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Honduran environmental defenders hit hard by human rights crisis, report says

  • A new report from the Organization of American States documents the human rights crisis in Honduras, citing threats and violence against environmental defenders as one of the most alarming problems.
  • The violence tends to involve agrarian land disputes in areas populated by the over 700,000 Indigenous and Afro-descendant residents of the country, including the Miskitu, Pesh, Tawahka, Nahua, Tolupán, Chortí and Lenca, as well as Garifunas.
  • The OAS recommended the government improve land titling while strengthening and better organizing institutions that hold violent aggressors accountable.

Honduras has struggled with a poor human rights record over the last decade, with the international community expressing concern about reports of torture, arbitrary killings, life-threatening prison conditions and warrantless home searches, among a long list of other things.

A significant percentage of the people suffering human rights abuses are connected to the environment, either because they’re activists, conservationists or members of Indigenous communities speaking out against harm to local ecosystems.

In a new human rights report on Honduras this month, the Organization of American States (OAS) detailed just how grave the situation has become for environmental defenders in the country, calling the situation “alarming.” While human rights violations also affect women, children, journalists, incarcerated people and members of the LGBTQ+ community, environmental defenders make up a disproportionately large portion of the victims.

“It is of special concern to the OAS that violence against defenders, particularly the number of murders recorded in recent years, has been mainly directed against those who defend the environment, land and territory,” the report said.

An Inter-American Commission on Human Rights panel on the violence in Bajo Aguán. Photo by Daniel Cima via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The statement carries extra weight given the OAS’ role as the leading governmental alliance promoting democracy, security and peace in the region. It said much of the violence can be traced back to long-standing agrarian conflicts tied to the growth of manufacturing, extractive industries and large-scale agriculture.

The groups hit hardest by those conflicts tend to involve the over 700,000 Indigenous and Afro-descendant residents of the country, including the Miskitu, Pesh, Tawahka, Nahua, Tolupán, Chortí and Lenca, as well as Garifuna.

Homicides even trended down in some urban communities last year while continuing to rise in some rural ones. The report pointed to the municipality of El Rosario, Olancho, where conflicts between illegal loggers and environmental defenders resulted in a homicide rate of 160 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022, compared to the national average of 35.8 per 100,000.

One source of the violence is a flawed titling system creating disputes about the possession and management of land. By 2020, around 80% of private property had inadequate titles or no titles at all, according to Peace Brigades International Honduras, a human rights group. Titles are granted on top of others, most notably on ancestral land, resulting in conflicts that often lead to violence, arrests and other forms of persecution for vulnerable communities.

African palm oil fruit from Colón, Honduras. Photo by Lon&Queta via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)

Large-scale projects for tourism, mining and agriculture — most notably banana and African palm (Elaeis guineensis) — have advanced on Indigenous and Afro-descendant land, according to the report. Often, development takes place without free, prior and informed consent, a process in which residents are consulted about how their lives will be impacted by a project.

“[The situation] has consolidated the concentration of wealth for a minority of the population and has affected the state’s ability to advance redistributive justice that improves the lives of the affected communities,” the report said. “This has generated social unrest and conflicts in many communities in Honduras.”

One of the gravest crises is playing out in the Bajo Aguán region in the department of Colón, where locals have clashed with businessmen over land claims and pollution from mining, resulting in death threats, intimidation, disappearances and violent deaths, allegedly at the hands of paramilitary groups. Over 30 rural leaders in one community had arrest warrants issued against them, with eight spending over two years in prison, according to Amnesty International.

Between 2014 and 2015, authorities recovered 86 bodies during investigations, according to the Violent Deaths Unit in Bajo Aguán, which was established to investigate crimes in the area.

Overall, the government hasn’t done enough, critics say. It’s ultimately responsible for violating rural residents’ rights to “life and integrity” by failing to protect them from the violence and bring justice to their aggressors, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which filed a petition with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights last year.

Mechanisms such as roundtables for dialogue and agencies that carry out investigations can help combat these human rights violations. But they need to be stronger and more organized, the OAS report said, noting that many task forces overlap in their duties and often end up doing the same work, or lack the institutional support needed to meet their goals.

The country also needs to create legislation that allows for better land titling and demarcation, especially for collective territories of Indigenous and Afro-Honduran people. The legislation should reinforce the prior consultation process and include protection measures against threats on their land and natural resources.

“Honduras has the opportunity to regain confidence in state institutions,” the OAS said in a release, “and to do so it must prioritize strengthening institutions, providing them with sufficient resources, ensuring public management capacity and implementing policies and budgets from the highest possible levels.”

Banner image: A protest for a murdered environmental activist in Honduras. Photo by Daniel Cima via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

See related from this reporter:

Environmental defenders paid the price during Panama’s historic mining protests – report

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