White Paper – War on Development: Exposing the COPINH Disinformation Campaign Surrounding the Berta Cáceres Case

In the late evening of March 2, 2016, the activist Berta Cáceres was murdered by unknown gunman in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras. Although the country suffers one of the highest murder rates in the world – 5,154 murders recorded in 2016 alone – Cáceres’ death was met with thunderous condemnation from a broad range of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), making this one of the most visibly and widely discussed cases in the region.

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As horrific and tragic as the underlying crime is, the present narrative regarding the Cáceres case and the presumed knowledge of the facts is not only deeply flawed, but also based largely on fabrications circulated by her former organization, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

War on Development: Exposing the COPINH Disinformation Campaign Surrounding the Berta Cáceres Case by Robert Amsterdam on Scribd

Before any investigation had even begun into the crime, COPINH had misled these organizations to join them in squarely placing the blame on Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA), the Honduran corporation formed for the purpose of building the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project which Cáceres had opposed.

This original assumption – that Cáceres was killed because of her opposition to Agua Zarca – became a canonical feature of the international narrative. The formidable legacy of her memory, which grows larger each day, is inseparable from this unproven notion. Rarely questioned, unburdened by any need for evidence, and against any logic, this narrative against DESA became a doctrinal feature of COPINH’s public pressure campaign which swiftly destroyed the multi-million-dollar investment and placed nine individuals in pretrial detention (the latest of which was symbolically arrested exactly on the two-year anniversary of the murder).

This White Paper will detail how COPINH has carried out a fraud by misinforming the public and twisting the facts to fit their story, relying on hundreds of pages of evidence and transcripts of text messages obtained by independent expert witnesses. Rather than support COPINH’s defamatory theory of the authorship of the crime, an entirely different picture emerges, showing an organization which manipulated foreign media and NGOs, a leader who had positive and collaborative relations with our client, and even signs of other potential third parties who have seemingly not been considered as subjects.

This White Paper will further explain how the actions of COPINH and other anti-development activists have served to damage the poorest people of Honduras, destroying jobs and opportunities, and further fueling migration pressures. In the two years since the murder of Cáceres, investment in renewable energy and other infrastructure projects has ground to a halt, and with it, economic development has stalled in Intibucá and far beyond in Honduras. The Agua Zarca project would have brought much-needed opportunities to the area, which is why it received overwhelming public support. The project included around 250-300 direct jobs and 1,200 indirect jobs, in addition to other crucial infrastructure. Now, with the project all but destroyed, there are at least five other hydro projects which have been halted by these activist groups, freezing some $260 million dollars in investments and more than 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Long before March 2, 2016, COPINH had begun spreading additional false information about DESA, including vague claims about alleged violations of indigenous rights in their consultation process, endangering “traditional ways of life,” and claims of unspecified harm to the environment. In many cases, the reasonable calls for accountability in the wake of the murder morphed into a broader anti-development message, one that has been passively accepted by the global NGO community with an astonishing lack of independent verification.

In such a fragile environment for rule of law, this kind of politically charged case featuring unprecedented international pressure has placed a fatal strain on due process. When Amsterdam & Partners LLP was retained to represent DESA earlier this year, our first step was to appoint an independent expert to carefully verify facts, evaluate the State’s process, and examine the conclusions of a report by the Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas (GAIPE), a group appointed by COPINH and the victim’s family.

Brian Greenspan, one of Canada’s most highly respected criminal law experts, visited Honduras earlier this year to investigate, and his findings – presented in full later in this White Paper – present profound concerns regarding the failures to meet standards in the process and the reckless bias exhibited by GAIPE. The Greenspan Report details how the NGOs’ key findings on this case lack sources, rely on speculative inferences, incomplete evidence, mischaracterization of evidence, and an overarching lack of objectivity.

Spurred by the global NGO community, this failure of objectivity has distorted the broader debate in Honduras, creating an unhealthy and unnecessary split between the perception of indigenous rights (as defined by one extremist group) and the rights of other Hondurans to achieve economic development.

If these international parties had bothered to do their own investigation of the facts, to visit these communities in the Departments of Intibucá and Santa Bárbara, they may have been surprised to find a much more complex picture, one where a clear majority of local residents had favored the project, and where COPINH is not remotely viewed as a representative of their interests.

Agua Zarca, a planned run-of-river hydroelectric project of moderate capacity on the Gualcarque River, was one of a few dozen hydroelectric projects approved by national legislation in 2010. DESA lawfully obtained all necessary regulatory and legislative approvals and engaged with the local communities within the area of influence of the project. The project was subjected to rigorous due diligence, both internally and by outside experts appointed by the international financial institutions supporting the project. DESA made a robust commitment to their social responsibility policies, with local employment, plans for new roads, access to electricity, clean water, education, and assistance with agricultural development.

Surrounding communities, including all indigenous communities were initially all supportive. As the project progressed, however, COPINH activists began spreading misinformation to sow discord against the project. They alleged, among other things, that DESA would privatize the Gualcarque River’s water and that the company had failed to consult the communities under the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989—allegations troubled both factually and legally. Nevertheless, by 2013, their efforts paid off as some residents of La Tejera, one of the affected Lenca communities, came to oppose the project (all other communities remained in favor).

COPINH, to put it mildly, is not what they seem. COPINH has made a name for itself through confrontational, often violent means and anti-American rhetoric. This White Paper includes testimony from numerous victims of the group’s actions. COPINH’s opposition to Agua Zarca, in particular, appears to be motivated by the group’s selective anti-development and anti-hydroelectricity agenda, not the merits of the project or the actual will of the local communities. Claims regarding environmental sustainability are uninformed and flimsy at best, while the regular broadcasting of false information about the project often undermined civil dialogue.

As such, the confrontations grew in intensity. In 2013, COPINH set up road blocks to the project site, vandalized DESA vehicles and equipment, cut poles to power lines, and destroyed a bridge crossing the Gualcarque River. Tensions escalated as COPINH supporters entered the construction camp with machetes on July 15, 2013. That day a COPINH supporter was killed by military personnel, and a COPINH supporter shot and killed a fourteen-year-old member of the community.

In an effort to reduce tensions, DESA consulted again with local communities and made the decision to move the project, despite the loss of investment, choosing a new location that was outside the community of La Tejera altogether. COPINH was still not placated, and they began harassing and threatening neighboring communities who supported the project. Indeed, in 2016 the group even bussed in activists from another Honduran department as La Tejera itself began to distance itself from the group’s militant opposition. Nevertheless, the accommodation was successful in the eyes of the company and its international partners, and work finally was proceeding positively and peacefully, uninterrupted for fifteen months, with strong support from the local communities.

The tragic murder of Cáceres could not have been a worse outcome for the project, leading to its indefinite suspension, the preemptive detention of two executives, and the calumny of an outraged public.

None of the facts or context stated above diminishes the severity of the crime of March 2, 2016 or the need for a thorough and truly independent process to deliver justice and accountability. However, many of the impassioned assessments by activist third parties – who are often misinformed with bias – contribute to an environment of highly politicized pressure and interference that is destructive to due process.

In publishing this White Paper, we invite the reader to rigorously examine our evidence and facts. We welcome the opening of a debate over whose rights are served and whose rights are ignored by the currently blind conduct of global NGOs in Honduras. Based on what we have discovered thus far, both the Agua Zarca project and the murder of Berta Cáceres demand a sober, fact-based second look, not only to preserve and strengthen the rule of law in Honduras, but to expand international understanding of the root conditions in this area of the country that preceded the dispute.