One year without justice: In-depth interview with Laura Zúñiga, COPINH member and daughter of killed human rights defender Berta Cáceres
Karen Hudlet and Ana Zbona, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Feb 2017
In time for the 1st anniversary of the killing of her mother Berta Caceres, the renowned environmental activist, human rights defender of rights of Lenca people, leader of COPINH and known opponent of the Agua Zarca dam in rio Blanco in Honduras, we talk to Laura Zúñiga, a COPINH member and an articulate activist in her own right. She shares her thoughts on the investigation of the murder, on what investors and companies could be doing to prevent and address abuses against human rights defenders, on the proposed law on consultation in Honduras and on how development discourse should change – to protect the defenders and the planet.
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BHRRC: The investigation into Berta’ murder has been full suspected cover-ups and even the robbery of the case file on two separate occasions. How closely is the family allowed to observe the trial, is the case file safe now and are there any signals that Honduras may be willing to accept an international investigation, which IACHR said is willing to do?
Laura: From the beginning, we are in a marginalized position in the investigation. Despite the fact that, in Honduras, and also internationally, the victims are supposed to be involved we have not had access, nor do our lawyers. Even in the situation of the theft of the file, our lawyers still had no access. Given the mistrust generated by the Honduran government, because of the issue of an ex-army officer being detained, but also because of the State's involvement with private companies and the conditions that enabled this situation of violence in the communities and with my mother, we have always worried about the role and the bias that the State could have in the case.
Despite the fact that, in Honduras, and also internationally, the victims are supposed to be involved we have not had access, nor do our lawyers. Even in the situation of the theft of the file, our lawyers still had no access.
That is why from the beginning, we have requested an investigation of experts commissioned by the IACHR. But, we have always faced the negative response from the State, even at times when the IACHR stated that it could enter to investigate the case, they just stopped responding, so we understood this as a negative. We responded to all this with a group of internationally recognized expert advisors, who are trying to do a research paper that would clarify this situation and they are still in the middle of this work. But this is not done on the part of the government, nor is it done by any particular organization because we could not obtain the permission of the State for an international organization to enter Honduras.
BHRRC: COPINH has not responded positively to the report on Agua Zarca and Berta's murder that FMO published. Could you explain a little to me what the difficulties were with this research, in your opinion?
Laura: That report, if compared with the report published at the same time and on the same case, from the Special Rapporteur of the UN Indigenous Peoples, we see there is a lot of divergence between them, for example on the issue of the legalization of the concession and the expansion that is done to expand the capacity of the dam. More than an impartial report, FMO report is an assertion that FMO is not responsible for violence and crime in the community. On the other hand, the report is constructing a narrative of criminalization towards the people who are facing this project in Rio Blanco and also constructs narratives that can lead to criminalization towards those who face this types of projects more generally. For example, it is implied that these people are against development for being against this construction. Another issue is the way the report was made. The mission came to do an investigation, but they did not meet with us, as my mom's family. They were late for the meeting, it was a very short meeting. They did not want to meet with people who had been victims of DESA and who cannot speak publicly about this because it causes them security problems. So, I think it was a report with rather bad intentions, both in its elaboration and in its final publication, with bad implications for the people who are demanding justice for my mom and for the company to leave Rio Blanco.
BHRRC: Since we are on this issue and you mentioned that defenders are often accused of being against the development of the country: do you think that there has been an escalation, in recent years, in criminalization and in the use of negative speech against defenders who oppose these projects in Honduras?
Laura: Firstly, we have seen advances made into the territories of indigenous peoples. In recent years, the amount of territory under concessions has increased and this has generated much more conflict because the communities are defending their territory and are suffering the direct impact on their life and their ways of living.
In these days we saw a new criminal code was approved [in Honduras] that treats social protest as terrorism.
This has generated more resistance. At the same time, in a militarized state with disarranged institutions, especially after 2009 the coup of the State occurred, the state has not only been unable to resolve the basic rights of communities, but has also violated them through militarization and the laws that are being created against social protest. In these days we saw that a new criminal code was approved that treats social protest as terrorism. The state is not separated from private companies and therefore follows the economic interests of extractive companies and not the interests of communities and Honduran society.
BHRRC: Can you explain how you see this lack of separation? Do corporations influence these laws that state enacts against social protest? You say they promote their interests over the interests of indigenous communities and citizens – how do they do that?
