Indigenous rights and investment fights: can development banks be held responsible?

Inclusive Economy31 Mar 2016Fenna Hoefsloot, Lisa Juanola, Max Méndez Beck

The Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) has been fighting for years against the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, a project financed by several large international development banks. The recent assassination of COPINH’s internationally renowned leader, Berta Caceres, has shocked the world and put pressure on funders to listen to local voices and commit themselves to truly inclusive development.

March 2016 saw the violent assassination of Berta Caceres, a renowned indigenous activist, in the town of La Esperanza, Honduras. The murder caused shock waves across Honduras and beyond. It highlighted the dangers faced by environmentalists and indigenous organizers in a country that now ranks as the deadliest place in the world for such activists. Just last year, a report by Global Witness found that between 2010 and 2014 at least 101 environmental activists had been killed in Honduras.

Berta Caceres was the cofounder of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas en Honduras (COPINH), a grassroots indigenous organization that seeks to promote indigenous culture and confront threats to the Lenca people, the largest indigenous group in the country. She was a prominent leader of the indigenous cause, particularly when it came to defending her people’s right to their ancestral land – land that had come under increasing threat due to the approval of a number of river dam projects, especially since the military overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

Berta had fought tirelessly against these changes, mobilizing her community and leading peaceful protests, despite numerous threats to her life. The group’s efforts continued even after Tomás García, a community leader in Río Blanco and member of COPINH, was shot dead during a peaceful demonstration in July 2013. His murder led the Chinese company Sinoydro to terminate its contract with DESA, the company responsible for the construction of a hydroelectric plant on Lenca’s holy waters. The World Bank’s private financing company, IFC, followed suit and withdrew its funding two years later due to concerns about human rights abuses. That same year, Berta Caceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work opposing the dam.

Why did the project continue to receive international support?

But other international funders did not withdraw their support for the dam. International development banks such as the Dutch Development Bank (FMO), Finnish Development Bank, and BCIE continued to support the project, despite the pressure exerted by the local community. The traditional top-down, externally-imposed approach to development, which can undermine local participation and even ignore a project’s potential social and environmental impacts, seems to be firmly entrenched in development banks.

However, the international community is becoming increasingly aware of the need for ‘sustainable’ development, which seeks a balance between the social, environmental and economic components of development. Countries like the Netherlands, with its strong record of support for international cooperation and human rights, have taken this a step further and begun talking about ‘inclusive’ development. The current Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, is a proponent of this approach, which focuses on the wellbeing of the most vulnerable and ´leaving no one behind´. It understands ‘wellbeing’ as what people themselves define as a good life within their social environment. This development approach has emerged in a context of growing inequalities in countries, as a consequence of trade-offs made in favour of economic growth, which often occur in sustainable development.

Berta’s opposition to the Agua Zarca project was a stance taken in the name of a voiceless community to uphold their vision of wellbeing. The project was pushed through without consulting the indigenous Lenca people, a clear violation of existing international treaties protecting indigenous people’s rights. Berta also openly questioned the funders’ concept of development. She claimed that her community’s ‘cosmovisions’ were persistently undermined and discriminated against. Through COPINH, the community proposed different projects to generate energy, but these ideas were not taken into consideration. If there had been a strong consolidated inclusive development approach, this project would have not been financed. Should the opinions of development banks carry greater weight than that of the local population? Post-modernist thinkers, like Arturo Escobar, have already warned that seeking alternative development approaches is not sufficient, and that an integral and complete alternative to the whole concept of development is needed. So, do cases like Berta’s show that development has still not shaken off its deeply-rooted discriminatory ways, which can end up damaging the very people it is trying help?

Foreseeing the murder

It seems that much more could have been done to avoid the death of Berta Caceres. In June 2014, the murder of Tomás Garcia made national and international headlines. Critiques of the project went all the way up to the Dutch Parliament, but funding was not withdrawn. A multitude of organizations had already voiced concern about the situation in Honduras. During a visit in late 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples expressed deep concern about ‘the general environment of violence and impunity affecting many indigenous communities’. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had been keenly aware of Berta Caceres’ situation and had offered her special protection measures. In its statement on the murder, IACHR wrote that, ‘in the last few years of her life, she and other COPINH members were victims of various acts of aggression, criminalization, threats and intimidation. The IACHR contacted the State [of Honduras] in writing regarding this situation’. IACHR noted that on October 21, during a work meeting, it had expressed to the Honduran delegation its concerns regarding the security of Berta Caceres and the inadequacy of the protection measures that were currently in place. The IACHR adds that Berta had announced in a press conference, only a week before the assassination, that four community leaders had been killed and that her life had been threatened.

An appropriate response

It is imperative that not only the government of Honduras, but also international funders, respond to this tragedy. And the response must be more profound than giving condolences or advocating for an independent investigation into the murder. As we were writing the last version of this article, Nelson García, another member of COPINH, has been assassinated. FMO and Fin Fund announced an end to their funding of the project until all investigations have been completed: ‘On the basis of each investigation, further decisions will be made on the continued involvement of FMO’. There is enough evidence to back the idea of immediately halting the Agua Zarca project, without the possibility of a future resumption. Funders must make a strong commitment to inclusive development and generate political will in favour of broad-based political representation of the entire population, including minority groups. This includes listening to local voices without discrimination and respecting different visions on wellbeing. The Lenca people, and all the world’s people, have the right to live the lives they desire. Tomas, Berta and Nelson aren’t the first environmental activist murdered, but we must do everything we can so that they are the last.