By Jennifer Avila/ Contracorriente
Illustration by Paola Nirta from a photograph of Juan López / Agenda Propia
There is a certain irony in the name of Mount Botaderos “Carlos Escaleras” National Park. Located in the northern Honduran department of Colon, it’s one of the country’s 89 protected natural reserves. It’s named for an environmentalist from Tocoa (Colon’s largest city) who was murdered in 1997 for trying to stop the building of an African palm oil processing plant. In 2013, sixteen years after his death, Honduras’ National Congress reduced the Park’s core protected zone by 217 hectares to grant a concession to a mining project. The authorization of mining activities in this area sparked a conflict with at least 20 communities near the Park and in the valley, where a pelletizing plant is being built to process the iron ore mined from Mount Botaderos.
Juan López, a community leader who is active in the San Isidro Labrador Catholic Church, resolved to spearhead local resistance to mining projects affecting the National Park and the city of Tocoa. Juan says he rejects the idea of becoming a martyr, and that he and his friends avoid talking about the possibility of ending up dead like Carlos Escaleras.
There are 34 microbasins in the Park that provide water to the 42,000 people living in villages around Mount Botaderos. Juan and other residents from nearby communities established the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Communal and Public Property (Comité Municipal de Defensa de los Bienes Comunes y Públicos – CMDBCP) to defend the Park.
Juan is known around Tocoa as a pastoral coordinator for the Catholic Church, but now he’s being branded a criminal because of his environmental activism. He says his only objective is to protect the microbasins that supply drinking water to people living in the mine’s direct impact area and in the towns of Tocoa, Sabá, Gualaco, Olanchito, Bonito Oriental and San Esteban. These towns are in an area known as El Aguán, a valley rich in natural resources that has been coveted for decades by mining companies and agro-industrial enterprises.
Juan’s activism dates back to 2016, when the communities in the San Pedro area bordering the National Park decided to oppose mining operations on the mountain and its environs. In 2018, protestors from Guapinol, near Tocoa, set up a camp that blocked the Los Pinares mining company from moving its machinery to the mountain. Claiming that construction of a road to the mine was polluting the Guapinol River, the blockade remained in place for a year.
The standoff then escalated to another level. The community became enraged when one of its members was shot on September 7, 2018 after an attempted eviction. A confrontation broke out after the Honduran Army and the police raided the camp a second time to evict the protesters. Members of the community marched to the mining company’s offices in Tocoa and demanded a meeting with the head of security, says Juan.
Four months after this incident, Los Pinares, the mining company that has two iron mining concessions of 100 hectares each on Mount Botaderos, brought charges against 32 people for damage, arson, wrongful deprivation of liberty, illicit association, and illegal encroachment related to events at the Guapinol protestors’ camp.
Court records indicate that the defendants held Santos Corea, the mine’s head of security, captive for three to five hours while they burned one of the mine’s containers and destroyed a vehicle at a Tocoa site. The police report on the incident states that 51 people took part in the alleged criminal activity, and were supported by at least 300 others.
Honduran authorities accused the protestors of illicit association, a charge commonly used against criminal organizations such as the maras and other gangs. This time it was applied to the environmentalists, alleging that they were members of a criminal organization known as “Los antimineros”. Juan was named as the ringleader, although he claims he was in Tocoa on the day of the incident, working at the San Alonso Rodríguez Foundation on a press release regarding the eviction of protestors from the Guapinol camp.
Juan was subsequently arrested and held at the Honduran National Penitentiary while hearings on his case and 11 fellow environmentalists dragged on. Twelve days later they were all released.
The legal proceedings involve two groups of defendants. The first group includes Juan and 11 friends who decided to turn themselves in to the authorities when they were charged in March 2019. The second group of eight protestors also turned themselves in, but have remained in jail since September 2019. Antonio Martínez Ramos was among the accused, but he died in 2015, long before this conflict broke out. So this case has a dead man accused of numerous crimes and 11 other defendants who have not yet been apprehended.
The decision to oppose mining in this Central American country has become a nightmare for Juan, producing one headache after another, all because the mining project he decided to protest is protected by the government.
On March 3, 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, the Court of Appeals granted a petition filed in September 2019 by Los Pinares and the Ministry of Justice, overturning the lower court’s acquittal of Juan and four of his fellow activists. Thus, legal proceedings have been reinitiated against these alleged ringleaders. The Court upheld the decision to release the other seven defendants, but Juan now fears he will be sent back to prison.
