in the National Coalition of Environmental Networks and Organisations (CONROA). As a lawyer, he represents over 30 criminalised human rights defenders.
Violence as an everyday reality
“Honduras has become such a violent country that ordinary people say goodbye to each other in the morning, not knowing if they will return that evening.” Donald Hernandez
Honduras has one of the highest murder rates the world, with over 80 killings per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013. The State says this figure has dramatically reduced over the past years but civil society disputes this claim.
There are many factors that contribute to the level of violence in Honduras, Hernandez explains. Firstly, Honduras’ geographic location on the trafficking corridor makes it a strategic location, with criminal gangs fighting for territorial control of the drug routes. Organised crime has penetrated all levels of society, leading to high levels of corruption and impunity.
The lucrative weapons industry is another major contributing factor. Honduras has a huge market for arms, with around 90,000 private security guards operating in the country, as compared with 30,000 police officers. Anyone over 18 can possess up to five firearms. According to Hernandez, there is a high profit in the distribution of weapons which provides a financial incentive for leaving the problem unresolved.
A country cursed by its wealth?
“Communities living on these resource-rich lands don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse.” Donald Hernandez
Honduras is resource-rich, with abundant supplies of iron, timber, gold, silver and hydropower. Hernandez tells PBI, “the government is actively pursuing a model of development based on the sale of land to foreign companies for extractive, hydroelectric and agribusiness projects […] while traditional areas of food production have been sold to companies for the production of biofuel.”
Hernandez’s organisation, CEHPRODEC, works with communities who live on affected lands, helping indigenous groups and campesinos to understand their rights as per international law, including ILO Convention 169, which requires that indigenous peoples are consulted and participate in decision-making around development projects on their land.
The human impact of resource exploitation
Forced displacement is a common consequence of large-scale investment projects, says the human rights lawyer. Communities who have been forcibly displaced from their lands have tried to re-establish agricultural production in other parts of Honduras, and have been chased off these lands too. This double wave of displacement has led to mass migration to other countries, often to the US and Europe.
He also tells us that those who speak out against these issues are increasingly being criminalised. According to Hernandez, the crime of ‘sedition’ - the incitement of resistance against the lawful authority - is increasingly being used to criminalise protesters. Arrests under this charge lead to immediate detention and there is no presumption of innocence. The legal system is so slow that it can take years to prove the innocence of the person and have them released, by which time it’s often too late as the company has already moved in. The Honduran defender points to “a dual process of political and juridical persecution of human rights defenders.”
Human rights defenders are also threatened and attacked for trying to protect their lands, such as the case of Berta Caceres. So many attacks like the one against Berta never make it into the press, Hernandez tells us. For example, on 20th January the house of an indigenous leader was burned down, months after he had been severely beaten by police.
“Berta’s death was terrible. We wept […]. But this incident is just the tip of the iceberg.” Donald Hernandez
How to effect real change in Honduras
International advocacy remains a vital strategy if we are to affect change. Honduras cares deeply about its international reputation, Hernandez explains, but it is undeterred by the objections and demands of domestic civil society. For this reason, it is a very important to galvanise the support of international civil society and political actors and put pressure on the government of Honduras from the outside.
“The government line is that things are changing for the better in Honduras, but we must make sure people see through the propaganda.” Donald Hernandez