Agua Zarca: indigenous fight against dam costs lives
Indigenous Hondurans are resisting the construction of the Agua Zarca hydrodam. Their fight has cost several lives, including that of Berta Cáceres. After considerable public pressure, Dutch development bank FMO withdrew from the project.
The indigenous Lenca people of Rio Blanco, a small community in Honduras, have been fighting against the construction of Agua Zarca dam in the Gualcarque river since 2006. The Lenca are afraid that the dam will cause the Gualcarque, which is sacred to them, to dry up. That will leave them without access to water and a large part of their common farmland will no longer be irrigated.
The dam is being built by electricity company DESA, initially in partnership with the Chinese company Sinohydro, by commission of the Honduran government. The financiers included Dutch development bank FMO and its Finnish counterpart FinnFund.
Because the project is being implemented on indigenous land, the local people should have given their permission, on the basis of the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). They were however not consulted in line with the procedures.
Violence against indigenous leaders
The people of Rio Blanco therefore sought the help of indigenous organisation COPINH, set up by environmental and human rights activist Berta Cáceres. Cáceres, herself a Lenca, submitted objections on behalf of the local people to the government and the banks financing the project, but without success.
In the meantime, opponents of the dam, including Cáceres herself, were increasingly slandered, threatened and attacked. In 2013, Rio Blanco community leader Tomas Garcia was shot dead during an anti-Agua Zarca protest. The negative publicity this caused led Sinohydro to withdraw from the project and the World Bank to cancel its planned funding. However, this did not stop FMO and FinnFund from deciding to support the project in 2014.
Murder of Berta Cáceres forces FMO to withdraw
In March 2016, the world was shocked by the brutal murder of Berta Cáceres in her own home. Shortly before, she had contacted Both ENDS to talk about closer collaboration, including submitting a complaint to FMO. Unfortunately, we had no chance to realize this plan together.
After the killing of yet another indigenous leader two weeks later, FMO and FinnFund suspended their payments to Agua Zarca and other Honduran projects. As the result of persistent pressure from Both ENDS and others, FMO and FinnFund finally – more than a year later – withdrew completely from the Agua Zarca project.
The fight, which has cost so many lives, was however not in vain. As a consequence of the persistent protests, international publicity and the withdrawal of funding, the Agua Zarca dam has not been completed and the sacred Gualcarque river still flows freely.
Better policy by development banks
The incidents around Agua Zarca and similar projects, like the Barro Blanco in Panama, have shown clearly that the environmental and human rights policies of development banks like FMO have fallen short in preventing human rights violations. Partly in response to the murder of Berta Cáceres, FMO therefore revised its sustainability policy in 2017 and published new position statements on human rights, land management and gender.
This is a first step in the right direction. Both ENDS welcomes the bank's efforts to improve its position statements on human rights, land and gender. But most important in achieving a really positive impact on people and the environment is implementation of the new policy. We will therefore continue to follow FMO closely and urge them to continue to improve their efforts on corporate social responsibility.
Impunity in Honduras
In the meantime, the situation in Honduras remains a cause for concern. Although several people have been arrested in connection with the murder of Berta Cáceres, no one has yet been sentenced, while activists continue to receive threats. COPINH is seriously concerned about the lack of transparency and independence in the legal process and continues to call for all those behind the murder to be arrested and tried.
The future of the Agua Zarca project remains very unclear. DESA is determined to complete the dam, the government has not withdrawn the concession and the Central American development bank CABEI is still involved in the project.
Both ENDS is therefore continuing to support COPINH in its struggle for justice and against the Agua Zarca dam, and is closely monitoring other projects in Honduras, especially if they are receiving funding or other support from the Netherlands.
For more information
Read more about this subject
Development banks should comply with strict environmental and human rights rules to ensure that their projects benefit and do not harm the poorest groups. Both ENDS monitors the banks to make sure they do.
Large-scale infrastructural projects have detrimental effects on local people and the environment, while their benefits are felt elsewhere. Both ENDS is working to ensure that local people have a greater say in decision-making and is investigating the way these projects are funded.
The Barro Blanco dam project in Panama, which has Dutch financial support, is causing indigenous lands to disappear under water. Both ENDS is working to protect the rights of indigenous communities living near the dam.
News / 16 December 2019
Earlier this month, the seven men found guilty of the murder of Berta Cáceres were sentenced to jail for periods between 30 and 50 years. The court confirmed its opinion that Berta Cáceres was murdered for her role in defending the rights of the indigenous Lenca communities.
News / 1 December 2018
On Thursday, November 29, seven suspects of the murder of Berta Cáceres (in March 2016) were found guilty. Members of the indigenous human rights organisation COPINH, of which Cáceres was the leader, and close relatives of Cáceres herself see the ruling as the first step towards justice for her murder and the recognition that the company DESA is co-responsible for this. They also point out, however, that the process was permeated with corruption, intimidation and other abuses from the very beginning, and that the masterminds behind the murder are still walking around freely.
External link / 31 May 2018
Sometimes things must go terribly wrong before big players start to move. In March 2016, Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was murdered because of her leading role in the protests against the Agua Zarca hydro dam, co-financed by the Dutch FMO. One and a half year later, FMO changed their policies to prevent such events in the future.
News / 17 May 2018
Today, three representatives of the Honduran indigenous people's organisation COPINH, together with the family of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in March 2016, announced that they are preparing to press charges against the Dutch development bank FMO. COPINH accuses the FMO of complicity in human rights violations in connection with the controversial Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.
News / 6 March 2018
On Friday, March 2, the director of DESA, David Castillo, was arrested in Honduras on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Berta Cáceres, exactly 2 years ago. The Honduran government refused for a long time to not only detect the actual murderers, but also the intellectual authors of the murder of Cáceres.
News / 6 July 2017
Both ENDS and SOMO welcome the announcement done today by the Dutch and Finnish development banks, FMO and FinnFund, to exit the controversial Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Honduras. Conflict about the project has led to violence in the region, including the murder of three leaders who opposed the project. In March 2016, renowned human rights defender Berta Caceres was murdered for opposing this project in indigenous Lenca territory.
News / 2 March 2017
Today, it is exactly one year ago that Berta Cáceres was brutally murdered in her home in Honduras. Cáceres was a globally known human rights defender and coordinator of the indigenous Lenca organisation COPINH. The murder of Berta is closely related to her protest against the Agua Zarca dam, a hydroelectric project financed partially by the Dutch development bank FMO.
Blog / 10 February 2017
Last month I visited COPINH in Honduras. I stay in their house where I've been before. It has changed.The walls are decorated with colourful paintings, and there are altars for Berta Cáceres, their former leader who was murdered in March 2016. Instead of a simple fence, the building is now being protected by a thick wall with barbed wire. There are security camera's everywhere.
News / 7 February 2017
Last week, Global Witness published 'Honduras: the deadliest place to defend the planet'. This shocking report clearly shows the worrying situation of human rights in Honduras and backs the demand of Both ENDS and partner COPINH: FMO must divest from the Agua Zarca dam.
News / 20 October 2016
This week, Laura Zuniga Cáceres, daughter of Berta Cáceres*, visits the Netherlands. She will talk with the directors of the involved departments of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, participated in a colloquium about indigenous right of Leiden University and meet with several Dutch NGO's. Both ENDS asked this brave young woman about the situation in Honduras and her motivation to continue her mother's work.