‘It was a party’: Higher court frees Honduran water defenders | Protests News

Tocoa, Honduras – Prisoners hugged their teary-eyed family members in the holding cell of a dilapidated and stuffy Honduran courthouse. Six men arrested for their activism against a mining project in a national park had just been convicted on several counts and would have faced up to 14 years in prison.

The shutdown quickly caused international condemnation and outrage – but in a shocking twist, just 24 hours later the Supreme Court of Honduras ordered their release on Thursday.

Dozens of people gathered in downtown Tocoa Thursday night to celebrate, accompanied by a caravan of pickup trucks. People were blowing horns, singing songs and making speeches.

“It was a celebration, a happy moment for the whole community,” Leonel George told Al Jazeera. He lives in the village of Guapinol, located downstream from the surface mining project in Carlos Escaleras National Park. Many locals view the mine as a threat to the regional watershed.

A view of the plant where iron oxide is brought in from the open pit mine in Carlos Escaleras National Park [Jared Olson/Al Jazeera]

According to defense attorney Rodolfo Zamora, the Supreme Court’s order was based on an appeal filed several months earlier to challenge the constitutionality of the activists’ detention. The men were charged with criminal damage and unlawful detention of the mining company’s security chief.

“We had filed a pair of refuge applications almost two years ago,” Zamora told Al Jazeera. “The Supreme Court should have made it within the week. We knew our request was still [pending] and they had to give us an answer.

The higher court ultimately found that the judge who originally ordered the men’s detention lacked jurisdiction to do so, thus quashing the case against them.

Jessenia Molina, a human rights activist for the San Alonso Rodriguez Foundation, which organized the prisoners’ release, said the last-minute reprieve was a “wonderful” surprise: “Obviously we didn’t expect this… This news has us all happy, celebrating, everyone has left their homes to celebrate.

It marks a momentous victory for environmentalists who have spent years trying to stop one of the most notorious mining projects in this Central American country.

Model of repression

The dispute over the iron oxide mine owned by Inversiones Los Pinares dates back to 2013, when a controversial zoning decision allowed the facility to be built in the heart of Montana Botaderos, now known as Carlos Escaleras National Park. .

The move raised fears that the project could poison dozens of rivers, including the Guapinol, potentially threatening the livelihoods of thousands of people who depend on these rivers for agriculture and fishing.

In 2018, local activists blocked the mining company’s access road. After a succession of clashes between security agents and demonstrators, who remained in place for three months, the military police intervened to disperse the demonstrators with tear gas and live ammunition. One civilian was killed and eight others injured.

Several other water defenders, miners and military police have been killed in communities surrounding the mine since the project began, although the circumstances of these deaths remain unclear.

Honduran historyThe Guapinol River in the Bajo Aguán Valley in Honduras, which many fear will be affected by the Pinares mining concession [Jared Olson/Al Jazeera]

Honduras is one of the world’s deadliest countries for land and water defendersa pattern of repression that intensified after a military coup in 2009. Xiomara Castro was elected president of Honduras last November on a promise to reverse the legacy of right-wing rule and corruption, promising Guapinol’s political prisoners would be released.

Many hope Thursday’s decision will herald substantial changes in the political landscape for environmentalists under the Castro administration – a daunting task in a country where a powerful economic elite is devoted to land grabbing and resource extraction. .

Meanwhile, the Pinares mining complex is operational. The pellet plant – a towering, multi-story facility for processing iron oxide – towers over Guapinol and nearby villages, where residents report hearing the constant noise of heavy machinery and factory equipment at all hours, and say the Guapinol River has lost its clarity since the mining project began.

At the same time, the project “did not [led to] any changes here in the development,” resident Raul Ramirez told Al Jazeera from inside his thatched-roof hut.

Powerful allies

Pinares, who did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment on the case, previously said the the mine would bring jobs and economic development in a poor region of Honduras. Lenir Perez – co-owner of the business, alongside his wife, Ana Facusse – told reporters the conflict around the mine has been fomented by left-wing groups from outside the region.

Perez and Facusse are among the most powerful couples in the country, with influential allies within the National Party. Miguel Facusse, Ana’s late father, had suspected links to drug dealerswhile the palm groves linked to his Dinant Corporation – also in the Aguan Valley, near the Pinares mine and Guapinol – have been the scene of intense conflict between peasant groups and heavily armed security forces.

There are also international powers behind the Pinares mine: A November 2020 cross-border survey revealed that, until October 2019, one of the main supporters of the project was Nucor, a major American steel company and a major donor to former US President Donald Trump. The company had quietly supported Pinares through subsidiaries in Panama, Delaware and Switzerland.

Honduran history Activists say the struggle in Guapinol is just a small part of a much larger battle [Jared Olson/Al Jazeera]

Since the arrest of the Guapinol prisoners three years ago, an international network of human rights defenders and local residents has rallied around their cause.

For weeks, friends and family maintained an encampment outside the Tocoa courthouse, complete with tents, piles of mattresses and tables of coffee, tortillas, beans and cheese. Hundreds of people were present to hear the verdict.

Although they have now been declared free by the Supreme Court, the Guapinol activists have not yet been officially released from prison. But in light of the positive outcome, local residents say they are determined to keep fighting the mining project.

“The community will continue to push for the cancellation of this mining permit,” George said. “We cannot live without water, without our river.”

Zamora said local residents “are aware that the only way to put a mine in the middle of a national park is through bribery. They are not ready to leave this mine still there. The fight will continue for them”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on February 4, shortly after the court heard final arguments in their case, Orbin Hernandez, one of the six activists, said he viewed the Guapinol struggle as a small part of a much larger battle.

“I think most people are victims of the oligarchies and the transnational corporations of the world,” he said, as police armed with assault rifles watched him. “What happened to us could happen to anyone in the world when they defend their rivers or their forests.”

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