Laura: There is no separation between the two: that is to say that the same people who form part of the State, and who hold important public positions, are also part of the private companies. In addition, in Honduras corruption is at incredible degrees - any public official that gets into office raises their standard of living by acts of corruption. Fragile institutions incapable of investigating and prosecuting those who hold public office in acts of corruption lead to this problem getting replicated and expanded. Moreover, there is no independence between powers of the State.
The same people who form part of the State, and who hold important public positions, are also part of the private companies...This is a combo that puts the defenders in danger of persecution and gives free hand to companies to do what they want, without much resistance.
The Supreme Court has violated Honduran constitutional laws, for example with re-election, and is unable to investigate issues such as the embezzlement of the Social Institute in Honduras, a problem that generated many protests a few years ago. The national congress also goes hand in hand with the judiciary and the executive branch, enforcing laws (such as the mining law) that favour private companies, while creating laws to criminalize and persecute activists and organizations. This is a combo that puts the defenders in danger of persecution and gives free hand to companies to do what they want, without much resistance.
BHRRC: Regarding some regulations in favor of human rights defenders, do you believe that the attempt to make a mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders in Honduras will work?
Laura: I don't have a good insight into how the mechanism is being constructed, but what I can talk about is the experience I have had, my colleagues at COPINH and some other organizations, and what I believe is felt at the general level which is that as long as there are so many concessions against indigenous territories, a context of impunity, militarization and laws that persecute us as defenders, it will be very difficult for such measures to work.
The problem of security of the defenders is something structural and as long as there is no structural change, I believe no mechanism will work that would allow us to live - more than just to survive - despite these grand security measures.
One can try to live among four walls, with security cameras, with security measures that are very expensive and difficult to obtain: but we are still in danger. The problem of security of the defenders is something structural and as long as there is no structural change, I believe no mechanism will work that would allow us to live, more than just to survive, despite these grand security measures.
BHRRC: The situation in Honduras seems to be an incarnation of a system that fails indigenous human rights defenders at all levels and pushes them to a situation without escape. Some organizations say that in this context, there is no way to ensure that projects are implemented in a manner that respects the rights of indigenous peoples and calls on all foreign investors and international financial institutions to stop any planned investments mining, dams, logging, tourism and large-scale agricultural projects and for states to suspend aid to Honduras. In COPINH, would you agree with this advice? Do you think that everyone should stop investing to prove to the state that this situation can’t continue or do you disagree with this advice?
Laura: What we are seeing in Honduras is a level of systematic and serious violation of human rights. The people who live in Honduras, regardless of whether or not they belong to a social movement, who seek some kind of protection, do not find it because it is the State itself that exercises this violence. Organizations and defenders that could help these people are busy safeguarding their own lives or existence. For everyone, it is very difficult to find help in everyday life to be able to live.
To continue strengthening these types of institutions or continue contributing financially to this system, is to strengthen this source of danger and risk for activists. Following this logic, it is currently better not to invest in Honduras now, because if you invest, you invest in this reality.
States that want to help Honduran people do so through an institution that is the Honduran state that systematically violates human rights and exerts much violence against the population. So by investing in a state or investing in private companies that have a culture of violence and persecution of people, and these same institution that are the ones that have generated violence in the first place, these institutions are being strengthened. There is no guarantee of respect of human rights. So to continue strengthening these types of institutions or continue contributing financially to this system, is to strengthen this source of danger and risk for activists. Following this logic, it is currently better not to invest in Honduras now, because if you invest, you invest in this reality.
The role of the United States, and even the European Union, do not only supports certain development programs, but also openly support militarization, through funding and through the creation of military police. I believe that the impact of these type of support on the human rights situation in Honduras is even more direct and that these impacts are even more serious.
BHRRC: How can you relate this perspective you just shared to the experience you had with the investors involved in the project, especially Finnfund and FMO? How do you think that investors have to react to abuses of the rights of human rights defenders?
