The murder and criminalization of those who defend the rivers

Justice for the victims, for COPINH and for the family of Berta Cáceres


by Jerónimo Díaz

Since 2005, at least 40 defenders of rivers against dam projects have been killed in Mexico, Central America and Colombia.

The launch in 2008 of the Mesoamerica Project between these countries has led to a rapid rise in the imposition of dams as a way to privatize water and energy. In response to this, the peoples have seen the need to defend their lands, rivers and territories. However, governments and private companies involved in such projects have criminalized them [the
defenders] continuously.

Dams are presented as solutions towards combatting climate change, and they receive important economic and financial support. However, dams are not sustainable projects of clean energy. On the contrary, they are projects of death stained with blood, they destroy nature, they displace people, and they come from and benefit private interests.

The dam projects in Latin America represent a juicy business in both the construction and production stages as well as the privatization of energy (they are linked with mining activities). Several businesses invest in the energy sector in different countries of the continent, for example: the Brazilian Odebrecht or the Spanish Abnegoa, Hidralia Ecoener, and Iberdrola Gas Natural Fenosa, among others.

These projects benefit from the financial support of several European banks (DEG from Germany, FMO of Holland, Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation of Finland, SIFEM from Sweden…) as well as international banks for “development” (World Bank, International Development Bank, Central American Bank for Economic Integration…)

The dam projects represent important economic interests from both the public and private sector. These interests, along with the authoritarianism of governments, have resulted in murders, threats, and the detention of hundreds of campesinos and indigenous peoples in different countries.

Minutes after this article was published, we received notification of the murder of Nelson Garcia, a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The messengers of death left 5 children without a father, and mark one more dot on a map that was out of date as soon as it was published.

On 3rd March 2016, the social fighter from Honduras, Berta Cáceres, was brutally murdered because she was opposing the hydroelectric megaproject ‘Agua Zarca’, which the Chinese-financed company Sinohydro Corporation wants to impose on the waters of the Gualcarque River. The waters of this river have been guarded for centuries by the indigenous Lenca people. The Mexican Gustavo Castro was also injured in this attack, and was detained in Honduras as a protected witness, a decision which caused indignation and fear among the social movements and media in which Gustavo, coordinator of ‘Otros Mundos Chiapas’ (Other Worlds Chiapas) participated.

This threats against the defenders of water and life in Central America are serious.

The map published to mark the Global Day of Action in Defence of Rivers on 14th March by the Mexican Movement of People Affected by Dams and in Defence of Rivers (MAPDER), an organisation which Gustavo belongs to, shows the systemic activity of the messengers of death – hitmen, police and military – when they try to impose hydroelectric projects on a country like Honduras.

With the murder of Santos Alberto Dominguez Benites, in May 2012, a wave of violence was unleashed against members and supporters of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), in which Berta Caceres was active. According to the statement from the organization, 24 year-old Santos Alberto, had participated “with energy and courage” in multiple COPINH struggles. He was killed by members of the National Police assigned to San Isidro municipality in the Itibuca department. A year later, in the same region, Tomas Garcia was killed by the army when he was on his way to a roadblock against the Agua Zarca dam. On top of the acts of harassment and intimidation that people in the group received, came the murders of Irene Meza and Moises Duron Sanchez, William Jacobo Rodriguez and Maycol Ariel Rodriguez Garcia, aged 15. All of them were killed for defending the sacred river. In 2015 Juan Francisco Martinez was murdered, he opposed the hydroelectric project ‘Los Encinos’ on the Chinacla River. His community remains the object of attacks and threats.

The name of Justo Soto appears on the map. He was murdered by hitmen on 21st January, 2014. He was part of the Indigenous Coordinator of Popular Power of Honduras (CINPH). He spent years fighting against the binational dam ‘El Tigre’, on the Goascoran River, on the border with El Salvador. Soto had also participated in the defence of the community ‘Las Minitas’, threatened by the hydroelectric industry. Three weeks after his murder, on 16th February, the coordinator of the Las Minitas Indigenous Council, Pedro Perez, was assassinated.

It is striking that the violence against opponents of the hydroelectric projects, mostly indigenous Lenca, has worsened since 2009, the year in which the government gave de facto approval to the General Water Law, which grants concessions on water resources. The government installed after the coup d’état also issued Decree 233 which repeals the previous decrees which prohibited hydroelectric projects in protected natural areas. So, can the Honduran State guarantee the security of environmental activists, or is it rather complicit in the assaults?

The Mesoamerica Project

The Scale chosen by Geocomunes, the collective that made the map, leaves nothing to chance. When including Mexico, Central America and Colombia, the cartographers covered the area corresponding to the Mesoamerica Project which, according to the box on the map, was launched in 2008 with the objective of increasing the productive capacity of the region.

According to the information gathered by Bruno Acevedo, part of the geography master program at UNAM, in Central America hydroelectric plants generated 12,877 megawatts in 2013, equivalent to 47.3% of all the electric energy produced that year. In Mexico more than 70% of energy comes from fossil fuels, nonetheless, what is generated from the force of rivers is close to 12 thousand megawatts annually. The central issue here is that, according to Acevedo, the hydroelectric potential in the region far exceeds the productive capacity installed. In an interview with SubVersiones, he stated that “in the Central American countries and the Mexican Southeast, 100 thousand megawatts can be produced annually, which explains the planning and implementation of numerous hydroelectric projects and their articulation through the System of Electrical Integration of the countries of Central America (SIEPAC)”

For Acevedo there is no doubt: the SIEPAC is inserting itself in to what used to be called Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) and today is known as the Mesoamerica Project. The aim of the intergovernmental initiative is to integrate the electric network from south-east Mexico all the way to Panama to boost agricultural and industrial production as well as tourism and urbanisation. The author of the thesis entitled ‘The economic and political bases of the new imperialism in Central America’ asserts that:

“The installation of numerous hydroelectric power stations and the articulation of the electrical system are causing changes in territorial dynamics which strengthen the productive activities characterized by the internationalization of profits and the nationalization of conflicts.”

It is precisely the “nationalization of conflicts” that we see in the map, in which Guatemala appears to be the most dangerous country for the defenders of water, life and territory, with a total of 13 assassinations of people opposed to hydroelectric projects. In second place, Honduras, and in third place, Mexico, with the 8 murders that have afflicted the meetings of MAPDER. Followed by Colombia with 7 cases identified and Panama with 4. Although the list is not exhaustive – Geocomunes writes in their Facebook account that "this material is still under construction" and asks to make "an apology for the possible mistakes and oversights"-, the mapping exercise helps us to visualize the violence that results from the imposition of megaprojects in the region, specifically the large hydroelectric dams, almost always at the expense of the indigenous peoples and territories of Mesoamerica.

Translated by the UK Zapatista Translation Service



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