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Jilamito River Protectors and the War for Water in Honduras

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

Source: Redacción Criterio

Original article published in spanish by Redacción CRITERIO.HN

Please also see Part 2 and Part 3 of this Criterio series on Jilamito.

Arizona, Atlantida. -May 2015. The former mayor of Arizona —North Atlantic zone of Honduras— Adolfo Alfonso Pagoada, holds an open town hall through which the community opposes the construction of a hydroelectric plant by a majority. However, to the surprise of the residents, the city hall announces that the project has been approved by the community and gives the go-ahead to the company Inversiones de Generación Eléctricas Sociedad Anónima (Ingelsa), owned by Emin Abufele.

The aforementioned businessman has sought, since then, to execute the Jilamito hydroelectric project for the production of 14.80 MW of energy, at a cost of US $ 75,562 million (L. 1,824,307,003) of which 26.8% will be financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) through its branch IDB Invest, 47.3% by the United States International Corporation (DFC) and 25.9% by various partners.

On November 20, 2015, the people of Arizona declared the municipality free of mining and hydroelectric plants and denounced Pagoada for abusing his authority.

“We said no to the hydroelectric plant. The community said they did not want to, but the municipality said that people had said yes. They had brought people in buses from other parts to approve the project, "says Lucinda Chacón, aunt of the new Arizona mayor, Arnaldo Chacón, who now, from his position as overseer of construction, faces a judicial process for opposing the hydroelectric project in defense and conservation of the Jilamito river.

On May 15, 2017, opponents of the project arrived in several buses to the place where the hydroelectric project was to be installed. Engineers and machine owners were surprised, as they had been led to believe that the community agreed.

“We had said no, but they continued against the will of the people anyway. There were machines working because they thought the project was legal, but when they realized that it was illegal at that very moment they left with all the machines. That same day the camp was set up there. We came up to 200 to 300 people to take care of the Jilamito River, ”Lucinda recalls.

Doña Lucinda Chacón remains firm in opposition to the Ingelsa company crystallizing its hydroelectric project on the Jilamito River.
Doña Lucinda Chacón remains firm in opposition to the Ingelsa company crystallizing its hydroelectric project

Ten people sleep a day in the camp on average, taking turns holding vigils. The task is distributed in shifts among inhabitants of 16 communities who seek that the Jilamito River serve for human consumption and not for private businesses. They are taking care of the river against the Ingelsa company, so that it does not put machinery in and does not introduce turbines. Night and day they take care of the river, they contemplate it and they cradle it as if it were a baby. The intention is that the river continues to belong to the people.

May 29, 2017. The National Police makes the first attempt to forcibly evict the population from the Jilamito camp. Ingelsa police and workers destroy part of the camp, beat young people, take cell phones and prevent free movement.

“A lot of soldiers arrived, wanting to take us out, we told them that it was our right to water. That bunch of cops wanted to intimidate us. But our group there called for reinforcements and then the policemen had to retreat. They wanted to force us out, but they couldn't,” Lucinda adds.

Doña Elena Gaitán, a small business woman in the area, is another person who is accused by the Public Ministry of holding public spaces to the detriment of the State of Honduras.

“I quite like literature. For more than 30 years I have been following a trend of overpopulation of cities and towns. Knowing that we in Arizona are connected to a small stream, and we have a community that grows more every day, I made the decision to watch over the flow of the Jilamito River for human consumption,” says Doña Elena.

Doña Elena Gaitán is one of the five people criminalized for her fight in defense of the Jilamito River.

December 18, 2020. Farmer Braulio Serrano, 51, with slanted eyes, fair complexion and medium height, sits on a bench in the Jilamito camp with strong determination. He seems to be a man of guts. He says that he defends the river because for him it represents life and that, contrary to what many people tell him, he does not move for money, on the contrary, he expresses that he protects the river from his youth, so that his sons and daughters can play in it.

“For us the Jilamito River represents life, because without water we cannot live. Yes we can live without electricity, but not without water. For example, where I am from, the community of Coloradito, there is no electricity service, but I don't care. I want my children to have water to drink,” he says.

Serrano says that, in Coloradito, apart from the problems caused by the droughts in April, May and June, the landowners have gone too far with African palm monoculture, which creates greater problems in obtaining clean water in times of drought.

