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Jackie McVicarSeptember 25, 2020

Every Wednesday morning, Gabriela Sorto wakes up early to make lunch for her dad, Porfirio. He has not been convicted of a crime but, along with six other local men from Guapinol, Honduras, he has been held without bail in pre-trial detention for more than a year. The incarcerated men were part of a local campaign to protect water sources in their community.

“He’s in jail for defending the Guapinol and San Pedro Rivers, for defending life,” says the 26-year-old, who has become the public face of her father’s plight. Before his arrest, Mr. Sorto led the family ministry at his parish and worked as a mason. “I’m really proud of him,” Ms. Sorto says.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the seven men, plus another who has been in jail since December 2018, have not been allowed a family visit since March. Once a week, their loved ones have special permission to send them a home-cooked meal plus extras like green avocados and tortillas that will help them get through the week.

At one point this year, “they were really sick,” Ms. Sorto says. “They were told they’d get checked out by a doctor, but they never found out if they had Covid or dengue or what they had.”

Over the past two years, 31 people from the municipality of Tocoa, on the lush north shore of Honduras, have faced criminal prosecution as a result of their opposition to an iron ore mining project in the Botaderos Mount “Carlos Escaleras” National Park. While these eight remain imprisoned, five others, who initially had the charges against them dropped after voluntarily presenting themselves to the courts, were notified last month that an appellate court had reinstated criminal proceedings against them.

Over the past two years, 31 people from Tocoa have faced criminal prosecution as a result of their opposition to an iron ore mining project in the Botaderos Mount “Carlos Escaleras” National Park.

“I was very surprised,” says Leonel George, a local human rights activist and correspondent with the Jesuit-sponsored Radio Progreso. He is one of the men expected back in court this month. “But there’s injustice in this country. Laws are applied to [human rights] defenders, to the victims, to the people who assert their rights.”

In a statement, Mr. George’s attorneys say the court decision “reaffirms the clear alliance between the public prosecutor, the judiciary and the private sector to punish anyone who dares to defend the public and common goods of Honduras.”

According to Global Witness, Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be an environmental activist. Over the past two decades, more than 100 farmers in the Bajo Aguán have been killed in incidents related to land struggles, including Carlos Escaleras, whom the national park is named after. Mr. George believes he is being targeted because of his efforts to accompany the victims and their families.

“Of course we’re scared. There is no doubt that they want to send a strong message,” he says. “But we have our dignity and hold our heads high.”

In 2019, Mr. George and members of the Tocoa Municipal Committee in Defense of Common and Public Goods were victims of a defamation campaign while they were in Washington to receive an international human rights award for their environmental activism. Pinares Investments, the company behind the mine, went so far as to accuse them of murder in an attempt to discourage support of the water protectors.

Since the August court ruling, smear campaigns have intensified, and Mr. George and the families of the jailed men now fear for their lives. On Aug. 28, a day after Amnesty International issued an urgent action alert related to the case, the Sisters of Mercy in Washington also issued a call for the protection of Guapinol River defenders after unmarked vehicles were observed patrolling the community in an apparent act of intimidation.

“Of course we’re scared. There is no doubt that they want to send a strong message. But we have our dignity and hold our heads high.”

“The Pinares mining company is backed by some of the most powerful families in Honduras,” according to the alert, “together with the state, through military and judicial harassment, they are forging ahead at all costs with the iron ore project that threatens the water sources for tens of thousands of people in the Bajo Aguan.” 

Owned by one of the country’s most powerful couples, Lenir Pérez and Ana Facussé, Pinares Investments enjoys the strong support of the Honduran Congress, controlled by President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party. The couple is the force behind some of the most important mine and port developments in Honduras and a consortium building an international airport near the capital Tegucigalpa. Their iron oxide refinery is set to be the biggest in Central America and has been lauded by business associations for reactivating the local economy in the midst of Covid-19.

But Mr. Pérez has been linked to serious human rights violations. In 2017, international human rights organizations reported that he was involved in the kidnapping of international observers and had threatened locals near one of his other iron oxide mines.

His wife and business partner, Ms. Facussé, is the daughter of the late palm oil billionaire Miguel Facussé, who reportedly “called the shots” in Honduras before his death in 2015.

According to Earth Rights International, which is suing the World Bank for investing in the late Mr. Facussé’s Dinant Corporation, the company has been “at the center of a decades-long and bloody land-grabbing campaign in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras.” Local activists and farmers told The Guardian that Honduran Special Forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the United States, are implicated in the violence.

While Pinares Investments has promised development, investment and jobs through the mine and processing plant, affected communities say they were not consulted about the project before it started operating. They are worried that a legally binding plebiscite in November 2019 that overwhelmingly rejected mining in the region is not being respected and that local watersheds are at risk.

