Seeking Justice for Murdered Honduran Activist

The FMO bank in the Netherlands

The Dutch international development bank FMO is not an ordinary commercial bank. FMO is majority-owned by the Dutch government and is narrowly tasked with funding projects in developing countries that promote certain socially desirable goals, especially sustainable development. FMO has a human rights policy and other policies and procedures that impose heightened duties on the bank in regard to the human rights, environmental, and social consequences of the projects it funds.

A flawed project

The concession to build the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque river was awarded to DESA (Desarrollos Energeticos S.A), a small “startup” company with no previous dam building experience, but with clear connections to the Honduran government. When construction began in 2012, the project was met with the strong opposition of the Lenca indigenous people of the Río Blanco community. The Lenca opposed the project not only because the community’s crops were destroyed by heavy machinery and its members prevented from accessing the river, but because the dam was being built on their territory without their consent, and they were going to suffer the project’s negative impacts.

A military officer providing security for DESA killed a community leader on the company’s premises, leading to a murder conviction. Public prosecutors also brought criminal charges against both the local Mayor and the deputy director of the national environmental agency for abuse of authority for having issued the permits without prior consultation with the affected communities. With no experience of its own, DESA hired a major Chinese company to build the dam, but the contract did not last long. By July 2013, the Chinese company had pulled out of the project, stating that “there were serious conflicts” with the local communities.

When DESA sought funding from FMO, the affected communities contacted the bank directly urging them not to finance the project, as there were warning signs everywhere. FMO dismissed these concerns as “hearsay,” and in February 2014, FMO and DESA signed a loan agreement.

In order to suppress opposition to the project, DESA engaged in violence, harassment, and intimidation on a regular basis. The main targets were the residents of Río Blanco and the staff of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), an alliance of Lenca indigenous communities that was co-founded and led by Berta Cáceres, an international prize-winning environmental and indigenous rights activist. COPINH, Cáceres, and others repeatedly advised FMO of these acts and of the ongoing danger, in particular, the likelihood that DESA would murder Cáceres.

The assassination of Berta Cáceres

On the night of March 2, 2016, Berta Cáceres was killed by gunmen at her home in La Esperanza. Gustavo Castro, a Mexican friend and fellow activist, was staying at her home and was also shot during the attack. Earlier that day, witnesses saw DESA’s head of security and other men in a car at the turn-off from Honduras’ main highway to La Esperanza. The men were heard speaking about Ms. Cáceres, and then headed toward La Esperanza.

Two months later, the Honduran police arrested four suspects for planning and carrying out the assassination, including DESA’s manager for social and environmental issues, and DESA’s former security director. According to the police investigation that led to the arrests, Cáceres was killed “because of her work” fighting against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydropower dam. FMO finally announced it planned to withdraw from the project as it became clear that the assassination of Berta Cáceres had been masterminded and conducted by at least two of DESA’s current or former staff members.

Finally, after two years, multiple complaints filed by COPINH and the Cáceres family, and the publication of a damning report by an independent investigation group (GAIPE), David Castillo, DESA’s General Manager, was arrested in March 2018, and charged with planning the murder. In November 2018, seven of the eight earlier-charged defendants were convicted, including DESA’s former head of security. The court specifically found that DESA’s directors planned the murder to halt opposition to the dam. Castillo’s trial will likely take place in 2020.

FMO’s knowledge and responsibility

FMO was warned repeatedly by the Río Blanco community, COPINH, and other NGOs of the violence against community members, the fabricated consent, and other rights violations. There were also of course the public denouncements and lawsuits about the same. All the warnings were dismissed by FMO, which decided to fund the project, and even became involved in the project’s security issues on behalf of DESA.

FMO provided the means for DESA to build the dam, as well as to hire heavily armed security, paid thugs, and local people to intimidate those who opposed the project, all in the name of the project’s security. FMO failed to understand that DESA’s security personnel and others at management level were themselves the security problem.

FMO sued in the Netherlands

At the request of the victims, their families, and COPINH, EDLC recruited a top firm to bring a precedent-setting case in the Netherlands against FMO. The case took two years to develop and was filed in July 2018. It seeks to hold the bank civilly liable for DESA’s murder of Cáceres, and for the grave harms to other COPINH members.

The murder of Berta Cáceres and the harms to other members of COPINH were the completely predictable and foreseeable consequences of the FMO’s funding of a company whose employees engaged in criminal activities to murder Cáceres and commit other acts of violence against her fellow COPINH members. Instead of investigating and heeding the many warnings and red flags, FMO instead listened only to DESA and provided the critical financial support for the company’s conduct. The Dutch court held a first hearing on procedural matters in late 2018, with substantive hearings likely in 2020.

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