Why are these heroes treated like criminals?

September 6, 2016

People attend the funeral of murdered indigenous activist Berta Caceres, in La Esperanza, 200 km northwest of Tegucigalpa, on March 5, 2016. Honduran indigenous activist Berta Caceres, a renowned environmentalist whose family has labeled her killing an assassination, was shot dead on March 3 at her home in La Esperanza. Caceres rose to prominence for leading the indigenous Lenca people in a struggle against a hydroelectric dam project that would have flooded large areas of native lands and cut off water supplies to hundreds.  AFP PHOTO / ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA        (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
People attend the funeral of murdered indigenous activist Berta Caceres, in La Esperanza, 200 km northwest of Tegucigalpa, on March 5, 2016. (ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Many people have heard of the March 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres, an award-winning environmental and indigenous rights leader in Honduras, and the many threats that proceeded her death. They may not know, however, that the Honduran authorities had falsely charged Cáceres with inciting usurpation of land, coercion, and damages against the company building the hydo-electric damn opposed by her organization, the Civic Council of the Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), in 2013.

Amnesty International’s new report, “We Are Defending the Land with Our Blood,” demonstrates that Cáceres is not the only heroic land and environmental rights activist to be treated like a criminal in Honduras and Guatemala. Like Cáceres, these activists bravely protest to protect their communities’ natural resources against environmentally damaging projects or attempts to seize their land despite the deadly violence that has been used against their movements–In 2014 alone, 12 land and environmental rights activists were killed in Honduras. They must also deal with their governments’ attempts to prevent them from exercising their rights by criminalizing their activities.

Honduran authorities, for example, have required several activists from the Independent Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz (MILPAH) and the Indigenous Tolupán Community of San Francisco Locomapa to register at courthouses every 8 to 15 days. While this may not sound like a heavy burden in the United States, these individuals have to spend several hours travelling to the courthouses and several hours returning to their homes. This prevents them from using their time to support their families or to engage in activism to protest the construction of a hydro-electric damn and the logging of their ancestral lands. It also discourages others from protesting for fear that they will also be punished.

In northern Huehuetenango, Guatemala, authorities charged 7 water rights activists from Santa Cruz Barillas and Santa Eulalia were charged with committing illegal detention, coercion, making threats, incitement to commit crime, and obstructing justice during 3 public demonstrations that took place between April 2013 and January 2015. They spent a year and a half in prison before they were finally acquitted in July 2016.

Three anti-mining activists from the La Puya Peaceful Resistance movement were not as fortunate. In April 2014, a Guatemalan court convicted them of detaining, threatening, and assaulting workers from the El Tambor mine. Amnesty International has reviewed the evidence used to convict these activists and found it to be based on hearsay.

While Honduran and Guatemalan authorities have aggressively prosecuted environmental and land rights defenders, they have not been as determined when it comes to protecting these activists from violence. In the case of Berta Cáceres, for example, Honduran authorities ignored the possibility that she had been killed in retaliation for her work, despite the numerous death threats she had received. Instead, they treated the only witness to the crime, Gustavo Castro, as if he were a suspect. They also speculated that she may have been killed during a robbery or as a “crime of passion” and harassed members of her organization.

Following months of international pressure, the authorities finally arrested four suspects who were connected to the company building the damn opposed by Cáceres and her organization. Amnesty International remains concerned, however, because of a lack of transparency during the investigation and the authorities failure to question high ranking officials.