“Honduras will not be ZEDE-d,” has been the main response of Honduran society in the face of the imminent implementation of Employment and Economic Development Zones (ZEDEs, as per the abbreviation in Spanish) in different areas throughout the country. These zones are defined by the Honduran Secretary for Economic Development as areas of Honduran national territory, which are subject to a “special regime”, and in which investors control fiscal policy, security, and conflict resolution. They have not gone unnoticed by Honduran civil society, which warns that their establishment entails the auctioning off of national territory, sovereignty, and the rights of all Hondurans, leading to serious social, economic, and environmental impacts.

ZEDEs are not a new phenomenon, however. The idea for these special zones emerged in force during the 2009 Coup d’État, and recall the predatory extractivist policies of past decades, such as the mining and banana enclaves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As sociologist Pablo Carías notes, “Banana companies were granted a series of privileges. They were exempt from import taxes on their equipment, and were not even charged for their use of land, timber, and water for the construction of their facilities.”

In 2011, Honduran Congress approved the Special Development Regions Law (REDs), allowing for the creation of so-called “model cities”. In October 2012 however, the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court found that the law was unconstitutional, as it modified fundamental aspects of the Honduran Constitution, including violating Honduran sovereignty, denying state governance over these areas, and creating parallel powers to the national government. Despite this ruling, and following a movement within the legislature to remove several Supreme Court Justices, the Constitution was modified in June 2013, and the National Congress approved the Organic Law on Employment and Economic Development Zones.

Human Rights Impacts

The Juan Orlando Hernández administration has assured the establishment of ZEDEs will allow Honduras to become the economic centre of Central America, opening its doors to global markets, “with highly competitive, stable, and transparent rules”, while also becoming a centre for the creation of numerous jobs. However, civil society contends that their installation could lead to serious risks to human rights.

The cession of Honduran sovereignty is a major source of concern for civil society organisations. “We could become foreigners in our own country”, explains to PBI Honduras Fernando García, former Economic Minister and former Vice President of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, who adds that ZEDEs could complicate the fight against corruption even further. The National Centre of Field Workers (Central Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo – CNTC) notes that ZEDEs will lead to the privatisation and sale of territory and natural goods to foreign capital, which will hold complete autonomy in the administration of public services and the criminal justice system. They also refer to their social impacts (such as forced displacement, increased conflictivity and violence, loss of cultural heritage, migration, and the increased repression of protests) and environmental impacts (including deforestation, pollution, biodiversity loss, and the destruction of protected natural areas). Far from improving economic development as the promulgators of this initiative argue, the CNTC warns of serious economic impacts, such as an increase in poverty rates due to the loss of water, beaches, and forests, and the subordination of the national economy to the interests of global capital.

There are further doubts over whether the ZEDEs will help combat poverty at all. “There are no guarantees that the poorest will see any benefit. These are zones of exploitation, only interested in their own economic development”, notes the Common Front Against the ZEDEs. This is in addition to limiting access to land and the sea, sources of subsistence for many locals. “The Port of La Ceiba will no longer belong to the people of La Ceiba”, the Common Front warns.

Neither Information, Nor Consultation

There are currently three main ZEDEs operating in the country: Ciudad Morazán (Cortés Department), Orquídea (Colón Department) and Próspera (Bay Islands Department). Moreover, there are further ZEDEs for which, as Honduran civil society has noted, “there is no information whatsoever”, such as the Mariposa ZEDE, registered as a future “health sanctuary”, due to the medical research and other activities that will be conducted there. For the most part, the affected areas are abundant in natural resources. They also contain large indigenous and afro-descendent populations, who have historically been affected by land conflicts and extractive projects, and have faced criminalisation and serious attacks and violations of their human rights, including forced disappearances and assassinations, as a result of their defence of their territory.

ZEDE regulations even permit for their unlimited expansion. In the case of the Próspera ZEDE, although the original zone was established on the island of Roatán, there are already plans to expand to the city of La Ceiba, on the northern coast of Honduras. This means that the law of free, prior and informed consent will not be applied, as denounced by affected communities. ZEDEs are installed in areas in which there are supposedly no inhabitants, where, “it logically follows that it is not necessary to hold prior consultation, as they are empty areas with nobody to consult, although there is a surrounding population”, as noted by the Common Front Against ZEDEs in La Ceiba.

The initiative’s lack of transparency has also been criticised. Several communities have stated to PBI Honduras that they were not informed of the ZEDEs’ governance issues, or of the installation of these projects on their lands. “At any time, they could come knocking at our door to kick us out of our houses, and sell our properties to persons who have never fought for their land, and have only come to buy it”, affected communities explain. "The implementation of ZEDEs without prior consultation and their lack of transparency", they add,  "can intensify dynamics of forced displacement of communities and other populations".

Various international bodies and civil society organisations have already expressed their concern over the availability of natural goods to national and transnational capital, as well as the lack of compliance with international standards, particularly those referring to the sovereignty and territorial rights of indigenous peoples. In this vein, on 8 June 2021 the United Nations expressed their concern over the legal and constitutional standing of the ZEDEs, as they could pose serious risks to the Honduran State’s guaranteeing of human rights. The installation of ZEDEs, they add, could seriously jeopardise the general obligation to respect and guarantee the free and full exercise of the rights of all citizens, without discrimination.

Citizen Resistance

In order to ensure that information regarding the grave threats to human rights posed by ZEDEs reached communities, towns, and other sectors of the population, on 13 June 2021, the National Movement Against ZEDEs and for Sovereignty was founded. The movement represents, “a large social, economic, and political organisation of our people to defend our territory, sovereignty, dignity, and resources”, according to campesino leader Rafael Alegría. The movement has already called for protests and other actions to reject ZEDEs in various locations throughout the country, and to declare cities and municipalities free of ZEDEs. The Centre for Study for Democracy (Centro de Estudio para la Democracia – CESPAD), notes that by early June, over 180 municipalities had declared themselves free of ZEDEs via municipal declarations.

Ex-Minister and ZEDE specialist Fernando García declares that the citizen initiative is key to repealing the law. “We need town hall meetings and community assemblies, which result in civil society declarations that reject the ZEDEs, as well as organised protests throughout the country”. He also mentions the importance of the international community calling for the protection and guaranteeing of human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples over their ancestral lands, and denouncing the grave impacts these initiatives could have on the environment in Honduras.