Pinares Investments responded to requests for comment with a statement, insisting that it “is duly registered, has all operating and environmental permits, also complies with the highest national and international regulations in each process, required by the authorities to operate in Honduras.”

The company spokesperson said Pinares “is characterized by supporting the communities in which we work with multiple social works…our company has already done works that exceed a million dollars for the benefit of the most needy inhabitants.”

“Our company respects all regulations and correct environmental processes," the statement continues. “We have high-level professionals with extensive experience in environmental care issues who work [consistently] with the objective of developing a responsible and sustainable project with the environment.”

In a response to The Nation in March, Pinares officials said that “the company as a whole adheres to the highest standards of corporate environmental ethics” and dismissed the Guapinol’s water defenders as “false environmentalists.” A Pinares statement suggested, according to The Nation, “that many are armed criminals who, financed by unknown sources, were sent from outside the Aguán to sabotage the construction of an otherwise responsible, non-polluting, job-creating mine.”

That is not an assessment shared by people who call Tocoa home. “Defending the environment is defending the home we all share,” says Gregorio Vasquez, S.J., of the Saint Isidro of Labrador Parish of Tocoa in an interview with the Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez Foundation on Sept. 1. “We have to defend and protect our common home.”

“The Guapinol case is about Honduras. It’s about social justice. We feel very supported by the exhortation from Pope Francis. To defend the environment is to defend our common home.”

In 2019, the Diocese of Trujillo pointed to what it called an illegal concession in the national park as the source of the conflict. According to its statement, when the Honduran Congress named the park a protected area in 2012, mining and related activities should have been prohibited. But questionable reforms to the law opened the door to the project, and by the spring of 2018, Pinares started widening a road within the park. Residents say their drinking water systems filled up with mud, which they reported to local authorities.

With no response, locals set up the camp “For Water and Life” in August 2018 in what has been called a “legitimate response” to the imposition of the mining project in the national park.

Six weeks later, dozens of armed security guards working for the mine showed up at the camp, and a young community member was shot. In response, members of the camp allegedly detained the head of security and held him until the police arrived on the scene.

Although no one has been charged in relation to the injuries, local prosecutors pressed charges against members of the camp after the mine security filed a complaint. The eight men in jail, along with the other five who originally had their case dismissed, now face detention and arson charges. Under Honduran law, these charges do not require the detention of the accused, but the courts have remained firm on keeping the water protectors in jail.

A legal expert at the Jesuit Team for Reflection, Research and Communications warns that there has been a “selective” application of justice in the Guapinol case. Whereas complaints filed by affected communities are not investigated, those filed by the company, meant to thwart opposition, are moving forward.

“The accused are people who have peacefully protested demanding the guarantee of social, cultural and environmental rights as human rights,” according to a Saint Isidro Parish statement released in August 2019 when the jailed men voluntarily presented themselves to the courts to clarify their legal status.

Soon after the Guapinol camp was set up in August 2018, effectively stopping further construction of the road inside the park, the Honduran Council of Private Companies called on authorities and the Hernández administration to respond to the standstill at mine sites around the country caused by local resistance movements. As a result, the Environmental Conflict Task Force to resolve mining conflicts was created.

Two months later, residents at the Guapinol camp were violently evicted by approximately 1,500 soldiers. The swift state response to the private sector call to action has made the Guapinol case resonate throughout the country.

“The Guapinol case is about Honduras. It’s about social justice,” says Father Vasquez. “We feel very supported by the exhortation from Pope Francis. To defend the environment is to defend our common home. To defend, to protect our communities, the people who are criminalized, judicialized, is to defend social justice.”

Concerned about the situation in Guapinol and other areas of the countries where environmental conflicts are proliferating due to “irrational exploitation” of natural resources, the bishops’ conference of Honduras published a statement in October 2018 where they note, “The greatest responsibility for this situation lies with the economic model that privileges the excessive desire for wealth over the lives of individuals and peoples.”

This month, the case is set to be back in court, and all eyes are on Guapinol. A judge will decide whether the men should be released to face their legal process in freedom. University of Virginia's International Human Rights Law Clinic released a preliminary report that revealed a “series of judicial irregularities” in the case and warned that the Honduran state should immediately release the men or risk breaking international law. The National Committee Against Torture has called their treatment in the overcrowded jail “undignified and inhumane” and has advocated for their release.

“As a family, we demand their freedom,” says Ms. Sorto. “They shouldn’t be in jail for defending life.”

September 28, 2020: This article was updated with a statement from Pinares Investment.

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