Betty Vásquez Rivera, an indigenous Lenca feminist, serves as coordinator in Movimiento Ambientalista Santa Barbarense (MAS) de Mujeres por la Vida, in Honduras. Her analysis and reflections, which are presented below, focus on the impacts of COVID-19 and hurricanes Eta and Iota, defenders’ struggle against the construction of large-scale projects that are presented as economic and development alternatives, and the Honduran government’s lack of response to recent natural disasters.
The Movimiento Ambientalista Santa Barbarense (MAS) de Mujeres por la Vida, is a space for people and organizations in the department of Santa Bárbara, Honduras, to come together to defend and protect natural and common goods. The group is mostly made up of women, who play a crucial role in the defense of their territory, land and body, and against extractivism and patriarchy.
Santa Bárbara is one Honduras’ eighteen departments, and its landscape is marked by beautiful mountains, spectacular views, and crystal clear rivers. The territory’s natural diversity and wealth have become a target for extractivist projects, which threaten their continued existence and endanger the wellbeing of the local population.
Honduras has been concessioned away. The State has granted more than 300 licenses that allow corporations to carry out mining exploration and extraction, hydroelectric projects, and agro-industrial projects, among others, which causes great damage to the environment and to local communities’ lives. Since 2018, 157 hydroelectric plants have been greenlit, with most projects being registered in the departments of Cortés and Santa Bárbara.
The appearance of COVID-19 made 2020 an especially challenging year for the entire world. Central America in particular, however, had to deal with the pandemic and two hurricanes almost simultaneously. Indeed, this was the first time in recorded history that Honduras was hit by two cyclones in the same season:. Eta and Iota made landfall in Central America one after the other in November. The most affected areas were the Sula Valley, located in the country’s northwest and known as the home of transnational corporations in Honduras—here, water levels reached house roofs—and the Ulúa River, in the west, where water levels rose nearly one meter above the highest level recorded when the devastating Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998.
2020 was a year that caught us by surprise. It was when it became clear that we do not have the capacity to cope with a pandemic and that, not only do we not have a healthcare system, but we also live under a dictatorial regime whose modus operandi is lying. Coming to terms with this reveals very complex scenarios. We have experienced the death of family members as a result of the pandemic, but it [the pandemic] has also contributed to social demobilization because they locked us up for three months, from March until June. Santa Bárbara, Cortés, Francisco Morazán, and Yoro are among the departments and municipalities most affected by cases of COVID-19”, says Betty Vásquez.
Honduras had already suffered multiple crises in recent years: state repression, gang violence, economic problems, environmental devastation, mass emigration, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. The two hurricanes left at least 94 dead and almost 4 million severely affected , and according to analysts, they could increase the poverty level by 10%, which would mean the country’s overall poverty level would surpass 70% of the population.
Because of coronavirus, violence, and the inequality gap have increased. People who were supposed to have stable jobs experienced more layoffs—they were fired from their jobs. Families who had migrated to industrial cities, such as San Pedro Sula or the Sula Valley migrated back—they returned to their territories. The direness of the situation was compounded by the hurricanes. But it wasn't all bad. With FCAM’s support, we created beautiful experiences, such as the Seeds Guancasco, an ancestral practice of the Lenca people whereby we get together and coordinate. With the Guancasco, we decided to establish a seed exchange system. We mobilized seeds and grains from one place to another in all the communities. Even during the pandemic and the lockdowns, we were able to grow our own vegetables. We planted corn and beans. 90% of our compañeras managed to harvest their crops and store them. That makes me very happy because I know this year we will have food. That was our starting point, and we continue to build hope and other forms of resistance and defense, not only against corporate projects but also in defense of our indigenous seeds, the reclamation of consciousness, the practice of bartering and exchange, and all the ancestral practices that had ceased as a result of the [dominant production] model and system”, said Vásquez.
For Betty, the act of supporting each other as communities was like weaving a cloth out of solidarity and humanitarian support.
It was beautiful to see how the compañeras sent their beans and corn to other communities that had been affected and had lost everything. The corn that was produced in Santa Bárbara traveled to neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa. This community experience is energizing and strengthens us in the face of a vulnerable environmental context”.
The construction of projects while the State remains in total silence
In Honduras, around 137 mining and energy concessions have been granted, and about 20% of these projects are located in indigenous and Black territories, which fans the flames of conflict in a country that is considered one of the most dangerous in the world for environmental defenders.
In Santa Barbara alone there are more than 31 large-scale hydroelectric projects. More recently, two more projects cropped up: El Tornillito and El Zompopero, which are south of Santa Bárbara, between Comayagua and Intibucá, along the Ulúa River. We’re talking about four hydroelectric projects that are going to produce an additional 150 megawatts of energy. We’re talking about more than 15 municipalities in Santa Bárbara that will be affected by displacement, evictions, loss of productive lands, roads, territories, etc. Bad things are coming our way”¹.
According data gathered by Derechos Colectivos Vulnerados, in 2019 and 2020, infrastructure projects (mainly hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, and bioenergy production projects) were responsible for most of the confrontations registered in Honduras. These conflicts exert a compounding effect because they affect a greater number of adjacent communities and violate numerous rights simultaneously, carrying with them short- and long-term consequences.
Betty believes it is important to bring attention to the fact that the Honduran State has abandoned the people and continues to promote an unsustainable, polluting, and extractivist economic model that has made the Sula Valley highly vulnerable to climate change-related natural disasters. Despite this, corporations and the government continue to promote large-scale extractivist and infrastructure projects that harm the territories and the living beings that inhabit them.
