Environmental activist Arnold Morazón Erazo was murdered in October, yet another act of violence towards communities which oppose large-scale resource extraction in Honduras.

Environmental activist Arnold Joaquín Morazán Erazo was killed in the backyard of his home in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on Tuesday 13 October. Engaged in the defence of community rights, Arnold was one of the 32 settlers of the Guapinol river sector who, in 2018, established a resistance camp demanding the immediate withdrawal of the mining company Minera Inversiones Los Pinares, which has polluted rivers such as the Ceibita and the Carlos Escaleras National Park.

Having been labelled by the Honduran government as dangerous criminals, Guapinol activists have been falsely accused of usurpation and damage to investment, arson, unjust detention, aggravated robbery and illicit association, which resulted in the arrest of twelve of them.

As reported by The Coalition Against Impunity, the mining company in question is owned by Lenir Pérez, who was been implicated in the kidnapping of two human rights defenders when he tried to install another mining operation in the community of Nueva Esperanza. On that occasion, the justice system did not hold him accountable despite the evidence.

Climate change and the persecution of environmental activists

Unfortunately, the killing of Morazán Erazo is not an isolated case in a country where private profit matters more than human life and the protection of the environment. Although the overall homicide rate decreased from 86 to 41 per 100,000 people under the Juan Orlando Hernández government, the level of violence against human rights defenders and journalists increased. Moreover, crimes against activists and human rights defenders see a 97 per cent rate of impunity.

For instance, in 2019 alone, 29 human rights activists were killed and more than 500 were victims of attacks for defending the rights of indigenous communities and access to natural resources. Indeed, climate activists and indigenous rights defenders denounce the existence of a general pattern of criminalisation and persecution for opposing mining projects. In particular,  from 1 January to 25 November 2019 the Human Rights organisation ACI Participa documented a total of 1,115 attacks on 499 human rights defenders.

During the last decade, Honduras was the second most affected country by climate change, which is not only the third highest cause of emigration after violence and hunger, but also of internal displacement and diseases such as dengue. Within this scenario, the extractivist model is a major cause of territorial conflicts.

Moreover, since the coup of 2009, specific legislative packages legalising extractivism – including a mining law, the concession of vast areas of the national territory for mining exploration and exploitation, the construction of dams and approval of deregulated economic projects (known as ZEDEs) – were approved under conservative governments.

According to the Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil), in 2019, the government granted at least 137 mining concessions and energy and hydrocarbon production licenses in indigenous territories. At the same time, the demands of indigenous communities for access to their ancestral territories have been met with criminalisation, repression and force, turning Honduras into one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders.

Private corporations rule in the narco-state

Currently, Honduras is under the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) of the Honduras National Party (2014-present). Winner of a very controversial election, Hernández represents the continuity of the alliance between business and politics which supported the coup of 2009 against the elected president, Manuel Zelaya.

Beyond contributing to the privatisation of the local economy and natural resources, President Hernández also allowed the flourishing of narcotrafficking. His brother – and former deputy of the National Party – Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernández is accused of large-scale trafficking of weapons and cocaine to the US. Moreover, Tony Hernández is alleged to have received one million dollars from the Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán to finance the his brother’s political campaign.

President Hernández is also responsible for the implementation of Special Zones for Economic Development (ZEDE). ZEDEs are areas within the territory that are subject to a ‘special regime’ where investors are in charge of internal security and fiscal policy among other duties. In other words, ZEDEs are an intensification of customs-free zones, resembling former banana industry operations such as that run by United Fruit, with their own jurisdiction, administration and ability to exercise influence on local politics.

Faced with a choice between life or profit, Juan Orlándo Hernandez turned Honduras into a Wonderland for private corporations that enjoy the freedom to act under total impunity as they hold the power to set the rules of the game. Recognising and defending the struggle of environmental activists is pivotal to ending their systemic and indiscriminate persecution in a land where transnational companies are allowed to trample all over human rights.

Guapinol activists and the Berta Caceres’ legacy were shortlisted for the 2020 Sakharov Prize, a recognition of those individuals and organisations who fight in defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms.