Many people know that according to Global Witness,1 Honduras is the most dangerous place in the world for environmental rights defenders, a fact that was reiterated by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, in his recent visit to the country,2 however, the situation is even more serious if the defender is a woman. In a country where patriarchy persists and gender inequality reigns,3 women who defend rights are one of the most vulnerable collectives.
Rosa Santamaría is an defender of environmental rights and access to land and territory in Honduras, member of the National Board of the National Union of Rural Workers (Central Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo - CNTC), a rural woman, small-scale producer and single mother raising four children. We often ask her whether she has rested at all, and how and when she finds the time to do so, and her response to this is to laugh shyly and look away as though she were not used to answering such a question, and she then explains that she does not rest, that she can only rest when she is back in her community, which if she is lucky happens once a month, and work the land “so that it looks good and is not overgrown”. Rosa is a woman human rights defender, and in a country like Honduras there is no time to relax.
In 2013, the company she was working for in Rigores, Trujillo (the place where she was born and raised) nominated her to take on a national role in the CNTC. She had already been involved for a long time in the struggle for land and territory, she already knew well the conflicts over land titling in the area and she was aware of the CNTC’s monitoring of this issue. Nevertheless, she thought that the post was too much for her. She put herself forward reluctantly: she did not want to leave her family and community, take on these responsibilities, never mind moving to Tegucigalpa, a city eight hours away, which she says she feared because “things happen there that don’t happen in the community”. Nevertheless, her commitment to the company and the CNTC, and her desire to improve opportunities for her family and the situation of the people she was leaving behind, led her to accept the post. “I´m going to become a defender and I´m going to be persecuted, I´m going to end up dead”, were the first thoughts that came into her head. With Rosa’s support, the CNTC has now been working for five years on the land titling process for the community of Rigores and challenging, according to the organisation, the “lack of governmental will” to respond to the needs of these families.
And this is not all they are doing. The grassroots small-scale farming organisation also monitors the situation of defenders who are being prosecuted in land conflicts in almost every region of the country, trains young people and organises to demand the right to food sovereignty and natural resources. These are just part of a long list of activities the organisation has been working on for 34 years and which have led to a long list of killings, threats, persecution and prosecution, and security incidents. They always receive us in their offices with open arms and a multitude of cases requiring advocacy support, and if Rosa is there, we also talk about the political context, her vision of “the struggle”, and her concerns for the rest of her persecuted colleagues. According to Rosa, the serious litigation started after the change in the law on agrarian modernisation and with the supposed increase in rights for landowners. “If we had an Agrarian Reform Law, the killings and imprisonments would stop”, she says. That is when the sparkle comes back into her eyes, that look that shows that she is feeling what she is talking about, and that is when she adds: “What should we do with the wives of our colleagues who are taken away and imprisoned? What should we do with their families? Rural women are most strongly affected by all this (...) they have no resources”.
Rural women, the most affected
The small-scale farming sector suffers persecution and there are many challenges for these families whose subsistence is guaranteed by their land alone. This need offers a sharp contrast to the situation of economic actors who wish to exploit the lands. It is also important to highlight the fact that the most forgotten people in the small-scale farming sector are women. For Rosa, women who defend land and territory are extremely vulnerable, as are the wives of male defenders. They enter the struggle whether they want to or not and if their husbands have been killed or imprisoned, they have to defend their lands, crops and homes alone, as well as raising their children. With the same sparkle in her eye but with a serious look on her face, Rosa tells us that just like her, a huge percentage of rural women are single mothers, and that almost 90% of these women do not have any land to work.4 “Two million of us rural women have no land and no money. Why then do we keep struggling? For our human right to food”. Although Rosa, who is always modest, prefers to highlight her commitment to her former company, these rural women were one of the main reasons she accepted becoming involved in the defence of human rights: to try and gain better living conditions for all women who live in a situation of poverty, so that their children have better possibilities for the future; women she grew up with and who, like her, suffered the consequences of the intense conflict over land and territory in Honduras. However, she has paid a high price. Rosa no longer sees her children on a daily basis, or even weekly. Instead “duty” has called her away from them, and right now she is getting ready to travel to another continent.
Rosa is leaving in September to undertake a speaking tour in several European countries where she will be the spokesperson on all these issues in meetings with key stakeholders. The tour is organised by PBI, who will accompany her throughout her trip, which coincides with the 20th Anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.5 She is nervous; really nervous. She will be one of two representatives of Honduran human rights defenders and she will also be representing her many colleagues from the CNTC, small-scale producers and their struggles, women defenders and rural women. But Rosa is strong, there is no doubt about that, and when we ask her what message she wants to transmit in Europe, she says, decidedly: “A strong message. Honduras is like an atomic bomb which is going to explode. I want to talk about the thousands of small-scale farmers who have been criminalised and murdered, which nobody has investigated”.
Rosa affirms that this is a “never-ending” story. We still have a doubt about whether she regrets leaving her community to become part of this bigger struggle, and facing the inevitable risks of her current work, and whether she would do it again if she had the chance to go back, and she laughs nervously at these questions, as she always does, and once again demonstrates the way that human rights defenders in Honduras stand by their commitment: “Yes I would do it. I have learned as I have gone along, and it has been a beautiful experience, because when you turn to face yourself and you see what is going on all around you, it gives you courage (...) We have to keep moving forwards (…) and women who speak out for those who can´t speak must continue to do so.”
1Read the full report here: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/honduras-deadliest-country-world-environmental-activism/
2Read the full statement here: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23063&LangID=E
3In Honduras, around 40% of women do not have their own income: https://oig.cepal.org/en/indicators/people-without-incomes-their-own
4According to the Visitación Padilla Women’s Movement for Peace (Movimiento de Mujeres por la Paz, Visitación Padilla) in Honduras more than 60% of homes are sustained by single mothers: https://tiempo.hn/honduras-mas-del-60-hogares-sostenidos-madres-solteras/
5Read the full declaration here: https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/srhrdefenders/pages/declaration.aspx