Laura: One of the key things that has to be understood is the context and the territory. No investor can enter to finance projects that have a history of human rights violations. In the specific case, the FMO and Finnfund went on to finance a project that has had, as a background for this financing, the withdrawal of another financier because of a murder of an activist. I think this is key when thinking about how lenders have to act. From the moment they choose to enter a territory or finance a project or a company that has a history of human rights violations, they are responsible. Moreover, they have to actively listen to the populations and their positions around their territory. For example, in this case [of Agua Zarca dam], a community does not want this project. Funding projects that communities and people do not want is not in line with ethical principles. Furthermore, they must be listening to the people, always understanding the contexts, understanding the States in which they are investing: in our case, Honduras had experienced a coup in 2009 and has not yet been able to recover its institutionality.
[Investors] should be decisive, be firm and know the reality of each territory - this could help to reduce the negative impact of project financing on human rights.
Additionally, if and when killings happen, investors have to be held responsible for what they have generated. What we feel is that often the financiers pressure the companies to continue with the projects even when there is resistance from the population and this pressure is what, little by little, deepens the violence of the companies towards the communities. Finally, it is important to react decisively. When there is a murder, an investor has to leave immediately, and not linger. With FMO and Finnfund, we had to wait not for one murder, but six murders, including my mom's, which was a world scandal, and then another murder of another activist, until they finally decided to leave on a provisional basis. In sum, [investors] should be decisive, be firm and know the reality of each territory - this could help to reduce the negative impact of project financing on human rights.
BHRRC: Speaking of the context and social reality of the communities into which the projects enter: investors, including FMO, initially underscored the value of the Agua Zarca dam project to reduce Honduras' dependence on fossil fuels by providing "a source of clean, low-cost and stable energy. " A well-intentioned push for renewable energy cannot come at the expense of livelihoods of communities affected by new energy projects. But if these renewable energy projects were implemented through adequate consultation, which according to you was not the case with Agua Zarca, can the projects be compatible with the Lenca people's worldview? Could you explain what the Gualcarque river means in the Lenca worldview?
Laura: Indigenous peoples have historically been guardians of life and land. The great reserves of life in Honduras, in Latin America, are in the territories of the indigenous peoples. There you see something that people from other places sometimes fail to understand and that is that from our point of view, life is conceived not only from an individual and not only from our own bodies, but from the whole territory with which we live. I believe that sometimes this is very difficult to understand and this view is not reflected in the narrative of development. I believe that the indigenous peoples have managed to work with this: to live, to respect what makes us live, for example, the river, the land. Many times the problem with these projects is not only if they generate more coal waste or less, but rather the viewpoint from which they are seen.
As long as [the] energy [from these dams] is produced to sustain mining or the large levels of consumption that are now in the world, and that are destroying our planet, this type of energy will not be compatible with our worldview and with life itself.
Often, these big projects (wind, dams, which are seen as renewable energy) are constructed to generate amounts of energy to sustain the consumption levels of countries that are not Honduras, but the large industrialized countries. Or, for example, in the case of the Gualcarque River these dams are designed and built to support mining. So the problem is not just renewable energy, it's the matrix, the way of thinking and why this energy is generated. As long as this energy is produced to sustain mining or the large levels of consumption that are now in the world, and that are destroying our planet, this type of energy will not be compatible with our worldview and with life itself.
BHRRC: We understand this is much more complex, but with what we just discussed in mind, what do you think about the urge to make a consultation law in Honduras precisely to try to ensure that indigenous peoples have a process to give their opinion on any megaproject, including energy?
Laura: This proposed law is a source of considerable concern for us, in that we already have a code that covers consent of indigenous people (ILO Convention 169) and that we have historically used as legal protection for something that for us goes beyond formal legality and has to do with our own legal systems and the decision-making on our territories. It is an agreement that has protected us from the entry of companies that have not consulted us.
With the new law of prior consultation, which is being promoted in Honduras, this right to decide on the territories becomes only a consultation in which the entity that makes the final decision is not the community, but the State.
With the new law of prior consultation, which is being promoted in Honduras, this right to decide on the territories becomes only a consultation in which the entity that makes the final decision is not the community, but the State, and that is a problem. As I mentioned before, we are talking about a fragile, militarized, increasingly illegal State. If they remove the final decision from the peoples and give it to the State, this will limit our power to decide on our territory.
BHRRC: One idea is that it would help if companies and investors had policies on human rights defenders, the way Adidas does, do you think this can be useful?
