Guatemala and Honduras: Who Defends the Land Defenders?

Dossier by Group 2: Francisco Ferreyra, Lucero Morales, Laura Roser, Christian Scott

On March 2, 2016, several heavily armed men broke into Berta Cáceres’ home in Honduras and fired multiple rounds, killing her instantly. These hitmen had connections to the Honduran military and the DESA, a hydroelectric company that funded the Agua Zarca dam construction. Berta Cáceres was a leader of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, and campaigned against the construction of Agua Zarca [1]. Unfortunately, Berta Cáceres is not a unique case, her murder is part of a deliberate effort by state and corporate actors to silence protests against a variety of development projects. Hundreds of land defenders have been killed and countless have been assaulted in the past decade [2]. The unusual thing about Berta Cáceres’ case is the international media attention over her murder and the prosecution of some of her killers (Watts, 2018; Global Witness 2017).

Honduras and Guatemala are two of the most dangerous countries for land defenders. Since the 2009 coup, 123 people have died in Honduras alone due to their involvement in defending the environment. In Guatemala, six land defenders were killed in a two week period during 2018 (Scurr 2018). Additionally, the killers of land defenders in Central America are almost never prosecuted. Corporations and government officials seeking to silence protests operate with impunity because there are few investigations into crimes committed (Global Witness 2017).

Who are Land Defenders?

We consider land defenders anyone who struggles for the right of the land to exist in its “natural” state and who resists the encroachments of multinational corporations and state interests who seek to exploit the land for economic gain. These defenders have been persecuted for their works against environmental land grabs to create hydroelectric dams, palm oil, banana plantations, mining, and tourism destinations. Since these projects are extracting value from natural resources, land defenders are often indigenous people or campesinos who live in rural areas where natural resources have not yet been over exploited (Global Witness 2017).

Tensions Between Economic Development and Human Rights

Central America in the 1990s and early 2000s started to invest in renewable energy projects because the many rivers and mountain ranges of the region form the perfect location for renewable energy projects. These projects include hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, solar, and other renewable sources of energy to provide electricity to the growing population and expand electrification. Combined, 2.2 million people live in Honduras and Guatemala without electricity (Central Intelligence Agency 2019). The Honduran and Guatemalan governments have invested in these projects along with foreign corporations. These projects come at a cost, as they are often located in indigenous lands and national parks. Many have resulted in indigenous peoples being forced to relocate, resulting in not only a loss of land but a loss of culture. Many indigenous people became land defenders because they were faced with this loss of their identity.

Illustration of the ongoing struggle of land defenders as they protect their land from encroaching industries. Edd Baldry

Land defenders in Honduras and Guatemala justify their protests against these environmentally destructive projects based on their rights to clean water, the right to a healthy environment, and their rights as indigenous people to the protection of the lands they have traditionally occupied. These rights are outlined in both the Constitutions of their countries and international law. Article 10 of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) states that: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return”. Article 19 also states that “States shall…obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them”. Free, prior, and informed consent is frequently brought up by land defenders in their explanations of their protests because it is a right specifically protected by DRIP. However, DRIP is just declaration and it is not legally binding (Rawls 2013). Therefore, even if indigenous people are forced off of their land or do not give consent for a development project, there is no real international legal recourse for them.

The Guatemalan and Honduran Constitutions also provide protections for the environment and indigenous people. Article 97 of the Guatemalan Constitution protects the environment against pollution and assigns the duty to promote ecological balance to both the state and the people, with water and the land being specifically mentioned. Access to water and sanitation are also declared to be human rights in Article 145 of the Honduran Constitution. The rights and interests of indigenous people are also given special protections by both the Honduran and Guatemalan Constitutions in Article 346 and Section 3, respectively.

Our Purpose

The purpose of this dossier is to explain why the murderers of land defenders in Honduras and Guatemala have impunity by providing historical background and case studies of current land defenders. We argue that the murders of land defenders in Honduras and Guatemala is a human rights issue that needs more attention from the international community because we must rethink our relationship to the environment; the conflict between environmental and economic rights will become increasingly complicated with climate change and environmental degradation.

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[1] Global Witness. “Honduras: The Deadliest Country in the World for Environmental Activism”. January 2017 environmental-activists/honduras-deadliest-country-world-environmental-activism/

[2] Ortiz, Sergio, and Bertrand Marianne.“The legacy of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres lives on – as local campaigners call for justice.” Amnesty International. March 2018.

[3] Watts, Jonathan. “Berta Cáceres case: a warning for those who would kill activists.” The Guardian. November 2018. berta-caceres-case-a-warning-shot-for-those-who-would-kill-activists

[4] Scurr, Tara. “Stop the killings of land defenders in Guatemala!”. Amnesty International. November 2018.

[5] Central Intelligence Agency. “Honduras”. The World Factbook. 24 February 2019.

[6] Central Intelligence Agency. “Guatemala”. The World Factbook. 2019.

[7] United Nations. “United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous People. March 2008.

[8] Rawls, Dana. “Tracking the DRIP”. November 2013.

[9] Francisco Valle Velasco, L. (Trans.). “Guatemala’s Constitution of 1985 with Amendments through 1993”. 2012.

[10] Constitute Project (Trans.). “Honduras’s Constitution of 1982 with Amendments through 2013”. 2018.

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