In Honduras the most emblematic struggles to protect the environment have been and are led by women. Elena Gaitán is the only woman facing charges in her community after they stood up to a hydroelectric plant that was given a concession on the Jilamito River in the department of Atlántida. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has denounced the compounding of existing social inequalities as a result of the criminalization of women defenders in Honduras.
Elena Gaitán is a happy, expressive woman, but her face changes completely when she says: “The war for water has already begun”. Elena lives in Arizona, in the department of Atlántida; she is sixty-four years old and is currently being prosecuted for defending one of the last rivers in her community, which was given in concession to a Honduran hydroelectric plant.
Elena and four other people from Atlántida are being accused of attempting to usurp public lands after their community set up a camp in a street in May 2017 to protest the hydroelectric project on the Jilamito River. Currently, Elena and her companions have been granted alternative measures to pretrial detention, which means they have to come to a court of justice in Tela, Atlántida, on a weekly basis to prove they have not fled the country.
I never imagined that human beings could be so cruel as to offer [us] money when they know water is [priceless]; I don't understand”.Elena Gaintán
She recounts that she has felt a deep connection to water and nature since she was a child. Elena grew up near the Jilamito River, and when she learned about the coming climate crisis at age nineteen, she decided she would get involved in the fight for the environment. Since then, she has been part of the juntas del agua, community organizations that seek to manage drinking water in their area. It is no wonder then that when she found out a hydroelectric plant would come to her community, she was among the first people that decided to protest the project.
People in Honduras are currently beset by an extractive model that has concessioned away large swaths of their territory. The Territories at Risk III report which was written by Oxfam, the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) and the Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development of Honduras (FOSDEH), states that there are mining concession areas or power generation projects in 200 out of the 298 municipalities in Honduras.
The Oxfam report indicates that if all the electricity generation projects—whether they are postponed, under consideration, pending approval, approved, under construction, or active—were operative, this sector would grow 145%, and the number of projects would go from 112 to 307. “If all the planned projects become operative before 2021, the energy they produce will exceed the country’s needs, even if we take into account energy losses, which were reportedly 37.8% in 2020.”, according to Oxfam.
The Jilamito hydroelectric project was granted to INGELSA, (Inversiones de Generación Eléctrica S.A.) and it is supposed to produce 14.80 MW at a cost of USD 75,562 million. Shareholders’ capital contributions are expected to cover 25.9% of the cost; the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) will finance 26.8 % through IDB Invest; and the remaining amount will be financed by a prospective investor given the unexplained withdrawal of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) .
Lawyer Kotiza OrtézElena's attorney and a member of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice’s legal team, explains that as long as residents continue to be prosecuted, her organization will continue to pressure:
even those who collaborate with us internationally in order to put a stop to the IDB’s financing. If we managed to stop it, construction could halt, and the project would no longer be viable”.
On May 15, 2017, people from several communities in the Arizona municipality of Atlántida set up camp on a dirt road that leads to the Jalamito River to stop construction equipment from building the dam and disrupting the primary water source of sixteen communities. This instance of direct action led to the prosecution of Elena and four of her comrades.
According to Karol Bobadilla, a lawyer with experience defending women land protectors:
The criminalization is one of the latest tools used to limit the public participation of women who make big companies uncomfortable”.
Betty Vásquez, the coordinator of the Santabarbarense Environmentalist Movement (MAS), finds it hard to see herself and many other women in Honduras as protectors:
This is a life project, and we do it willingly. What’s more, we face many logistical and human limitations, [which means] we cannot carry on providing defensive accompaniment, and [we continue to face] persecution, stigmatization, persecution, and misogyny”.
Vásquez adds that, by virtue of their gender, women endure much more violence when state and private actors come after them:
We live in a patriarchal, macho, misogynistic society. When we, women, speak up, they always strike back with an inordinate amount of disrespect, violence, and racism”.
Elena's case is not unique in Honduras. In March 2021, the Garífuna sisters Jennifer and Marianela Solórzano, members of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) were arrested and charged with usurpation, damages, and threats against the JUCA real estate company, which operates with Canadian capital, private property titles have been issued in connection to the land in question despite the Cristales y Río Negro community holding an ancestral land title of their own.
The Public Ministry has charged the sisters with violent robbery or intimidation, usurpation, damages, and threats. On March 7, after the initial hearing, they were granted alternative measures that kept them out of prison, but the legal process against them continues.
On June 16, Silvia Bonilla, a seventy-three-year-old woman, was placed under house arrest and charged with the same crimes as part of a group of thirty-two people from Cristales y Río Negro. On July 2, Bonilla was granted a temporary stay of proceedings, but district attorneys are pursuing twenty-nine additional arrest warrants.
Bobadilla believes that by the time the process of criminalization begins, women land defenders have already endured previous acts of retaliation, “which include intimidation and violence for having defied the role society assigned to them as well as their communities telling them to go home because they’ve overstepped their bounds. Their work as defenders often makes them the target of harassment and even sexual violence,” she adds.
Indeed, defending the environment often results in threats, prosecution, and, in the most extreme cases, death. According to the Territories at Risk III report, this violent environment directly impacts the women who oppose extractivism. In 2015 alone, 2,000 attacks against women were recorded; “between 2016 and 2017, 60% of the known perpetrators were police, military, state authorities, or representatives of private companies”, the report details.