“Near where I live there are many communities that were left without water. They only have the service in rainy weather. I feel like I am going to see potable water pipes going from the Jilamito River to my community, which really needs it,” he explains.

the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ) - set up the “dignity camp” on May 15, 2017.

When the camp began three years ago, the defenders of the Jilamito River set up hammocks on the poles and, frequently, when it rained, water ran down from the mountains. Now the camp spans several meters. Men, women and children stand guard.

“But it is not easy here. When a National Police patrol comes, it generates distrust because they are the ones in charge of capturing people when someone is criminalized. If we see a machine that wants to destroy the water sources, which is the only one that remains in the Arizona sector, we will not allow it,” says Serrano.

These inhabitants explain that on May 29, 2017, about 40 policemen arrived to intimidate them. But it did not go further because there were human rights defenders and international support.

"The people of Ingelsa and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have tried to dialogue with us, to convince us of the project, but they have only done so by sending us notes," says Serrano, sitting a few meters from one of the human rights officers who had come that day from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Next to the camp there are vast lands, a farm that extends for several hectares. The inhabitants here say that the owner is Jorge Reyes, a landowner who is behind the criminalization of five defenders of the Jilamito River, who must appear next January 18 for an oral and public trial.

“This is how they work. They get witnesses. They are not reliable with us. It is like the case of some engineers from the Ingelsa company, who entered Jilamito and were trying to win over the people. But when they saw that they couldn't do it the nice way, they resorted to threats," explains Serrano.

A few days ago the Sentencing Court of Tela, Atlántida, suspended at the last minute the oral and public trial, which is already in its hearing stage and which was scheduled for January 18 to 22, against five residents of Jilamito: Arnoldo Chacón (mayor of Arizona), Elena Gaitán, Julio César Leiva Guzmán, Claudio Ramírez Espinoza and Julio Enrique Laínez.

All are accused, according to the Public Ministry, of holding public space and land to the detriment of the State of Honduras, reveals the lawyer Koritza Ortez Amaya, part of the legal team of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ).

Last December, an OHCHR mission visited the Arizona communities

October 2020. The MADJ, together with the mayor of Arizona, Arnoldo Chacón and human rights defenders, denounced 12 companies before the Public Ministry of being in cahoots with government officials and for misconduct in negotiating contracts for electricity generation, taking advantage of the Jilamito River, source of water supply for human consumption to 16 communities.

The complaint was filed before the Specialized Fiscal Unit Against Corruption Networks (UFERCO), by lawyers Martín Fernández and Víctor Fernández, brothers and founders of MADJ in 2008, who since 2009 have been denouncing the intentions of various businessmen to seize natural resources in the department of Atlántida and, particularly, of the Jilamito river, in the municipality of Arizona. Lawyers act on behalf of 16 communities.

December 4, 2020. Invest, the private sector financing unit of the Inter-American Bank (IDB), announces the approval of a loan for 20.25 million dollars for the construction of the Jilamito hydroelectric dam.

Thirteen days after the announcement of the funding, an OHCHR delegation arrived in the Arizona area. The mission remains in place for three days (December 17, 18 and 19), visits the Jilamito River and learns first-hand what the inhabitants of the communities close to the hydroelectric project of the Ingelsa company think.

The OHCHR delegation, led by Salvadoran William Bolainez and Ecuadorian Santiago Toledo, meet with the mayor of the Arizona municipality, Arnaldo Chacón, who claims to have discovered that the Ingelsa company had a plan to assassinate him.


December 18, 2020. A walk from the camp takes 40 minutes at a slow pace to reach the area of ​​the Jilamito River where the hydroelectric plant is to be installed. The sound of the river current hitting the rocks becomes intense through a narrow path with a huge chasm on the left side. Rocks, plants, sound of the wind hitting the vegetation and birds singing. Be careful not to slip. Recent rains mean that mud is not a good ally. You have to go up and down that serpentine road. It is essential to maintain balance.