The Court notified the defendants of its decision in early August after Juan and the Environmental Committee had been in lockdown for five months, with no ability to directly contact and influence those affected by the mining project. Juan says several ongoing legal proceedings were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic measures implemented in Honduras. These suspended proceedings include demands to cancel the environmental license granted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (Mi Ambiente), withdrawal of the project’s operating permit, and the release of Juan’s imprisoned colleagues.
“It’s a long process because there is only one person who can receive our legal petitions, which have to be sent by email, and sometimes it takes them a while to reply that they received it… it’s a lot of work and very tiresome. The people in jail and their extended families just become exhausted and start having emotional crises,” said Juan in a video call with Contracorriente.
Now that his lawyers have appealed the reopening of his case, Juan awaits a legal resolution while the eight other environmentalists (Porfirio Sorto, José Abelino, Orbin Hernández, Ewer Cedillo, Daniel Márquez, Arnold Alemán, Kelvin Romero and Jeremías Martínez) are still in jail. Their lawyers have asked for a review of the preliminary injunctions, but these requests have been denied.
Juan also worries about surviving the pandemic in a crowded prison. Honduran authorities reported 70,611 cases of COVID-19 as of September 19. The first coronavirus death was reported at the El Pozo maximum security facility in April. By July, prison authorities (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario) confirmed at least 1,980 cases among the incarcerated population, although there were no reported infections in Olanchito, the jail where seven of the Guapinol prisoners are being held.
Juan says he feels like David challenging Goliath, but that he’s being led by his faith in God and the church. He knows that in Honduras, this battle could cost him his life, and is acutely aware that his freedom is already under threat.
A Timeline of the Aguan Valley Martyrs
The Aguan Valley is a rich, agro-industrial zone in northern Honduras that has a reputation for being a very dangerous place. This reputation doesn’t come from the infamous maras and gangs that plague Honduras, but from the often violent land disputes resulting from longtime neglect by government authorities. The drug trafficking cartels that control the area make the Aguan Valley an even more dangerous place to live.
“It’s an area that’s highly coveted by people with lots of money. Mining companies are always going to cause extreme levels of violence, wherever they go. Life has no value for them. They crush the dignity and bodies of local inhabitants, because their goal is to extract wealth from nature, over and over again,” says Juan.
Most of the people living in the Aguan Valley are peasants. After Honduras implemented agrarian reforms in the 1970s, African palm plantations began to take over the area and turned it into a monoculture industry that generates most of the jobs in this part of the country. The same communities that oppose mining projects depend on jobs in the African palm industry, which has also been harmful to water sources. But the people who live in the mountainous buffer zones surrounding the National Park plant corn and beans, living from subsistence agriculture in an area abandoned by the authorities and sometimes used to grow illicit crops like marijuana.
The most prominent environmental activist in Honduras was Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Lenca leader. She received the Goldman Environmental Prize for activism in 2015, and was murdered a year later for opposing the construction of a hydroelectric plant. The risk to environmental activists in Honduras has been widely reported. Last July, Global Witness reported how 14 defenders of natural resources were killed in 2019 alone. The Tierra de Resistentes (Land of Resistance) investigative journalism project reported how Honduran environmentalists are often prosecuted, imprisoned, and sometimes killed. Out of 685 cases between 2009 and 2019, there were 424 instances of legal harassment and 138 murders of environmentalists.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) heard a number of cases between 1995 and 2005 involving Honduran environmentalists, such as Kawas Fernandez vs. Honduras and Luna Lopez vs. Honduras. Both were cases in which environmentalists were murdered, but neither one was thoroughly investigated by the authorities.
In the Carlos Escaleras case, the IACHR presided over a settlement negotiated between the Honduran government and the victim’s family. The settlement included financial reparations and the requirement to name Mount Botaderos National Park after Carlos Escaleras. It was finally declared a protected area in 2011, 14 years after Escaleras was murdered and the IACHR ruled on the case.
Mount Botaderos was never an easy place to visit because of its remoteness, but also because it was in an area dominated by Los Cachiros, Honduras’ largest drug cartel. Two brothers, Devis and Javier Maradiaga headed the cartel until it broke up in 2015 when they surrendered to U.S. authorities. Once in U.S. custody, they began cooperating with law enforcement officials and implicated several top Honduran political figures in drug trafficking activities, including Antonio Hernandez, President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s brother. Antonio Hernandez was later convicted by a Manhattan district court for drugs and arms trafficking to the United States. President Hernandez has been named in subsequent cases as a co-conspirator in the drug trade, and for receiving large sums of money to finance his political campaigns.
