“The State should make sure we receive reparations and public recognition that our work as environmental defenders is legitimate”
These were the words of Orbin Hernández, one of the eight environmental defenders from the remote villages of Guapinol and San Pedro Sector, in the Lower Aguan Valley, Honduras, who had been arbitrarily detained for two and a half years for having participated in protests against a mining company that is polluting their local water source – the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers.
Orbin was speaking through the loudspeaker of my phone. We were gathered in Guapinol, in the garden of Abelino Cedillo, another one of eight defenders who had spent 914 days in prison on false charges and who had all been released in February 2022. We had the honour of meeting three others of the eight defenders during our solidarity visit: Daniel Márquez, Kelvin Romero and Jeremias Martínez. Unfortunately, their colleagues, Arnol Aleman, Ewer Cedillo, Porfirio Sorto could not join us.
Orbin from San Pedro Sector, which is up in the mountains and difficult to reach, but which is most affected by the mining mega-project, was speaking to us by phone as he couldn’t join us due to lack of funds for transport. He had spent 100 Lempira (€4) on mobile data credit and had had to climb a tree to find a point where the internet connection was good enough to sustain a WhatsApp call.
He spoke candidly of his and his fellow water defenders’ experience, narrating the injustice of having been falsely accused of stealing land, arson, illicit association, and deprivation of liberty. After voluntarily appearing in court to clarify their legal position, they were sent to pretrial detention for over two years.
Orbin said: “We suffered greatly in prison. It was an exemplary punishment. They wanted to make other water defenders afraid to continue their activism.”
After more than two years in pretrial detention, they went through a trial plagued with irregularities and were handed down an unfair sentence. Eventually, after a huge national and international legal and political advocacy campaign, which Trócaire contributed to in several ways, their sentence was annulled. Yet, even after that, they suffered undue delays in being released.
Now, eight months later, they are still waiting on the State to compensate the damages caused, investigate and sanction those responsible for the events and offer protection measures to the defenders, their families, their fellow defenders, and their environment.
In total, 32 water defenders have been criminalised for opposing the mining project, and two defenders have been killed: Roberto Antonio Argueta Tejada was murdered in August 2019 and Arnold Joaquín Morazán Erazo in October 2020. Both killings occurred in Tocoa, a few miles from where we were sitting.
Jeremias Martinez, 67, said “I fought for years for my land rights and was imprisoned, beaten, and received death threats. After the coup in 2009, I became more resolved to keep fighting. When I saw what was happening with the mine in the Carlos Escaleras nature reserve, I joined the struggle in solidarity to protect the water source of the villages of Guapinol and San Pedro Sector.”
Kelvin Romero said, “We want to clear our names”.
He explained that despite the sentence being annulled, they still had not received an original copy of their release papers, which made them feel at unease, worrying that the criminal proceedings they were subjected to will continue to be a black mark against their names. Trócaire has been supporting this work to clear their criminal records.
Trócaire provided significant funding for the legal defence of the eight water defenders, psychosocial support for them and their families, while they were in prison, during the different phases of the trial and after they were released, logistical support to their legal team and families to facilitate prison visits and attendance at court hearings, as well as carrying out advocacy and campaigning at international level.
The arrest and arbitrary detention of the water defenders put Guapinol and Sector San Pedro on the map, and it put the mining company Los Pinares under international scrutiny.
However, the question on their mind is, “what now?”. Despite a declaration in May by the new Honduran government to ban open-pit mining and that it would cancel environmental permits for mining operations across the country, the mining project polluting the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers continues to operate.
Kelvin was clear in what should happen: “The mining operation should be suspended until a full environmental and socio-economic impact assessment has been carried out by an independent and impartial commission of experts.”
Orbin, Abelino, Daniel, Jeremias and Kelvin are questioning whether it was worth the sacrifice.
Abelino said: “Sometimes we feel we are alone (in this struggle). Since we got out of jail, the protests have died down. It is a challenge to mobilise people.”
They are worried that people are afraid to keep fighting, and that momentum has been lost. However, they are determined to keep doing their part in seeking justice for themselves and their environment.