Less than three months before Lenca leader Berta Caceres was brutally assassinated, the social arm of Desarollos Energeticos SA (DESA)-the Honduran company leading the Agua Zarca dam project Caceres was campaigning against-signed a contract with USAID implementing partner Fintrac, a Washington DC based development contracting firm.
The DESA representative who was present for the public signing of the USAID agreement was none other than Sergio Rodriguez, the company's Social Investment Manager, who is now accused of Caceres' assassination along with another former DESA employee and individuals with military ties. The arrests also included Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a retired military officer and the former head of DESA's security detail. The trial against the accused murderers began on Monday.
COPINH's Powerful Political and Economic Enemies in Rio Blanco
As one of the strongest and most recognized indigenous organizations in Honduras, the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, have challenged powerful economic and political forces while working to protect the environment and conserve the Lenca culture.
The Agua Zarca dam project is illustrative of DESA's business dealings and of what COPINH is up against. DESA is owned by the Atala family, one of the most powerful families in Honduras. In fact, the dam project allegedly received funding from the largest bank in Honduras-Ficohsa, headed up by Camilo Atala. Although it has been recently under attack for its possible complicity with Caceres' assassination, it has a dark past including allegations of money laundering.
DESA also benefitted from military connections and support. In a newly released interview with Caceres from 2013, Berta outlines these connections; the owner, David Castillo, is a West Point graduate and an expert in military intelligence. Moreover, Douglas Geovanny Bustillo who was the former head of security for DESA and a former military lieutenant is now being accused of planning Caceres' assassination. Military and police backing was also evident in the variety and quantity of armed forces during protests against the project that includes an elite US funded and vetted unit called Los Tigres, although they focus on combating gang violence and drug trafficking.
From the start, DESA counted on high level political support. The Secretary of Natural Resources and the Environment issued the company a 50-year Environmental License for the Agua Zarca Project without the consultation of affected community members. Perhaps more problematic, the Mayor of Intibuca supposedly received community consent even though the project was already way. Death threats even came directly from politicians themselves; on one of her last visits to Rio Blanco on February 20, 2016, the vice-mayor of San Francisco de Ojuera publicly asked that Berta be killed. Moreover, the Honduran Public Ministry in charge of the investigation into Caceres' assassination, was a co-plaintiff along with DESA in 2014 filings seeking an injunction against COPINH's demonstrations targeting the company.
Development or buying support for Agua Zarca dam project?
According to the company, DESA's Social Investment Program dedicates a portion of its profits to "create and implement projects focused on bettering the quality of life in the neighboring communities to the project." For COPINH, these initiatives were the company's attempts to combat the negative press surrounding the controversial project and another means of buying the support of those directly affected by the dam project. An example of this was when company purchased backpacks for school children with large DESA logos as part of their Education project. COPINH also criticized the Social Investment Program's Infrastructure activities were roads were built but to transport equipment rather than to deliver "development" needed or wanted by the community. In reality, DESA was likely donating very little of its own profits given that they partnered with state and foreign organizations like the Honduran Ministry of Education and USAID through Fintrac.
Helping the Poor by Helping the Rich
Ironically, while USAID was giving money to DESA, a company owned by an elite Honduran family, through Fintrac, to what some claim was essentially buying local support of vulnerable people in Rio Blanco, it made this observation on its website;
"Honduras has experienced a moderate recovery since the 2008-2009 global economic downturn. Despite this encouraging trend, economic gains over the past several years have largely favored the middle and upper classes, leading to greater income disparity in the country."
One of many reasons Rio Blanco was part of a movement against the Agua Zarca dam project was that the dam threatens the Gualcarque River, on which they depend for their economic and cultural survival. Olivia Marcela Zuniga, Berta Caceres daughter, addressed foreign financiers of, and accomplices to the Agua Zarca dam on her facebook page:
"development cannot trample over human lives, development should be to better the lives of living beings, not to kill life. The western world cannot impose its vision of development, because these are our territories, our bodies, our lives and our vision of development should prevail because it secures the existence of mother earth and that of humanity...it cannot be capitalist...Our vision of development is a vision of harmony, equilibrium and respect [with and,] for all living things". (Original post in Spanish)
In a February 2016 action alert, COPINH denounced USAID for its complicity in maintaining a "smokescreen of "development, employment, clean energy and social responsibility".
Fintrac and USAID's Complicity
Proper due diligence on the part of Fintrac would have likely made this proudly "women owned company", avoid getting into bed with DESA who was engaged in a dirty fight with one of Honduras most respected women leaders. From COPINH's claim that the company's dam project was moving forward without free, prior and informed consent of those who would be directly affected, to the claim that their security chief, Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, had threatened Berta with sexual assault, the allegations and evidence should have prevented their partnership with DESA per their code of ethics and other internal policies. USAID in Honduras on the other hand, would be hard pressed to claim ignorance about the conflict in Rio Blanco.
The contract between Fintrac and DESA was signed some time in December 2015 to provide agricultural technical assistance to 10 communities and 180 families in two municipalities in Western Honduras under USAID's MERCADO Program. There is scarce public information about the contract other than a few local media outlets that covered the the contract public signing.
After Rodriguez, who signed the contract on behalf of DESA, was arrested, the company expressed surprise and claimed no involvement with the assassination. Yet, less than a month before Caceres assassination, Rodriguez was among those denounced for "threatening the physical and emotional integrity" of members of COPINH in one of the organization's urgent action alert in the last demonstration organized in Rio Blanco before the assassination on February 20, 2016.
The Caceres family was told that the non-binding contract was canceled at the family's request in the weeks following Caceres' assassination. While Fintrac and USAID quietly dissolved the contract with DESA, history will remember whose side they were on. Both organizations should be held accountable to the Honduran poor they claim to serve and the US taxpayers who fund them.