When the protests first began in Guapinol, Juana Ramona Zúñiga was in a meeting with the community council. She received a call; they wanted her to join a demonstration in the street. “The struggle is contagious. Living alongside people in the struggle affected me as well, and that closeness makes you even more committed,” explains Juana Zúñiga, Secretary of the Guapinol Community Council and an active member of the Municipal Committee for the Defence of the Common and Public Goods of Tocoa, a municipality in the Department of Colón, in northern Honduras.
Beginning in March 2018, Juana became directly involved in defending the Guapinol and San Pedro Rivers from pollution. Her participation also involved raising awareness over the negative consequences of the EMCO Mining Company’s activities in the Botaderos Mountain National Park. EMCO is a partner of Los Pinares Investments, owned by Lenir Pérez and his wife Ana Facussé, daughter of deceased Honduran businessman, Miguel Facussé. As a consequence of her peaceful resistance, Juana was one of dozens of defenders targeted in the campaigns of threats, defamation, and harassment undertaken by the police and armed forces. These campaigns would eventually lead to the criminalisation of 32 of her comrades in the struggle. Of the 32 accused, 13 were acquitted on all charges, while eight have been held in ongoing pre-trial detention for over two years.
Development without a Conscience
“They say that our communities are against development, but that is not the case. We want a development that respects human rights, that does not harm the river and the environment. What they have sold to us is a development without a conscience, that only brings family breakdown, harassment, and criminalisation.” Juana Zúñiga knows the meaning of this criminalisation all too well; her husband is José Abelino Cedillo, one of the eight defenders who have spent over 26 months in pre-trial detention, despite calls for their immediate release by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Rather than being released, on 28 October, the Sentencing Court of Trujillo, Colón rejected an appeal to review the eight defenders’ pre-trial measures, thereby deciding to prolong their time in detention.
“They want us to keep quiet. The Honduran state is telling the people, ‘If you keep speaking out, this is what will happen to you.’ But if my husband and our other comrades in prison can remain strong and committed to the struggle, why shouldn’t I do the same?” Along with her deep love for the Guapinol River, this is what motivates her to keep fighting. “Some of the most beautiful memories of my life are of that river. It is where I ate prawns and chimbolas (a type of fish) for the first time, and where I would spend my Sundays with my family. The river is life. Without water, we are nothing! I keep fighting so that someday my daughters can enjoy the beauty of this river.” Now however, this beauty seems lost. In fact, Juana explains that it is now difficult to prepare a bottle for her baby, due to the contamination of nearby water sources. “The people cannot buy bottled water; they have to use the polluted water.” This has impacted the health of the community, particularly through skin, stomach, and intestinal issues.
+ The Guapinol community has also experienced increased militarisation since beginning their peaceful resistance. This has included the surveillance of defenders’ homes, and hate campaigns on social media designed to stigmatise the defenders who have been arbitrarily detained, their families, and everyone who supports the Guapinol cause. “We live in fear. We live in terror”, the community leader declares, while noting that no state body is concerned over the protection of those who defend the common goods of the community.
This situation is especially complicated for women. “I never thought I would become so involved. Honduras is a patriarchal, racist, and machista country, where the people still believe that women are only good for washing clothes and taking care of the home. The resistance has taught me so much, particularly how to value and respect myself. I have had the opportunity to receive a lot of training, and now I feel empowered. In the beginning, I dreaded the cameras and interviews. I no longer feel that way, and I value the importance of sharing my story.”
The Value of Experience
In the month of November, Juana Participated in the Webinar “COP26 and Land Defenders”, organised by Peace Brigades International, in which environmental defenders spoke of the importance of their work defending the planet, and the climate impacts they have experienced, on the occasion of the COP26 climate conference. Juana spoke of the Guapinol case, and also heard from the experiences of other environmental defenders from Kenya, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia. “As the context is so similar to Honduras, I was particularly moved by the experience of Sandra Calel, a comrade from Guatemala, because her community has been fighting for over 50 years. I also share the strong position on water issues of Mexican defender Valeria Villa Lobo. It is admirable and comforting to know that there are others in the world fighting for the environment. It makes you feel less alone.”
Juana also appreciates the accompaniment PBI has been giving to the Guapinol case. “Wherever we go, PBI is always there as well. We are grateful for this solidarity, because they have always reached out with their support. So, thank you!”.