Kevin Donaldo Ramírez, 29, of Honduras describes himself as an environmental activist, just like his hero Berta Cáceres, a defender of indigenous rights and lands who was murdered in March.
When he heard the news of her death, “I cried,” he says simply. “They killed Berta, but it was like they had killed me.” Cáceres, he says, had been an inspiration for a lot of the people working to protect indigenous and rural territories from development interests. He met her himself last year at a protest against mining and dam-building in Honduras.
Before her murder, Berta Cáceres was the most visible leader for Honduran indigenous people in conflict with development projects. Cáceres was killed even after earning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for ecological activism in 2015. Her organization Copinh, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, managed to delay the Agua Zarca dam project in Intibucá, where the Lenca indigenous live. Copinh persuaded some of the project’s international backers to drop out; Cáceres’s murder discouraged the participation of others.
Since her murder, environmental activists in Honduras appear even more vulnerable. Global Witness reports that Honduras is the most dangerous place in the world for people like Ramírez—109 eco-defenders have been killed there since 2010. According to its most recent survey of violence worldwide, eight environmentalists were killed in Honduras in 2015. That year, Global Witness documented 185 killings of environmental activists in 16 countries, a 59 percent increase over 2014 and the highest annual toll on record. Worst hit countries were Brazil (50 killings), the Philippines (33) and Colombia (26).
Because of these deaths, Ramírez knows that resisting development projects can be dangerous. Powerful interests seek to produce energy by damming the river that runs through his community, practically in his own backyard. Hydroelectric interests want to build a dam on the Río Listón in his community in Quimistán, Santa Bárbara.
Ramírez began his activism at his local church, and his community supported him until his work began attracting threats of violence. Last year he endured several death threats and one murder attempt. His wife was attacked by one of his own neighbors, apparently hired by local business people who support the dam project. Some stand to gain greatly from the project at the expense of their neighbors.
Honduras is a troubled country, now the second most violent in the world. The most desirable places in Honduras for energy production are located where farmers and indigenous people live: Intibucá, La Paz, Santa Bárbara, Atlántida and Bajo Aguán. Conflicts over land often end violently.
Since a coup against the popularly elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009, 111 river concessions have been granted to energy interests and more than 155 land concessions for mining have been granted. These concessions were approved without consultation with the people in communities that would be directly affected. Current law in Honduras does not require it, though the nation’s legislature is now discussing a law to regulate public consultation.
Ramírez's community is small; most people are farmers. The river is too important for their crops and their lifestyle, he says, for them to surrender it to energy production. His village is not the only community in Honduras facing a conflict of this type. Just 20 minutes from the Río Listón there are four communities with the same problem. In the whole municipality of Quimistán six dam projects are underway. Many of the people who live in communities around the new dams say they only learned of the projects when construction on the dams began.
Ramírez and his family have regularly had to flee his community when the threats begin. That is why he doesn’t have a permanent job, making it difficult to support his family. But he believes that God is in nature and that it is important to defend the land. It is the only legacy he can leave to his sons, he says; he doesn’t possess property or wealth.
Ramírez asked for help from a Jesuit institution, the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team, known by its Spanish acronym E.R.I.C. (Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación). He had previously received human rights and political education from E.R.I.C.; the group is located in El Progreso, a town in the department of Yoro. In September, E.R.I.C. persuaded the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand protective measures for Ramírez and his family, and now the Honduran state is responsible for his safety. Sadly, Berta Cáceres also had the same commitments of protection from the state.
As the investigation into her murder continues in Honduras, Cáceres’s killing has had an impact in United States. In June, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, introduced legislation that would suspend U.S. funding to Honduras for police and military operations, including funds for equipment and training, until the Honduran government investigates credible reports indicating that the police and military are violating citizens’ human rights.
Meanwhile, the lack of consensus and consultation in Honduras result in conflicts such as the one that has again driven Ramírez from his community. As recent death threats escalated, he has gone one more time into hiding.
Jennifer Avila is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker in El Pregreso, Honduras, where she contributes to the work of the Jesuit-sponsored Radio Progreso and the Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación.