Leaving Hondurans Gasping for Air
The Oxygen Trade and Human Rights Abuses
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The carbon trade doesn´t just fail to address climate change. In countries like Honduras, it funnels cash to notorious human rights abusers and threatens vital resources.
By Roise Wong, IPS
“We’re not selling this oxygen to anybody,” said Vitalino Álvarez, a
participant in the Unified Aguán Farmers´ Movement (MUCA) in the boiling
hot northern region of Honduras. Like many places around Honduras and
the world, Álvarez’s community is a direct victim of international
carbon trading programs—or what residents call “selling oxygen.”
Carbon trading was developed as a mechanism for addressing global
climate change under the Kyoto Protocol. It allows companies rooted in
the global North, which collectively produce most of the world’s
greenhouse gases, to buy and sell "Certificates of Emissions Reduction"
from developing-world companies rather than cut their own emissions. The
practice enables them to continue polluting based on the assertion that
emissions elsewhere are being cut.
Through this mechanism, they pay companies in the global South that
have implemented "green" initiatives (making new technological
investments or reducing deforestation, for example) and either use the
certificate to avoid cutting their own emissions or else sell it to
another company. This scheme is not only accepted, but also actively
promoted, by both the United Nations and the World Bank.
But carbon trading does not actually fulfill its stated goal of
cutting global emissions, since the price of carbon remains too cheap to
curb polluter behavior. The study
“Carbon Trading—How It Works and Why It Fails” shows that carbon
trading allows overall air pollution and climate change to continue to
But the carbon trade doesn't just fail to address climate change. In
countries like Honduras, it fuels a perverse incentive structure by
funneling cash to notorious human rights abusers engaged in extractive
Carbon Trading and Violence
“Carbon trading” is the term governments, institutions, and companies
in the North use to describe the swaps of credits for pollution. But,
perhaps reflecting on the carbon trade's commodification of vital
resources, Vitalino Álvarez insists that it’s the oxygen generated by
palm trees that’s being traded.
And, he says, the money made by the palm giants selling oxygen is being used to finance hit men (sicarios).
In Bajo Aguán, carbon trading and the related changes in land
ownership laws have resulted in the expansion of palm oil plantations,
which now use a new methane-capture system
that purportedly reduces the plantations' footprint (even as the entire
business is premised on deforestation). This expansion has displaced many farmers
as aggressive plantation owners have maneuvered to get a piece of the
lucrative carbon credit business. Over the years, the farmers’
negotiations with politicians have failed, and court battles have
dragged on. Ultimately this has resulted in bloody land conflicts.
Thousands of farmers have grouped together to defend their
families' livelihoods and futures, and to recover land through
occupation. The 2009 military coup, which made believing in official
institutions more futile than ever, served as a catalyst for many
farmers to put their lives on the line rather than resign hungry and
helpless. In the words of Álvarez of the MUCA farmers movement, “The
peasant will prefer to die fighting, rather than to die of hunger in on
his own land.”
And die they do. Since 2009, in Bajo Aguán alone, almost 100 farmers
and their advocates have been assassinated. Farmers accuse security
agents employed by owners of large palm plantations of ordering these
murders and allege state complicity. Security guards for the palm oil
company Dinant, for example, have attacked farmers during violent
evictions, with large contingents of soldiers and police clearly on
their side. Cases of assassinations against farmers have so far gone
One day in November 2012, Álvarez was heading home with another
farmer when unknown assailants opened fire on them with heavy weapons.
Álvarez and his companion managed to escape, but the MUCA activist has
since received numerous death threats and was arrested twice that
August. On one of those occasions, he was arrested together with more
than 20 other farmers, including a human rights defender for the
agrarian community, Antonio Trejo. Trejo was later murdered after
receiving a series of death threats. Living amid this siege, Álvarez
often tells the press that if anything happens to him, Dinant is
Not only has Dinant gone unpunished for murder, it also slated to receive a whopping $30 million
in loans from the World Bank International Finance Corporation. The
first half was dished out about four months after the coup started, with
the other half due to Dinant this year. This money finances the
company’s crimes. Even more strikingly, Dinant continues to be approved
to sell carboncredits under the UN Clean Development Mechanism
(CDM), which permits the Northern companies who buy them to pollute
more than they otherwise could.
When the Rivers Run Dry
Honduras' many rivers also make it a target for hydroelectric dams,
which have generated carbon credits since 2005. The Honduran legislature
approved 47 dams in 2010 alone. Honduran Congress Secretary Gladis
Aurora Lopez, who aided in their approval, was a major shareholder of
one of these concessions, the Aurora Company. At least 19 dams are
registered with CDM concessions.
