Jilamito River Protectors and the War for Water in Honduras

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.

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