The expedition of about thirty people, including the representatives of OHCHR, begins to arrive at the site where the Ingelsa company intends to harvest the water to produce energy. The lawyer and former prosecutor of the Public Ministry, Víctor Fernández, founder of the MADJ, also arrives at the place, who clarifies doubts about the project, the financing, the details of the Ingelsa company, the supposed plan to assassinate the mayor, Arnaldo Chacón, among other stuff. The talk takes place with the Jilamito River singing in the background.

The coordinator of the MADJ and former prosecutor of the Public Ministry, Víctor Fernández

Fernández says that the terms must first be clarified, because in Arizona, more than conflicts, there is violence exercised by public officials of the Government.

“The official from Serna (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment) who signed the feasibility study, the water treatment and the environmental license, was never here. And from there he exhibited a distant and arrogant behavior by giving up what is not his. It is violent for an official to ignore the relationship that people have, hiding information from them and bringing soldiers and police into the area to impose a project," he says.

MADJ, which was born in 2008, since 2009 has raised a dispute against the extractivist model and raised a flag to fight corruption.

Fernández believes that the projects supported by IDB do not necessarily mean development and that they do not respect other development models, that is, those that arise from the thinking of the people, because this institution is an instrument of power that does not listen to the popular clamor.

“The IDB has been blind to all the corruption complaints that we have presented, he has been deaf to the annulment actions that are in this case. And he has dared to approve the first part of the financing of this project. So we point to the IDB as a bank that promotes the violation of human rights, corruption, because it is supporting corrupt actors,” says the community leader.

Regarding Ingelsa, Víctor Fernández, thinks that it is a commercial company that is interested in accumulating money and that this is what it is doing in Arizona, Atlántida.

“His partners and shareholders, Emin Abufele and all them, are a gangster structure in this country. And here they are doing that. They already have two other projects here. And they come with another,” he emphasizes.


The lawyer Martín Fernández, Víctor Fernández's brother, and one of the MADJ coordinators in Atlántida, says that they have been working with the self-determination of the peoples and the resistance processes in their territories where they have tried to install extractive or hydroelectric projects.

“The issue of water for human consumption is fundamental here. In this municipality there are already three hydroelectric projects and there is serious questioning about what the projects imply and the impacts that they have had ”, says Fernández, who believes that the fact that there is no sovereignty of a project in a territory is a serious matter.

“Jilamito becomes the last source of water for human consumption that the population could use, because the other sources are already monopolized. People are envisaging this river as the one that will save the need for water for human consumption and that is why the 16 communities seek to develop a water project to ensure human consumption,” says Martín.

Martín Fernández, also coordinator of MADJ

Martín adds that there is already an important advance in the community drinking water project and that the topography has already been paid and the study is almost finished. The entire distribution network at the level of each of the communities.

“The whole project is already designed. And today confronts the dispossession by this company Ingelsa, of Mr. Emin Abufele, with collusion from IDB and another bank that is the DFC, which I don't know what it means, but we can qualify this as the water war in this municipality,” He concludes.

Fernández refers to the United States International Corporation (DFC) that will finance 47.3 of the total cost of the hydroelectric project. This US funding has been rejected by 28 congresspeople from this country for the human rights violations that extractivist projects entail and in particular for the complaints of corruption, intimidation and violence, made by community leaders who oppose the project of the Ingelsa company on the Jilamito River.

For the lawyer and part of the MADJ legal team, Heydi Alachán, there are two elements to assess, the first is a discursive part of the extractive companies that accuse the communities of opposing development. In the specific case of Jilamito, the communities themselves have promoted this community water project, which precisely implies ensuring access to water and the use of water sources for human consumption. She affirms that, therefore, this model is at odds with the vision of development that companies and extractive capital have.

And to understand a little how far the 16 communities that defend the Jilamito River intend to go, you have to listen and understand Magda Díaz, resident of the El Retiro community, who told that on January 22, 2018 her husband was killed in during a protest against electoral fraud in 2017.

“There was a group of 80 people protesting on Lean Street, when agents of the National Police and Military Police arrived. It was a group of about 300 soldiers and policemen. They shot a live bullet. They wounded my husband and then finished killing him with tear gas. But I am here standing in struggle, working with dignity for the defense of the Jilamito River. And although it is not easy to be left helpless with five children, I will go to the extreme to defend the Jilamito River,” Magda, a prominent defender of the Jilamito River, ends.


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