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What we know about the death of 2 environmental activists in Honduras

Journalist Jared Olson says hundreds attended funerals for two water defenders in northern Honduras. (Seth Berry)
Journalist Jared Olson says hundreds attended funerals for two water defenders in northern Honduras. (Seth Berry)

It’s dangerous to be an environmental activist. Since 2022, about 1,700 of them have been killed, according to the non-profit Global Witness.

This month in northern Honduras, two activists were shot and killed in the village of Guapinol.

Aly Domínguez and Jairo Bonilla were protesting an iron mine that they blamed for polluting the rivers this community of farmers and fishermen rely on to survive.

Jared Olson, a freelance journalist based in Honduras, has been covering the community’s fight to defend its water since 2019. There’s pressure on officials to investigate the crimes, he says, though 98% of murders in the country go uninvestigated.

“In this particular case, many people are feeling a little bit cynical because the same prosecutor who oversaw what many called the arbitrary imprisonment of the 33 and then the eight water defenders after 2018 has now been charged with investigating this case,” Olson says. “And already, the police are saying that it was a robbery gone wrong, even though the families recall that they were being explicitly threatened and that nothing was stolen off of them.”

Interview highlights

On what we know about Aly Domínguez, Jairo Bonilla and their deaths

“These were beloved men in this very small, tight-knit community. Guapinol is a small village, kind of in the middle of nowhere, in northern Honduras. And hundreds of people, maybe 1,000, came to their funeral.

“Neither of them was particularly politically pre-disposed until around 2018, when they started seeing, along with their friends, construction equipment going up into a mining concession in the national park above their village. And that mining concession was created under dubious circumstances in a late-night congressional session that many people said was illegal. And when they started finally seeing the construction equipment going up, when they and everyone else started seeing the river turn to chocolateada (become chocolatized), they were like, ‘we have to protest.’ And they were the co-founders of the Water Defenders movement in Guapinol to try to organize to defend their water.”

On how Domínguez and Bonilla engaged in activism to protest the mine

“As members of this movement, they took steady, escalating protests to try to stop this mine, which by and large, the communities in this region were not consulted for. As many others might know, this is a very normal process with a lot of these kinds of mining projects in Latin America.

“So at first, they occupied the local mayor’s office for 11 days in 2018. But when that didn’t work, they blocked off the dirt road going into the national park where the construction equipment is going up. In October 2018, over 1000 Honduran military and police units descended on them with tear gas and live ammunition, killing one person and injuring numerous others. And then soon thereafter, 33 of those men were imprisoned, including Aly Domínguez. Most of them were released, but then eight remained in jail on what many considered arbitrary imprisonment for over two years and were finally released.”

On why Honduran activists tie their fight to migration, particularly to the United States

“People in Guapinol live off of this water, right? These are farmers, right? These are fishermen. They’re living very down-to-Earth. And when their river starts coming down full of sediment, that makes their lives extremely difficult.

“When I first started covering this story in late 2019, I was kind of surprised, but people make the explicit connection: We want to fight for this because we don’t want to go to the U.S. No one really wants to [migrate to the U.S.] Maybe if you’re young and you just want to see the world.

“But no one really wants to go through the deserts in Mexico, have to go through organized crime to go live in the underworld in the U.S. They like their lives. They like their communities. It’s a very beautiful community. And it’s an explicit part of their discourse to defend their waterways, to say: ‘We want to defend this river so that we don’t have to leave.’ Ever since this project has started, some sources have indicated that up to a third of the entire community has left in all, either because of violence or threats.”

On the response to Domínguez and Bonilla’s deaths from the U.S. government — and how U.S. policy could better support protesters

“The U.S. ambassador, in this case, has condemned this, which does not always happen because there are hundreds of murders of environmental land and water defenders in Honduras that go unnoticed largely by the international community.

“Many would say that one of the things that needs to be done that the U.S. could do is to help push for accountability for the corrupt state security forces, the military and police units, that are implicated in repressing these communities on behalf of corrupt and business interests. These are the people who repressed their protest camp. And unfortunately, the U.S. continues to support these units, even though there is clear evidence that they are tied up with murder, assassination, torture, repression.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Healy also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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