Highlighting the Heroes of Environmentalism

By Slaine McKenna

When we picture the environmental movement, it can evoke images of sleek minimalist retailers with package-free spices and biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes. Or maybe chaotic maximalist thrift and charity shops, which can send you on a scavenger hunt through the jam-packed clothing rails for the perfect item. Maybe you imagine, protests on college campuses and city blocks, with homemade signs and loud chants. This westernised view point on climate change has saturated the media. While these things are not bad, buying sustainable and calling for change are important actions, they can distract from the immediate issue at hand. While everywhere will be impacted by climate change, many countries, particularly developing nations, are at a greater risk and some are already feeling the impact. And due to the saturation of westernised environmentalism, the voices of those currently at risk can often be overlooked, as was the case with the Guapinol environmental activists and Berta Cáceres.

Berta Cáceres. Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Berta Cáceres was the general co-ordinator of COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisations), an organisation that promotes indigenous rights in Honduras. Cáceres gained a reputation for her activism throughout the country. In 2006 a group Lenca people from Río Blanco, Western Honduras noticed the mysterious arrival of construction equipment and machinery in their area. Unsure of what the equipment was for and unable to find answers, they asked for COPINH to intervene. After investigating the matter Cáceres discovered plans for Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project. In which, a series of four hydroelectric dams would be constructed on the Gualcarque River. 

This untamed river is of great spiritual importance to the local people while also providing an important natural resource. It is used for consumption and agriculture making it a vital aspect of the community. The project was funded by Chinese company Sinohydro, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, and Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA). However, this project breached international law as the local community had not been made aware of the operation.    

Cáceres began a campaign to end the project by organising protests and seeking legal action, in order to protect the local community and their natural resources. However, the project continued, and in 2013 DESA blocked the local community from accessing the river. In retaliation protesters established a road blockade to disrupt access to the construction site. Tension began to mount in the area as the Honduran military were deployed and violence soon broke out. People were evicted from their lands, and protesters were arrested including Berta Cáceres. The military treated the local residents with brutality, as they intimidated members of the community going so far as to aim weapons at young children and elderly citizens. 

Members of the community and those protesting the project began to receive death threats and abusive. And in July of that year the military opened fire, killing three of the protesters, including community leader Tomás García. García was short three time at close range. While his son Allan García was wounded in the incident.     

The situation escalated from there, and in those who opposed the dam were in a lot of danger, receiving death threats regularly. In 2014, María Santos Domínguez, an outspoken activist against the project was attack with machetes as she was walking home. A month later an attack on two members of the community who opposed the dam resulted in their deaths. Despite the danger posed by speaking against this project, many brave activists choose to continue, including Berta Cáceres. 

Unfortunately, the situation worsened. In 2016 Berta Cáceres was shot in her home. Her tragic death was extremely hard on the communities she helped. Many saw her a leader and hero, in losing her they also lost a figure who embodied their injuring fight for justice. 

This is just one case of the dangerous landscape for climate activist in Honduras, but unfortunately there are many more.  

In 2014, the Guapinol River which is located in Carlos Escaleras National Park, in the Tocoa region of North Honduras, was flowing with pristine, clear waters. It provided an important resource for the village of Guapinol and the surrounding area. But those clear waters soon turned cloudy. 

The river was being polluted by Inversión Los Pinares (ILP), a mining company. ILP had illegally been grant permission to establish an iron ore mine in the park despite it being a no-development zone. Member of the local communities were not consulted or given a say on the matter. During the construction of mining facilities and roadways for the project, the Guapinol river along with the neighbouring San Pedro and Ceibita rivers became contaminated. The once pristine water turned thick, brown, and muddy, making it unable for consumption and use. With some reporting skin irritation and diarrhoea as a result of the contaminated water. 

Local residence established a peaceful protest against the project. The protest soon erupted in to violence, as private security guards hired by ILP began shooting at the demonstrators. This result in a protester being seriously injured by a bullet wound.   

Soon after the incident, 1,500 police and army officials were deployed to the community of Guapinol in order to quell the protests, and warrants were issued for the arrest of 31 protesters. They were charged with damaging property, false imprisonment, theft, aggravated arson and unlawful association.

Those who turned themselves in had the charges dropped. But eight of those accused, Porfirio Sorto Cedillo, José Avelino Cedillo, Orbin Naún Hernández, Kevin Alejandro Romero, Arnold Javier Aleman, Ever Alexander Cedillo, Daniel Marquez and Jeremías Martínez Díaz, hesitated before turning themselves in to the authorities. The judge then ordered a pre-trial detention order, meaning they were held in custody before their trial and denied bail. Their lawyers appealed only to have it denied. Worse still the appeals court also ruled that those who had their charges dropped would have their cases reopened. 

The Guapinol 8 as they are being called are still being held in prison and violence in the area continues till this day with Arnold Joaquin Morazán Erazo, one of the 31 demonstrators to have their case reopened, being murdered in October. 

These cases highlight the strife faced by those on the frontlines fighting for the environment. Their courageous actions deserve recognition and fortunately they are beginning to receive it. In October Berta Cáceres and the Guapinol 8 were announced as nominees for the European Parliament’s 2020 Sakharov Prize. The award recognise those who have fought for human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

Social media may present environmentalism with a sleek minimalist aesthetic. Displaying pictures of witty protest signs or quirky zero waste products. But this is only part of the picture.  Environmentalism is a dangerous movement. People can be detained or lose their life for take part in climate change activism. While zero waste swap and college campus protests can be helpful it is import we recognise those on the front lines, who are risk their lives for climate justice. As they are not just protecting their land or their natural resource, they are protecting our planet.      

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