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After Activist’s Murder, Dutch Investors Question Ties to Hydroelectric Project

NGOs demand action from Amsterdam as a witness to Berta Cáceres's death is prevented from leaving Honduras.

Slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres posters are carried  during a International Women's day demonstration in Tegucigalpa on March 08, 2016.     AFP PHOTO /Orlando SIERRA. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA        (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres posters are carried during a International Women's day demonstration in Tegucigalpa on March 08, 2016. AFP PHOTO /Orlando SIERRA. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, Gustavo Castro fell to the floor and pretended to be dead, waiting for the gunmen who shot Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres to leave her house. He survived, and in doing so, became the only witness to a murder that has since drawn international attention towards a massive hydroelectric project Cáceres had protested against for nearly a decade.

Now, nearly 50 activist groups are demanding the Dutch government distance itself from the project, known as Agua Zarca, and to take steps to protect Castro. In a letter Monday, the activists called on Amsterdam to direct Netherlands Development Finance Co., or FMO, to divest from Agua Zarca, which the indigenous Lenca people say will cut off vital river access. The letter also demands that FMO review its portfolio to ensure it is not invested in other projects in Lenca territory.

Additionally, the activists demanded that Amsterdam press Tegucigalpa allow international bodies and non-governmental organizations to help with the investigation into Cáceres’s murder and to “use all diplomatic means at its disposal to ensure the safe return of Gustavo Castro, witness to Berta’s murder, to Mexico.” Castro, a Mexican citizen, is staying at the Mexican Embassy in Honduras after he was told on March 6 that he could not leave the country.

FMO first invested in Agua Zarca in 2014, a year after another activist, Tomás García, was shot and killed by a Honduran soldier during a protest against the project. The Dutch bank claims it has addressed the indigenous communities’ concerns through a plant redesign, but admits that “unrest continues.” Nanno Kleiterp, FMO’s chief executive, and the company’s energy sector director, have pledged to travel to Honduras to meet with the affected communities.

The bank says that whether it will pull out of the project is “a legitimate question to ask, and a question we ask ourselves.”

But that’s not good enough for the writers of Monday’s letter.

“FMO knew, or should have known, at the time of its investment in 2014 that the Agua Zarca project had the potential to result in conflict and violence,” they wrote.

In a March 7 letter in the local newspaper, La Prensa, Castro claimed his life was in danger, that the crime scene had been altered, and that Honduran authorities were investigating other members of Cáceres’s organization — the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH) — rather than individuals who had threatened her in the past. He also claimed the government questioned him for days after Cáceres’s March 3 death without allowing him to rest.

The NGOs plan to similarly lobby other Agua Zarca investors. One of them, FinnFund, issued a statement pledging to monitor the “development of the situation.”

“There is no information that confirms the identity of [Cáceres’s] killers,” FinnFund said in the statement issued through Agua Zarca project manager Desarollos Energeticos S.A. “FinnFund hopes that they will be brought to justice.”

Tomás Gomez, the current coordinator of COPINH, said that is unlikely as long as the Honduran government is in charge of the investigation. In a phone call with Foreign Policy Tuesday, Gomez said that his community has “seen that there isn’t any line of investigation” into Cáceres’s murder.

“The interest of the state is not to explain the murder,” he said. “They’ve been looking for the way to clean their image at the international level.” The government has labeled the murder as a “crime of passion” and arrested Aureliano Molina Villanueva, another member of COPINH.

Gomez and his organization want the government to come to an agreement with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to launch an independent investigation.

“Berta Cáceres was the object of systematic threats and intimidation and this has all been documented,” Gomez said. “We demand that the project Agua Zarca is completely cancelled.”

Photo credit: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert

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