For its part, the IACHR published a statement in July 2021 in which it warns the State of Honduras that baseless criminal investigations or lawsuits can paralyze defense work, especially when aimed at women, which “increases and exacerbates existing social inequalities”.
Bobadilla accompanied the documentation process of the Margarita Murillocase. Margarita was an environmental defender and campesina leader who was assassinated on August 27, 2014. She is now a point of reference in the struggle for the defense of the land in Honduras. During demonstrations, her face is always seen next to Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader and coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Who was assassinated in 2016. In both cases, family members and organizations close to their struggles continue to seek justice and publicly condemn the instigators of Cáceres’s and Murillo’s murders while pointing out that their gender was a determinant factor in their deaths.
Elena Gaitán says she is not afraid of [what might happen to her] due to the accompaniment she has received from the community and her organization, the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice’s legal teamShe points out that authorities are looking to make an example of her and her comrades in order to intimidate the many community members who are against the project and have taken to the streets.
If they take us to prison for defending the river, we hope that [the people] will support us and take action, just like they have accompanied us when we go to the hearings”.
The persecution and harassment at the hands of INGELSA and other community members that support the hydroelectric plant have not deterred protestors who are camped on the street. In time, protestors have even managed to get electricity and a roof, and they take turns to guard the campsite. Elena gets emotional when she talks about how this has brought her community together:
All sixteen communities contribute so that the campsite is taken care of, so that the people that are there are fed”.
Elena has a grocery store. She has been in business since she was nineteen, and through her store, she has been able to employ and help many people in her community. While recounting her story with the Jilamito River, Elena prepares a bag of supplies that she intends to send to one of the people watching over the campsite.
Kotiza Ortéz says that, in the end, it is women like Elena, who go to the front lines to fight for their rights, that are vulnerable to attacks.
They feel unsafe because they’re the ones who are on the ground; they’re the ones who put their bodies on the line; they’re the ones who suffer when the company retaliates—although the campsite offers them a space of solidarity”.
We contacted the Natural Resources and Environment Office (Mi Ambiente) in order to get their official response to the recommendations made by international entities to the Honduran State concerning the defense of the environment, which is led by many women, but they declined to comment. In fact, despite reaching out to their communications department for several days, they did not grant us an appointment for an interview.
An institutional framework that threatens the defense of the environment
In 2015, Honduras created the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators, and Judicial Officers; however, in November 2021, indigenous, civil-society, and campesino organizations filed a complaint with the Public Ministry against the mechanism, which they describe as “a failure when it comes to extractive and palm companies that violently insert themselves into our territories . . . . Far from making us feel safe, it has increased the risks we face”.
Bobadilla believes that because the mechanism’s offices are located in Tegucigalpa, many women are unable to access it:
It is a mechanism that does not work because it does not respond to the needs of women. It does not implement risk analyses with a gender perspective”.
The situation of environmental defenders in Honduras has become even more fraught thanks to the latest reforms to the Penal Code. Approved on October 7, 2021, these reforms expanded the definition of the crime of usurpation and increased the sentence associated with it from four to six years. This code even incorporated a new legal figure: “Obstructing the public space” a modality of usurpation that criminalizes those that “obstruct the land or spaces meant for public use such as the right of way, roads, streets, gardens, parks, green areas, promenades, or other places of public use or domain . . . with the purpose of preventing a person from carrying out or continuing to exercise their work, which affects the normal development of their activities and rights”.
On November 19, 2021, civil society organizations denounced these reforms before the Constitutional Chamber and asked that they be declared unconstitutional.
“The subscribed organizations are fighting and resisting against unequal land tenure and expropriation for dispossession carried out by national and international businessmen who seek to monopolize our lands to build their illegal projects, which bring only death, violence, and misery”, they said.”.
In turn, the IACHR issued a statement in November calling on the State of Honduras to review the reforms to bring them into line with international standards and commitments and reminded them that in the 2019 report on the Situation of Human Rights in Honduras, the Court
Expressed concern about the improper use of usurpation as a crime category, mainly against people who defend the rights to land and to a clean environment”.
According to Bobadilla, it is imperative that the prosecution of land defenders stop; moreover, the State must change the mechanism by which people are charged or restructure the Public Ministry altogether:
The Public Ministry does not represent the interests of the community; it does not look into each case and the alleged crimes beyond [what is stated in the] complaints, beyond the vested interests behind those complaints. There is a high degree of relentless cruelty aimed at defenders, and this is especially true for women who dare to participate in public spaces“, said Bobadilla.”.
Despite being perplexed by the legal process against her, Elena Gaitán does not feel alone, and she is not afraid of a negative outcome in court.
“It hasn’t been easy because [standing up to] moneyed interests is very difficult. It is clear to me now that many submissive people have cropped up. The fact that they are afraid of everything except dying of thirst is what truly scares me”, she states.
Betty Vásquez from MAS explains that the hope for many defenders is to be able to live in a territory where their bodies are free of violence and aggression, where the land is free of extractivism, and where decisions are made collectively and through consultation.
She adds that effectively addressing the violent context that impacts women defenders in Honduras would require solving the country’s impunity problem and repealing the laws that threaten the environment, such as the Mining Law, the law of Employment and Development Zones (ZEDE)and the laws and reforms that criminalize environmental defenders, including the reforms to the Penal Code. Finally.
All the people charged with crimes and prosecuted for defending their territory should be liberated; that could be the first step toward justice for land defenders”.Betty Vásquez
This article was written by Contra Corriente from Honduras for FCAM