Honduran Lenca leader Berta Cáceres was brutally assassinated last March, yet the international financiers of the project Agua Zarca — the target of her organization’s campaign — have hesitated to fully and permanently divest from the company behind the project, despite the fact that the company was implicated in her assassination. Instead, they bet on a broken Honduran judicial system, in spite of telling signs that justice would not be done in Cáceres’ case. The latest sign was the stealing of Cáceres’ case file from a Honduran Supreme Court judge’s car, but shockingly this was not even the worst demonstration of a faulty and flawed investigation.
The tipping point for two European funders — the Netherlands Development Finance Company (also known as FMO) and Finnfund (Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation Ltd.) — to divest from the project was the execution-style killing of another member of Cáceres’ organization, Nelson Garcia, less than two weeks after Cáceres’ assassination. For the international community, these back-to-back brutal assassinations served as unequivocal evidence of the brutality and repression faced by Cáceres’ organization — the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) — and other Honduran human rights defenders.
Two years ago, the Netherlands Development Finance Company committed to a $15 million loan to Desarrollos Energeticos S.A., owner and developer of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in the community of Rio Blanco in Western Honduras. This was one of the Netherlands Development Finance Company’s few dodgy deals in Central America that bear striking similarities to one another. The Barro Blanco Dam in Panama is also on Indigenous land and being financed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, headquartered in Honduras’ capital.
The Netherlands Development Finance Company’s relationship with COPINH was conflictive from the beginning, precisely because the Indigenous organization is the antithesis of the finance company’s investments in the business of privatizing natural resources. In 2014 and again this year, it took less than 24 hours for the finance company to react to something less menacing than a brutal assassination — an article in a Dutch newspaper that shamed the company for its complicity in human rights violations related to the Agua Zarca project and an ad in the same newspaper that called for their withdrawal from the project following Cáceres’ assassination. In its 2014 statement reacting to the article, the Netherlands Development Finance Company discredited the concerns of the story, calling it “one-sided” and “not substantiated by facts.” The article includes a haunting quote from Cáceres regarding the death threats she received because of her work to defend Indigenous rights. Furthermore, COPINH states that the letter Cáceres sent to the Netherlands Development Finance Company in 2014 voicing grievances related to the project went unanswered.
In early May, the Netherlands Development Finance Company announced they were “seeking a legal exit from the project” and formed a fact-finding mission to travel to Honduras to assess the situation following the arrests of four individuals accused of assassinating Cáceres, one of whom included a Desarrollos Energeticos employee and an individual with military ties. Yet, an unbiased report could not be expected from the Netherlands Development Finance Company, given its history of delegitimizing COPINH as a representative of the Indigenous Lenca community and its use of corporate greenwashing to justify its shady business investments.
Criticisms of the Dutch Development Bank’s Report
The report, “Independent Fact Finding Mission: Report and Recommendations” published on September 27, 2016, was denounced as “racist and manipulating” by COPINH’s General Coordinator, Tomas Membreño, who added that the mission of consultants sent by the Netherlands Development Finance Company spent only two hours with the main community in opposition to the project during their six-day visit to Honduras and avoided engaging with Berta Cáceres’ family. Although the report claims that “the Project was largely implemented in accordance with [International Finance Corporation] Performance Standards,” it admits that the first and key step in implementing any project on indigenous territory — Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) — “was not conducted for the first phase of the Project.” This is one of the reasons COPINH believes the concession granted for Agua Zarca is illegal and illegitimate, and they have grounds for their claim, since the Honduran vice minister who granted this concession at the time is facing charges for granting permits illegally.
One of the Netherlands Development Finance Company’s most damaging and racists assertions — regurgitated from 2012 reports prepared for the lenders and alluded to in this new report — is that there is no evidence of “cultural and spiritual attachment to the river” on which the project was being built. To soften this remark, they add that in regards to the sacredness of the river, “there was insufficient information to confirm the assertion.” The mission’s consultants were looking for cherry-picked folklore and “detailed information regarding the sacredness of the river” to fit their Western construction of culture and spirituality. In a matter of hours, the consultants expected to walk away with a boiled-down understanding of what culture and spirituality means to the Lenca people, oblivious to their “outsiderness” and the fact that they were representing a company that had been openly hostile to the leading Lenca organization in Honduras.
“How can people who are foreign to our culture understand our cosmovision?” Membreño rhetorically asked. In an email communiqué dated April 3, 2013, a year before the Netherlands Development Finance Company began financing the Agua Zarca project, Cáceres, on behalf of COPINH, shared similar thoughts:
We once again manifest that this struggle is part of the process COPINH maintains in defense of the rights of the Lenca community, it’s autonomy, the rivers, culture and of our very survival as an Indigenous community, since these racist and capitalist men do not care about, nor comprehend the complexity of, the relationship between, and the significance of all forms of life, of Mother Earth, of equilibrium and our cosmovision. [Translated from Spanish].
In a move reminiscent of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Honduras in the early 1500s, the Netherlands Development Finance Company and its hired henchmen in suits were unable to comprehend cultural and spiritual values and beliefs foreign to their own; they are modern colonizers of culture and spirituality, labeled “experts” sent to extract information as a meaningless exercise on their due diligence checklist.
Greenwashing a Dirty Deal
When your business model includes doing dodgy deals, greenwashing is one tool you might employ in your public relations toolkit. As if profit were not the primary motive, the Netherlands Development Finance Company states that it financed the Agua Zarca project because it is providing “clean and sustainable energy to Honduras, a country that is largely depending on fossil fuels.” Not only did the project alter natural surroundings and infringe on Indigenous rights, but they propagated a lie; hydroelectric’s dirty secret is that it “produce[s] significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce[s] more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels,” according to new research.
The immense international pressure to end the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project scared the Netherlands Development Finance Company and Finnfund enough for them to first temporarily halt funding, and then do so permanently. However, they were not willing to concede a total loss, otherwise they would be ceding power to organizations like COPINH that resist and reject their projects. That is why the Netherlands Development Finance Company’s report took the opportunity to discredit the valuable work of COPINH and the cultural identity of the Lenca, considered by the bank to be standing in the way of development.
Moreover, the Netherlands Development Finance Company made one last dangerous power play with its report: making the argument for Desarrollos Energeticos seeking alternative funding and continuing Agua Zarca. In reality, Desarrollos Energeticos and the Netherlands Development Finance Company are two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other. The Netherlands Development Finance Company has and always will be faithful to its rhetoric of the benefits of Western-style development, because at the end of the day, it is motivated by profit, and it treats human rights and Indigenous people as nuisances.In their communication reacting to FMO’s report, COPINH states, “The banks must take responsibility for the death and destruction the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project has caused and make reparations to those affected, including communal reparations to the communities in the region.” The Netherlands Development Finance Company may have exited from the project, but that does not mean it is off the hook.