In March 2016, the world woke up to the perils of defending human rights in Honduras with the tragic news of the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres. According to a recent study by Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental defender, with 111 murders reported between 2010 and 2015.
In April, Honduran land and environmental rights defenders, Donald Hernandez and Jehovany Cruz, came to the UK as part of a speaker tour across Europe and the US organised by Peace Brigades International (PBI).
The tour enabled the pair to bring their concerns and demands directly to international policy-makers, as well as to help them build connections with other organisations working in support of their cause.
During their visit to the UK, they met with Member of Parliament Mark Durkan, the All Party-Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, a number of civil society organisations, law firms and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
In a meeting with representatives from a number of civil society organisations, hosted by PBI and CAFOD, Hernandez and Cruz spoke about the current situation in Honduras and many challenges they face in their work, as well as the importance of international solidarity to help bring about change.
A country cursed by its wealth?
For over 13 years, Cruz has worked in forest management, protected areas, and communitarian water management with a focus on human rights. He is executive director for the Pico Bonito National Park Foundation (FUPNAPIB), whose aim is to protect the national park from hydropower and mining projects.
“A very conscious decision was taken by the government to pursue an extractive development model.” Jehovany Cruz
According to Cruz, the coup d’etat which took place in Honduras in 2009 marked a break in the slow progress towards democratisation, initiating a process of dismantling of laws and decrees that guaranteed the protection of protected areas and the consultation of people who would be affected by investment projects.
The defender told PBI that in 2010, the Honduran government approved 45 concessions for hydroelectric projects, many of which were in protected areas that civil society groups had been working for years to conserve, lands that are essential to the way of life of indigenous people.
However, Cruz explained, despite being party to ILO Convention 169, which requires that indigenous peoples are consulted and participate in decision-making around development projects on their land, the Honduran government has repeatedly granted concessions for these projects without respect for the law. FUPNAPIB, the organisation with which Cruz works, has taken numerous claims to constitutional courts, who almost always judge in favour of the companies.
"It's not enough to displace us. They want to persecute and kill us as well," Jehovany Cruz.
According to Cruz, communities challenging these projects are frequently manipulated. FUPNAPIB has documented cases of companies using tactics such as trying to pass off lists of participants as lists of people giving consent to a project and falsifying signatures as evidence of the community’s consent. The organisation has made a number of complaints to relevant bodies but are yet to receive a satisfactory response.