Amid widespread outrage and calls for investors to cancel support for rights-abusing projects in Honduras in the wake of the murder of renowned activist Berta Caceres, two international financial backers announced Wednesday they are suspending their support for a controversial dam after the assassination of another member of Caceres organization.
The Dutch development bank FMO and Finish-backed investment fund Finnfund both put financial support on hold for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in western Honduras that Caceres’ organization, COPINH, has long resisted in the name of defending Indigenous territories, the environment, and local rights to self-determination.
“ It is a small victory and a testament to the importance of continued international pressure that FMO and Finnfund have suspended their funding for the Agua Zarca project,” Adrienne Pine, professor of anthropology at American University, told teleSUR on Wednesday.
“The financiers of deadly Honduran megaprojects, including USAID, are not to be congratulated, however,” added Pine, who considered Berta Caceres a close friend. “They have long known about the violence accompanying these projects and have done far too little, far too late.”
Both FMO and Finnfund plan to visit Honduras to review the situation and decide whether to reinstate suspended funding.
Brigitte Gynther of the Washington-based School of the Americas Watch described the move as a “step forward,” but stressed that the push to make sure that these investors suspend funding definitively is not over.
“COPINH has many different groups in Holland and internationally continuing to call on them to definitively cancel their involvement in the Agua Zarca dam,” Gynther told teleSUR by phone from La Esperanza, Honduras, Caceres’ home town.
For FMO, the murder on Tuesday of COPINH member Nelson Garcia, involved in a community land occupation, was the tipping point to push the development bank to cut support amid continuing attacks against social movement leaders.
First Berta, now Nelson. When will the murder of activists stop in Honduras? pic.twitter.com/C0cZVnMRX1— teleSUR English (@telesurenglish) March 16, 2016
“Given the current situation, with ongoing violence, FMO decided to suspend all activities in Honduras, effective immediately,” the Dutch investment body wrote in a statement. “This means that we will not engage in new projects or commitments and that no disbursements will be made, including the Agua Zarca project.”
Finnfund also cancelled financial support for the Agua Zarca dam, but denied a connection between the controversial project and the “shocking” murder of Caceres.
“We still believe that the people in the affected areas want this project,” Finnfund CEO Jaakko Kangasniemi said in a statement, despite vocal and resilient opposition to the dam among local communities. “But at this juncture we have to take a look at the situation.”
Both FMO and Finnfund were among the key underwriters of the Agua Zarca project with US$15 million and US$5 million invested in the project respectively.
But while the potential divestment is a step in the right direction, Pine argues international investors have a long way to go in terms of acting responsibly in the face of grave human rights abuses.
“ They must go beyond the temporary suspension of deadly mega-projects that harm their corporate image because of current international pressure, and withdraw funding permanently,” Pine said.
“They must also stop channeling funds indirectly to Honduran mega-projects through partnerships with and loans to the principle Honduran financiers of said projects,” she added, pointing to the Honduran Banco Ficohsa, owned by the wealth coup-backing Atala family, as one example, which received a US$60 million loan from FMO and Bladex last year, according to the finance news outlet TFX News.
Gynther also stressed that Agua Zarca is only part of the picture of big banks’ funding for right-abusing projects in Honduras and beyond.
“FMO is involved in several projects where there is a lack of free prior and informed consent for Indigenous people,” she said, pointing to the Barro Blanco dam in Panama and Santa Rita project in Guatemala as two examples. “This is not an isolated case. It seems that FMO has been following their own guidelines with regards to respecting rights of Indigenous people to free prior and informed consultation for projects that take place in their territory.”
While FMO and Finnfund long upheld their support for the dam despite mounting repression against the resistance movement in Rio Blanco and its leaders, such as Caceres, they are among the first financial backers to move toward cutting support for rights abuses in Honduras amid the latest wave of attacks.
Gynther added that other financial backers should be pressured to follow suit, including the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, which supported the project with a hefty US$24 million loan.
The move comes after COPINH and members of Caceres family demanded the immediate cancelation of the Agua Zarca dam project on the Gualcarque River in Lenca, saying the project poses a “permanent threat” to the community’s safety.
Internationally, solidarity activists and human rights defenders have also mounted pressure for divestment. Earlier this week, two activists scaled an art installation in front of the office of the USAID information office in Washington, D.C., as part of a protest calling on the U.S. government agency to cut support for the Agua Zarca project.
Rights defenders have long condemned U.S., Canadian, and other international complicity in the human rights crisis in Honduras, where the government has rolled out a policy of aggressive privatization and neoliberal development combined with repression of social movements since the 2009 military coup that ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.
Gynther stressed that the murders of Caceres and Garcia further underline the urgency for the U.S. to end funding for the Honduran government and security forces, through aid packages such as the newly-approved Alliance for Prosperity for example, which backs repressive forces in the Central American country.
A team of 50 investigators from the public prosecutor's’ office has been charged with investigating Caceres' murder. Family members and supporters have demanded an independent and internationally-led investigation.
Activists have planned a national mobilization on Thursday and Friday in Caceres’ memory and the continuation of her struggle for human rights and justice in Honduras.