Kevin Ramírez Vásquez is an environmental activist from the community of El Listón in the Santa Barbara district of northern Honduras, which has the greatest number of extractive and hydroelectric concessions in the country. In 2013, work began to build a hydroelectric dam in the area despite the fact that 27 local communities, organised under the leadership of Kevin Ramírez, were opposed to it. In 2017, Kevin co-founded the Association of Defenders of Common Goods in Quimistán (ASODEBICOQ), of which he remains a key member. He is a recipient of security measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, due to the severity of the threats against him and his family.
Honduras has been making global news in recent weeks, both for the ongoing trial of murdered environmental activist Berta Cáceres, and as the country of origin of a caravan of migrants heading for the United States.
In this interview with PBI Honduras, which provides vital support to ASODEBICOQ, Kevin’s words further reveal the dangers faced by those who defend the land and environment in his country. They also offer a fresh persepctive on the repression and loss of community resources that are among the drivers of Honduran emigration.
On the work of ASODEBICOQ
What ASODEBICOQ does is inform and train communities and individuals as human rights defenders, so that they know what their rights are, defend them and claim them. We also focus on the defence of our land. At the moment we are protesting against two hydroelectric projects, one of which is currently suspended. The other we are working on right now is the Cuyagual project, which has been violating the rights of many communities, such as the community of Santa Lucia, in the El Cacao region. ASODEBICOQ works in 48 communities in the municipalities of Quimistán, San Marco Aliso and others in the state of Santa Barbara, in defence of land and in defence of human rights.
On how he became a human rights defender
We came to this struggle, to this organisation ASODEBICOQ, through the Catholic Church. In the year 2012 we had a very good priest and he got us involved in the defence of the land – he made us realise the wealth that we have and the importance of defending it. Also, in the year 2012 I received a training in political citizenship from the Jesuit organisation ERIC (the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team – ERIC by its Spanish acronym). From that training, which lasted nine months, I realised that it was good to organise ourselves, educate ourselves and defend our common home. From there we emerged and became aware of the importance of pursuing this struggle.
On the impact of hydroelectric projects in the local communities
The first project, which we were protesting before and which has now been suspended, is the Paso Viejo dam in the region of El Listón, which harmed more than 15 communities. The impact this project could have on us is the privatisation of water and the privatisation of common building resources such as sand and stones. Also that they send in military police, soldiers are now entering the communities. The communities have their own customs, and their reality is different to the reality brought by these companies, so these projects are going to destabilise us and divide us. That is the impact that we would receive from the project that is currently suspended.
The impact the Cuyagual project has had is the pollution of the rivers from where they explode dymanite, explode bombs to loosen rocks and fell deeply-rooted trees. The poison this bomb makes ends up in the freshwater springs, in the river, and it pollutes the river where it kills the animals, the fish, the water-snails. There is also the question of privatisation. There are already communities where the people have to get permission to use the sand, use the stones. In the higher region, the inhabitants of communities such as San Felipe and Santa Lucia can’t access the rivers because they are privatised. The owners are the businessmen, the owners of the dam. They have militarised the area, installed police posts, and these are things that have never been seen before in these regions. This is going to bring many problems. It has also meant that employees from other regions, from other states of the country or outside the country, have made young girls pregnant, some of them 18 or 15 years old. This is a terrible impact as it’s a violation of human rights. Some employees were drawn from the communities and now almost all of them have been dismissed; they were cheated. There was no prior informed consultation, which is a violation of human rights [as recognised by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation]. This is why we are defending our land: we are obliged to defend our common home.
On the threats he receives for his work
I have received many threats, I have security measures, I have had to leave the region three times. The first time I was gone for a month, the second time for another month, and when we returned my wife was attacked with a machete and injured. That was when we got precautrionary measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and we had to leave for a year and a half. We made various reports of the crime, but they have not advanced at all. We know that for defending our territory, defending the rivers, which are the veins of our mother earth, the first thing that comes are the threats. The threats are from the local government, the mayor’s office, and also from the businessmen. There are associates of the mayor in the municipality who have threatened us and insulted us, they have even put a price on my head and I have been singled out many times for assassination. My wife has been very attacked in this, we had to rush her to hospital, and when she was injured it left her with psychological problems. This problem was treated with the support of the Jesuit project ERIC, that has helped us a lot. But we know that when we defend these territories, defend the water, defend our common resources, the first thing that comes are the threats.
On overcoming personal doubts and struggles
Often I ask myself if I regret having become involved in this struggle. We have been in the struggle since 2012 and always resources are a difficulty in the communities. Often we can’t get the money to travel from one community to another, and in various regions I have walked for five or eight hours. Sometimes you get tired, you are drained by the expense, but you feel committed to the struggle. You have committed yourself to the communities, to the mother earth that gives us the food we eat. Sometimes you feel like emigrating to the United States, leaving to another country, when you see what is happening in our own country, where we are governed by the force of arms. We know this is the case, especially in the case of (Honduran President) Juan Orlando Hernández, which is a repressive government, a dictatorial government. We know that deaths may await us because they send soldiers when we make blockades or take to the streets. There are threats from all the public employees – from the Municipal Environmental Unit, from the police, from the mayor’s office itself. So then you think of emigrating and leaving this country. But then you think of your children, your neighbours, of everything surrounding you, and that if you don’t do it, who will? Then you feel indignant.
Sometimes you feel like leaving this struggle but luckily there are organisations like ERIC and PBI. The support PBI offers us gives us strength, encouragement, so we can keep going. We know this isn’t easy. This is our duty and I hope that I’m not going to take that hard decision to emigrate to another country. If we don’t do this as ASODEBICOQ, who is going to care for these rivers that give such beauty and wealth to our communities? We have no employment, we have no security, but we have life, we have the river. That motivates us to keep fighting, to keep moving forward, training and organising and denouncing those projects that come to pollute and divide our communities and violate human rights, as has happened in the case of the Cuyagual project.
On his personal motivations
What motivates me to keep going is my own conscience, which is clear. What I do, and why I do it. When you realise your purpose, that is the most beautiful thing. When you aren’t clear of your purpose, you do nothing, or do whatever you feel like, or think of emigrating, but when your purpose is clear you feel more committed, you fall in love with the struggle. When you see the communities in defence, see the trainees, the water committees, the directives of ASODEBICOQ in the communities, that enriches you. When you see humble people with a smile, see that there are many innocent children who don’t know what may be coming to them, then you are filled with love and feel committed to the struggle.
The river is a thing that makes me happy – when I come to the river I feel like I speak with it, I connect with it. When I go to bathe with my children I feel like I have everything. When I see the river I feel excited and proud because we defend that river, we defend it from those businessmen that come to pollute it. I feel very happy when I see so much nature, so many rivers, so many beautiful people coming together. What most grabs my attention is seeing all the wealth we have and valuing it. When you see all the nature, connect with the nature, that motivates you and fills you with love. And so you gain strength and carry on.
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