Some time after the mining protests started, Tocoa mayor Adán Fúnez said in an August 2016 open town hall meeting of local residents and authorities that all the concessions in the area belonged to the Rivera Maradiaga family of the Los Cachiros cartel. The communities in the San Pedro area had demanded the meeting to request a ban on mining in the municipal area, even though four exploratory projects were already underway, including the Los Pinares project.
A video of the town hall meeting recorded by Noticias de Colón, a local news program, shows Fúnez in front of a grumbling audience saying, “I can’t believe that all of you from the San Pedro area, being friends of Javier [Rivera Maradiaga] and the entire Rivera family, didn’t know that he had requested those concessions, including the one above the lagoon. Didn’t you know… that the EMCO [concession] belonged to your friend and mine, Javier Rivera?”
According to a 2017 press release, the Honduran Institute of Geology and Mines (Instituto Hondureño de Geología y Minas – INHGEOMIN) cancelled 18 requests for mining concessions from Los Cachiros and two that had already been granted to them due to their involvement in money laundering. A spokesperson for the MInistry of Justice confirmed at that time that the mining contracts had been requisitioned by Honduras’ forensic unit (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC) as part of the investigations into the criminal organization’s finances.
EMCO Mining, the company mentioned by Fúnez, is the first name of a corporation registered to builders Lenir Pérez and Ana Facussé. It’s now known as Inversiones Los Pinares, and in April 2013 it applied for two mining exploration concessions in what was then part of the National Park’s core preservation zone. That is, they had requested a concession to operate in a natural preserve that had been designated a protected area only two years earlier. Decree 252-2013 from the Honduran National Congress then reduced the size of the Park by 217 hectares in December 2013, in the exact same area of the requested concession. The decree was approved in 2014 without amendment.
In 2015, the government’s independent commission to promote free competition in Honduras (Comisión para la Defensa y la Promoción de la Competencia de Honduras) determined that EMCO mining and two other companies with the same partners were part of two Panamanian holding companies – NE Holdings Subsidiary and NE Holdings Inc. – that list Pérez and Facussé as partners. In addition, Pérez owns Eco Tek, the company that operates the pelletizing plant in Tocoa.
According to a 2014 report on transparency in extractive industries issued by Ernst & Young Honduras, the country had approved 227 mining concessions, including 32 in Tocoa. Three years after the report was released, the number of mining concessions had increased to 306. The increase in concessions was attributed to three meetings held in Honduras to promote foreign investment under the Mining Act. This law became effective in 2019, even though eight of its articles were declared unconstitutional in 2017 because its bias towards mining companies violated the Honduran Constitution, and because it ignored existing processes requiring prior consultation with affected parties.
“As long as you keep your mouth shut and only say good things about development, everything is fine. But as soon as you raise questions, you can expect immediate and violent reactions from the media, potential criminal charges, and indictments. In the worst case, you may end up like Carlos Escaleras, Jairo Ayala, Guadalupe Carney, and Chungo Guerra, people who spoke out, raised questions, made criticisms and accusations, and then suffered at the hands of the wealthy,” says Juan, who reminds us the conflict cannot be understood without looking at the recent past. He finds it symbolic that Inversiones Eco Tek, the company that will process the iron ore extracted by Inversiones Los Pinares, is located “exactly where Corporación Dinant wanted to set up an African palm oil processing plant in 1996 and 1997 that Carlos Escaleras opposed and was then murdered.”
In its 2018 ruling on the Escaleras case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated that “months before his murder, Mr. Escaleras Mejía opposed the installation of an African palm oil extraction plant on the banks of the Tocoa River, which would have been polluted by toxic waste from the plant dumped into the river. This plant was being developed by businessman M.F. The brother of the alleged victim, René Escaleras, said that shortly before the murder, M.F. (who was also his employer) asked him to talk to Carlos Escaleras Mejía to convince him to give up the fight, since blocking the construction of the African palm processing plant would cost him a million dollars. Rene Escaleras spoke with his brother, who told him that he would not stop leading the movement to defend the environment. This resulted in Rene Escaleras Mejia being fired from M.F.’s company, and Carlos Escaleras Mejia was murdered three months later.”
The person identified in the IACHR ruling as “M.F.” is Miguel Facussé, a Honduran businessman who built an agro-industrial empire based on African palm operations throughout the country, notably in the Aguán Valley. Lenir Pérez, the owner of Los Pinares and Eco Tek, is his son-in-law. Everything stays in the family.
