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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.

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Protest against Agua Zarca (photo: COPINH)

Protest against Agua Zarca (photo: COPINH)
(Protest against Agua Zarca (photo: COPINH) (admin), 15/06/2018)