Laura: It is absolutely necessary that companies respect human rights and this should be mandatory. Often it is only seen as a “good thing to do” for them to respect human rights because it generates more added value. But I think it is necessary to put the interests of life and populations above economic interests. It seems to me that in many areas it is difficult to achieve this because, for example in ‘extractivism’, in mining, because mining needs to break the ground and poison the water to function. But it is an obligation that in order for us to continue to exist, companies need to respect life because, besides being a matter of ethics and rights, the life of the planet depends on it. We have reached a very difficult point, not only in terms of natural goods, but in terms of life itself. We see how violence is continually deepening in the indigenous territories, so [respect for human rights by companies] is something that has to be a given.
BHRRC: How can companies and investors influence other companies and also governments to respect human rights more? Can you imagine a situation in which a company that has an interest in having a clean value chain or a clean industry can influence other companies and governments to respect rights?
Laura: If, after the assassination of Tomas Garcia, the World Bank (which finances DESA) and Sinohydro had not only definitively withdrawn, but assumed the costs, not only economic, but symbolic, of this fact and if they would have punished the company for violating human rights and reacted more strongly, this could have generated some kind of punishment for DESA that perhaps would not allow it to continue to function.
Large companies and investors could take strong actions to punish companies and governments that generate violations of human rights.
In terms of the State of Honduras, too, since this activist was killed by a soldier, [such action by World Bank] would have been a symbol for other companies not to enter to finance such projects that lead to killings, murders. In such ways, large companies and investors could take strong actions to punish companies and governments that generate violations of human rights. But, the truth is that it is very difficult to be able to imagine this because they have economic interests and are concerned with their image and do not want to assume these costs.
In addition, ‘extractivism’ itself is connected with the history, the conquest, the colony in the Americas and all this generates violence, as we already talked about. So, I think companies can take action to reduce human rights violations, but there is a whole structure that generates violence.
BHRRC: Sometimes what NGOs try to do is to encourage the most responsible and advanced companies to push to change the structure and behavior of other companies, do you think this is possible?
Laura: Given the number of human rights violations, the structure is not changed only with the good conduct of companies, but at least strong actions by companies can save some lives. If the FMO had had better behavior, if it had not entered or financed the company DESA, maybe these murders would not have happened. So, we are within these limits in Honduras. [Companies] can prevent certain rights violations, but with that you cannot really solve the crisis or change the structure.
BHRRC: In the future, what can we expect from COPINH? What do you want to achieve?
Laura: What our goal is, after such a notoriousmurder is non-repetition of killings, that is to say that we want no more activists killed for their struggle. So far we have not succeeded, but ideally that would be our goal. We will also continue to work in the defense of the Lenca people, in the empowerment of women, in publicly positioning all the problems of different marginalized sectors. We want to keep igniting dreams which with violence are often diminished and extinguished. Our work as a collective is to defend life and generate dreams that my mum, Berta, had left us.
BHRRC: In her Goldman prize acceptance speech in 2015, Berta said: “Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth – militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life.” In the current climate of growing xenophobia, racism and the ever increasing threats to civic freedoms and democracy around the world, to life itself, if you will, these words sound like a prophecy. What do you think NGOs and HRDs need to do and what should companies and investors do to answer this call to build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way that protects life?
Laura: Today I was listening to an interview with my mom, she said several times: "Who said it was going to be easy?" We are fighting for something that is very strong, very important: life. In the midst of environmental and social problems, deepening hate speech, we constitute ourselves as guardians and guardians of the rivers, the mountains, of life, and this involves a strong fight that will not be easy.
It helps if we start thinking that we're going to transition this planet, leaving it united, strong, making it into a collective - this is always what can give us strength.
But I think that what we have to think about and always make clear is that we are not alone, that parallel to all this violence and actions of hatred and war, we are also peoples of the world, and we are alive, we are a lot, and we are the majority. It's going to take a toll on us, we've seen it already with what happened to my mom and other members, and we're going to suffer, but I think it helps if we start thinking that we're going to transition this planet, leaving it united, strong, making it into a collective, and this is always what can give us strength.
On the 3rd and the 4th of March 2017, COPINH is organizing a global day of action to remember their leader, Berta Cáceres, who was assasinated a year ago. More information can be found here: Facebook de COPINH.
BHRRC invited FMO to be interviewed in January 2017; FMO did not respond.