The Government Punishes but Does Not Protect
Los Pinares and Eco Tek have Type-4 environmental impact licenses, which are for projects, works, or activities that could potentially have an extremely high environmental impact or risk. Large-scale development projects fall within this license category, and Eco Tek’s license is still provisional.
In 2013, the Honduran Institute for Forest Conservation and Development, Protected Areas and Wildlife (Instituto de Conservación y Desarrollo Forestal, Áreas Protegidas y Vida Silvestre – ICF) drafted a management plan for Mount Botaderos to remain effective through 2024. The plan indicates that there has been very little biodiversity research in the Park. The local population’s subsistence activities and government neglect have deterred studies of this type.
The Management Plan reveals that Mount Botaderos “is home to a variety of mammals such as small wildcats, deer, squirrels, monkeys, birds (parrots, macaws, and toucans) and snakes, in addition to having a wide variety of wood and other forest species. However, very little research and very few biological studies have been done in this area.” According to a citation referenced in this plan, many Honduran mountains like Yoro and Botaderos have never been studied and are basically unknown to science.
The Management Plan also describes some of the most common problems such as land tenure insecurity, water management pressures, inappropriate agricultural practices and encroachment, uncontrolled logging, population pressure on areas inside the Park with mining and hydroelectric potential, and natural habitat invasion leading to loss of flora and fauna species.
Inversiones Los Pinares regularly publishes information on its Facebook page about how it is protecting the environment, highlighting reforestation in areas “that had been deforested”, and its mitigation of dust in the area where the pelletizing plant is being built. A document posted on Facebook by Los Pinares on August 21 says “Inversiones Los Pinares is a model for environmental programs and protection, and has a team of experts who oversee the protection of forests, water, flora, fauna, the air and soil. We operate with the strictest biosafety protocols, and generate employment and development for Tocoa”. The author of this Contracorriente article posted an interview request on the same page, but received no reply.
Los Pinares claims the pelletizing plant will provide direct employment for at least 2,000 people, and that 600 others will benefit from related jobs. This is a huge potential job increase in a country whose ailing economy has been further weakened by the pandemic. According to a recent report from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, 928 businesses closed due to the pandemic, and 127,184 people lost their jobs. The private sector also asked for tax relief in the early days of the health emergency. Yet the companies associated with this mining project continued to operate even before the economy began to gradually reopen.
According to Juan, “If the Guapinol River fails completely, everyone will leave in a caravan for the United States. This is a destabilization strategy, which is why the company has convinced the authorities to provide security. The area is now being guarded by the police and military forces.”
Juan says that the authorities could have employed people from local communities to develop the National Park management plan. He believes the government has enabled mining in protected areas, which only adds to the complex problem created by the extensive farming and cattle ranching that are destroying the forest, all because of government neglect.
In Honduras, everything happens within the bounds of the law. The core preservation zone of the Mount Botaderos “Carlos Escaleras” National Park was reduced in size by a legislative decree approved in a congressional session that was completely legal, but without any debate on the matter. It’s also legal to grant environmental licenses for resource extraction in areas that have management plans restricting this type of activity. But for environmentalists facing legal action, the law has been used to suppress community opposition to projects with environmental impacts.
The lawyers who represent Juan and his fellow environmentalists claim the case against them violates due process, and that the case will become a legal weapon that can be used against those who oppose mining projects. Meanwhile, Honduras has yet to pass a law requiring prior consultation with communities regarding mining projects. Unfortunately, this vacuum has allowed rampant exploitation and condemnation of all opposition.
Juan knows that even a pandemic can’t scare off the resistance in Guapinol and San Pedro. Then he received some good news – he has good and bad days. On September 17, the Greens/EFA members of the European Parliament announced that it was nominating the Guapinol activists and Berta Cáceres (a post mortem recognition) for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. “The nomination can be very helpful. I don’t know if we will win, but it already says a lot about this struggle,” said a stoic Juan.
“We don’t know if some people in the community are disappointed. There probably are. Before the pandemic, we heard about folks leaving for the United States, but not many. People are waiting to be mobilized, but we can’t demonstrate now because of the pandemic. But we feel that people are aware and ready,” he says, while he continues to ride a roller-coaster of emotions in his role as an environmentalist in Honduras, where defending the environment could cost him his life.
Note: This article is part of the #DefenderSinMiedo series on the struggles of environmental activists during the pandemic. This project by independent media outlet Agenda Propia is a collaboration by 20 Latin American journalists, editors and allied media, supported by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a global, non-governmental organization.