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“When They Poison the River, It’s Like They’ve Laid Hands on My Mother”: Accompanying Guapinol Water Defenders

Reflections on how UUSC is partnering with Honduran water defenders and human rights activists.

By on October 15, 2019



As UUSC staff and members, we advocate directly to members of Congress, but the most impactful advocacy is when we can support our grassroots partners on the front lines in telling their own stories and make their demands directly. The first week of October, I had the honor of accompanying UUSC’s Honduran partners—the Municipal Committee in Defense of Common and Public Goods and Fundación San Alonzo Rodriguez—to Washington, D.C. as they received a prestigious international award. They also called on members of Congress to demand that Honduran courts release seven water defenders who were arbitrarily sent to a maximum security jail in September as punishment for organizing their communities to defend the water supply of tens of thousands of people from a mining project being imposed in their municipality.  

The wife of one of the detained defenders was part of the group that travelled to Washington, D.C., who was joined by three defenders who had also faced spurious charges brought against them by the Honduran government and the Los Pinares mining company in February. At that time, they spent a week in jail while they faced an indictment hearing before having all charges dismissed. The judge found that the crimes the men were being accused of hadn’t been committed. In September, a different judge indicted the defenders and sent them to pre-trial detention without giving any reason.  

The group of water defenders came to Washington, D.C. to receive the Institute for Policy Studies’ 43rd Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. The award is given in honor of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, IPS staff who were murdered in a 1976 car bombing on the streets of the U.S. capitol by secret police hired by Chile’s Pinochet regime. Letelier was a prominent leftist political prisoner in his home country of Chile. 

Alarming echoes of this transnational persecution of human rights activists followed the Guapinol water defenders to Washington, D.C., underscoring the importance of their public visibility in the United States and highlighting the genuine risks to their safety. Los Pinares, the mining company whose initial work has polluted the Guapinol River watershed, launched a social media attack against the defenders while they were in the United States. The company, owned by powerful Honduran economic interests that have been linked to serious human rights violations contacted congressional offices that we visited to share a defamatory and gruesome video making baseless claims that the water defenders are murderers and drug traffickers. And even more frightening, someone was handing out flyers outside the award event with photos of mutilated corpses, accusing the water defenders of these murders. They have also reached out aggressively to UUSC staff and board members to “warn us” about the water defenders.

Parallel to these false accusations, the drug trafficking trial of the Honduran President’s brother, Tony Hernandez, continues in New York, and evidence is mounting that directly implicates Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, key Ministers and congressional representatives, the justice system and the private sector. The case against the Guapinol water defenders is emblematic of the ways that private financial interests, the state, and the court system work together to intimidate and halt the work of human, land, and water rights defenders, all the while providing cover and protection for high-level criminal activity.

Former detainee Juan Lopez spoke truth to power in the award acceptance speech:

The planet Earth has limits, but the extractive economic model does not recognize limits. The North has channeled the land, natural resources and hydroelectric energy of the South into its own storehouses. Our land has been fenced off, given in concession, militarized, and colonized; and our brothers and sisters have been criminalized, jailed, and murdered in the violence produced by this kind of capital accumulation. 

This city [Washington, D.C.] lies at the center of world government. It is the place where the future of the planet and humanity is decided. And its foreign policy wreaks more havoc than an atom bomb, causing irreversible harm to the entire world.  From this place, we lift our voices in protest against the economic, political, colonial, and military order. We reject the imposition of US aid to the government of Honduras because it is used to threaten the lives of human rights defenders.

The people refuse to die at the hands of the extractive corporate empire and the government that promotes and protects it. Facing this neoliberal empire, we say, in the spirit of Berta Cáceres: “Wake up, humanity. There is no more time.”

 Long live the hope and rebellion of the communities who are the true owners of the award that we are receiving today.

On October 18, two UUSC staff join a U.S. delegation traveling to Guapinol, Honduras to accompany the water defenders as they present this award to the entire Municipal Committee in Defense of Public and Common Goods. This will be part of the annual Day of Remembrance honoring Carlos Escaleras, an environmental rights activist from Tocoa murdered in 1997 for defending land from the construction of a Palm Oil processing plant being built by the same economic interests now wanting to develop a mine in the same area. The Carlos Escaleras National Park, which the Committee was created to defend, is named in his honor. It is this same pristine park in which the mining permits have been allowed that now threaten the water of the surrounding communities.

In a time of so much struggle, the water defenders bring such hope, strength, and dignity. Their demand is straight-forward: release their neighbors (defenders) from maximum security prison, and revoke the mining license to Los Pinares to protect their precarious water supply. 

UUSC and its members will continue to do all that we can to elevate their voices and support their life-affirming struggle.

Photo Credit: Hannah Hafter


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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