Last month, international human rights groups initially applauded the decision of the Dutch development bank FMO, and its Finnish equivalent, Finnfund, when they announced their "exit" from the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project in Honduras. The announcement came one year after two people connected with the Agua Zarca Project were charged for the murder of Berta Cáceres, General Coordinator of COPINH and an internationally recognized Indigenous leader in opposition to the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project.
But as human rights groups studied the banks' proposed exit strategy more closely, they realized that, as usual, the devil was in the details. The FMO and Finnfund proposed "exit" called upon “all external stakeholders allow for local communities to initiate a dialogue among themselves to decide on the future of the area, the development options they have at hand, and if a hydroelectric project should be one of them or not.” On its face, this language comes across as well-meaning and harmless. But in Honduras, and in this project, in particular, it is anything but that.
Last week, ERI joined 80 other organizations in presenting a letter to FMO and Finnfund criticizing that their proposed "exit" strategy effectively calls "for a belated consultation process ... that ignores the fact that Lenca communities clearly rejected the development of a hydroelectric dam in 2010 before DESA began construction." In other words, what the banks are labeling as an "exit" is really an improper invitation to pitch the dam project all over again. The banks ignore the fact that the Lenca communities that would be affected by the proposed dam project have already rejected the dam project - as the UN has recognized. They also ignore the fact that those communities’ expressed their dissent from the project in the face of severe repression and violence.
T he organizations noted this in their letter, stating that the "proposed dialogue process essentially asks people to ignore four years of intense repression and violence and pretend they can speak freely with regards to whether or not they want a hydroelectric dam. This is simply not possible, and it is not realistic to ask that they do so." The letter points to the fact that earth rights defenders who have voiced opposition to the project have faced endless violence, including evictions by state security forces, death threats, attacks on dam opponents by people associated with DESA, defamation campaigns, false criminal charges, and the assassinations of Berta Cáceres and Tomas Garcia.
This violence, and the ongoing impunity for those who author it, raise serious concerns that similar violence against project opponents in Honduras could continue and influence the decision-making process. If that is the case - and we believe it is - then asking for a renewed "consultation process" is essentially asking for a new round of threats, repression, and violence against those earth rights defenders who bravely speak out in defense of their rights.
These days, Honduras is widely regarded as the most dangerous place in the world for earth rights defenders. We at ERI know this well since we represent several Honduran earth rights defenders in a lawsuit against the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and one of its subsidiaries for financing violence in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras. Unless and until international financial institutions take seriously the history of violence and repression that has plagued internationally financed development projects in Honduras, international human rights groups will have little reason to do anything other than question those institutions' motives and their methods and plea that they do no more harm.