No one is talking about how the State has completely abandoned us; [it has failed to carry out] mitigation works, such as embankments or barriers along the Ulúa and the Chamelecón, which together are known as the Mayan plug. The [current] embankments were built thanks to international aid following Hurricane Mitch, but they must be maintained. The government has neglected their maintenance, and although maintenance works were budgeted, they were never completed. Therefore, floods in the Sula Valley are partially the result of these mitigation works not being maintained.
No one is talking about the El Mocho Mine either, a 60-year-old mine that is the cause of all the landslides and collapses in the Santa Bárbara mountains due to the underground mining that goes on there. No one talks about the San Andrés Mine in Copán, whose [residual] waters pour into the Ulúa River, carrying with them all the mine’s waste”, Vásquez stresses.
The (MAS) coordinator also explains that the authorities and housing projects are complicit when it comes to building on vulnerable areas and without the benefit of environmental impact studies.
There is disorderly growth. In the Sula Valley, houses were built so they could be sold to migrants from the western part of the country, who came to work in the maquilas. Many of these people have now been affected by passing hurricanes”.
Despite the communities’ rejection of these mega projects, authorities continue to support the development of several dams, which would severely compromise locals’ access to water sources, completely contaminate the environment, and bring about evictions. In fact, dams are already spurring threats against environmental defenders. Despite this, in November 2020, former President Juan Orlando Hernández declared the construction of dams a national priority.
As of the end of last year, the need to build damns in order to reconstruct of the Sula Valley has become a popular talking point. They like to act as if the people in the Sula Valley are going to come out of the damp rubble and the mud to vote. It’s an election year, and they want to ensnare the population, who have been flooded with [propaganda about] these alternative projects. It’s almost certain that the government is aware that these projects are not feasible, but right now the only thing that matters to them is to stay in power and gain legitimacy”, says Betty.
Consequences of the extractivist model, especially for women
This extractivist, predatory, and sexist model, has had disastrous consequences for the social and environmental spheres. On the social level, this model destroys and unmakes communities while oppressing their inhabitants. Extractivism increases poverty and destroys natural resources and indigenous communities. To top it all off, defenders are commonly murdered in their territories.
The construction of these mega projects greatly affects women as well, since they are the ones who are in charge of putting food on the table for themselves and their families. According to Vásquez, the construction of hydroelectric plants would directly affect the bodies and lives of women.
For example, they are going to ration water, so women are going to have to carry water from other places. When they [women] become dispossessed in their communities, forced migration increases. Many women leave; they abandon the communities with their children, which leaves them in a highly vulnerable and risky situation”.
“Generally speaking, extractive projects affect all people and the environment. The territory itself is made vulnerable, but specifically [these projects] affect indigenous peoples primarily since they infringe on their right to self-determination, the right to live in a healthy environment, and their ancestral practices. Likewise, these project’s impacts are primarily felt by women, since extractivism not only strips them of their possessions and displaces them, it also reduces access under equal conditions to land and its capacity to produce. Moreover, the land and our heritage become resources that are commercialized following exclusively a patriarchal logic, according to which women do not make decisions about their land or their homes. Companies, for example, always refer to property owners as men; they never refer to women as the owners of those territories, the water, the animals, or the seeds. They never consult us either. In recent years, women alone have taken on the enormous challenges that recovering our ancestral practices entail. And the extractive model only has a patriarchal and vertical logic anyway,” adds Betty.
Following this sexist logic, national and local governments and the people running these mega projects do not share information with women and only share it with men, whom they call leaders or bosses.
“Patriarchy is alive in the [municipal] boards, the water boards, the development committees, etc. If I had to make an educated guess concerning the number of women who participate [in these spaces] in relation to men, I’d say 15% of participants are women and 85% are men. Women analyze these projects differently. For us, they have a deeper implications that touch on the collective, the comprehensive, and our worldviews. Men view things from a more individual perspective; they are more focused on cost-benefit as regards what these projects can yield for them. So, following that logic, women are at a disadvantage from every angle, ” she added.
What can be done?
Building dams is not a solution; it won’t mitigate the effects of everything that has happened in the Sula Valley. I toured some communities that are going to be affected by the dams, and people have told me, ‘We are worried that they will displace us. We don't know what will happen in 2021. We are worried that they will come and build this project without respecting our right to consultation or our right to decide.” We live in constant uncertainty. Private companies don’t care what people think, but we are going to square up to this failed State that doesn’t respect our voices and our resistance”, says Betty Vásquez.
Vásquez thinks that what needs to happen in the Sula Valley is the reconstruction and resettlement the communities, the town centers, and towns themselves. In addition, productive lands and their economy must be rescued.
They only talk about building dams, but around 150,000 quintals of coffee were destroyed here, and nobody’s talking about recovering and reactivating these productive lands. Here you’ll find areas where 100% of the people have been displaced because they are no longer habitable—there’s no water sanitation. These are big structural problems that cannot be fixed with the construction of hydroelectric projects”.
According to (data and projections) provided by the Central American electricity market’s Regional Operator Entity, by 2023 electrical capacity will increase thanks to hydroelectric, wind, solar, and geothermal energy. Hydroelectricity will cover 55% of Central America’s demand, thermal power 23%, wind and solar power 12%, and geothermal power 8%. This implies that as a matter of regional policy, governments are betting on investments and projects that generate energy via these sources.
“Women’s Struggle against Extractivism in Honduras” is an article created for the We Women Are Water campaign of the Alliance GAGGA. Find a short version of this post on the GAGGA website website