Hydroelectricity dam concessions to companies sound green. But as indigenous activists in Honduras have pointed out,
dams privatize communal water sources, thereby increasing living costs
and militarizing communities as security forces mobilize to protect the
privatized resources. Moreover, they also cause flooding and droughts,
and destroy wildlife. Concerns have been raised that earthquakes in San
Juan Altántida may have been caused by dam construction by the company
Contempo of Grupo Terra.
The companies who own the dams become owners of the “oxygen,” which
they then sell as offset credits even as they also provide water to
mining companies, who pollute it with deadly contaminants.
One dam in Lepaterique (La Esperanza), run by Canadian-led consortium
called Consorcion de Inversiones (CISA), has sold oxygen since 2005.
The Lepaterique community agreed to this pilot CDM project damming a
local river when it was promised social and developmental projects. To
date, there has been no communication between CISA and the community,
and according to Lepaterique community board president and retired
teacher Benjamin Diaz, the majority of the company's promises remain
Diaz notes that one of the few promises that has been fulfilled is
the building of a highway. However, as with the dam, CISA security
guards ensure that access to the highway is restricted to the dam's
owners and employees. Other unrealized promises include improvements to
the school, streets, and highways, as well as housing construction.
Other benefits have advanced, but in smaller quantities than promised.
These include job creation (fewer than 20 jobs were created out of 80
promised), medical brigades, reforestation (a small eucalyptus
plantation was planted to mitigate damages caused by the dam), and a
tiny amount of tax paid to the community council.
Negative impacts, on the other hand, have been significant. They have
included flooding from the dam, damaging the vegetation and the bridge,
and a foul smell from the dam's oxidation lake. The one consolation in
all this is that the Lepateriquens' lives do not depend on the river,
which is used mostly for sewage and wastewater.
Elsewhere, in Atlántida, northern Honduras, local leaders of the
environmental and social justice group Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad
y Justicia (MADJ), told me in March 2013 about newer CDM dams in and
around their community. The leaders, Rigoberto Espinoza and Osmán
Orellana, said that the builders of the dams did not bother to carry out
environmental impact studies or consult local communities. When local
residents protest the subsequent soil erosion from the drying of local
rivers, thuggish security guards disperse them. The companies involved
claim to have consulted local communities, but MADJ leaders say this
mostly consisted of bribing local officials and persuading residents to
sign documents under false pretenses.
The projects, moreover, create few desirable local jobs, even though
many Hondurans are badly in need of work. Where jobs do become
available, worker safety is a particular concern. At the Masca dam,
Osmán said, two workers, including his brother-in-law, were killed by
faulty construction vehicles. Many others have been grievously injured.
"The workers are practically slaves," he said, "but slaves because of
their needs." Osmán indicated that more technical jobs are done by
people from outside, leaving community members to do dangerous work like
exploding dynamite, making tunnels, taking rocks out of the river, and
other heavy labor.
According to Osman, 48 rivers flow from the Cordillera Nombre de Dios
mountains of Atlantida. Of these, 24 have been concessioned for
hydroelectricity projects. In the twisted vision of international oxygen
traders, this is what passes for "clean development."
Many communities are doing what they can to oppose and prevent the
double sale of oxygen and water as the rivers become dammed. Like the
farmers in Bajo Aguán, they similarly risk their lives. Osman spoke
about how in a public meeting, his cousin Roberto spoke up against
so-called forest cooperatives that the mayor was promoting. Roberto
accurately observed that the initiative was simply being used to force
hydroelectricity projects on local communities. When Roberto tried to
interview the mayor, the mayor grabbed the neck of his shirt, and said,
"You people are yangaras (communists) who are here to make life
impossible." When Roberto filed a complaint about this, the mayor gave a
gift to the judge and subsequently won the case. Roberto then received a
chain of threats, and in 2012 was forced to leave the country.
Miguel Facussé, the palm giant accused of mass killings through
Dinant in Aguán, is also implicated in Atlántida. Another three CDM
dams, are owned by Fredy Nasser's Grupo Terra. Fredy is a son-in-law of
Miguel Facussé. Nasser in fact owns 20 of the 24 dam concessions in
Atlántida. Miguel Facussé's other son-in-law, Lenir Perez, owns the
largest mine project in Atlántida. Facussé has already landgrabbed most
of Aguán (the most fertile part of Honduras) and Zacate Grande, and now
his family is expanding its control over Atlántida.
Atlántida is a few hours by bus from Bajo Aguán. But lives seen as
obstacles to oxygen trading are vulnerable in both places, reminding us
of the urgency and relevance of this problem around Honduras and the
“The Forest Cannot Be A Business”
Oxygen trading does not stop at rivers and palm trees. Honduras has
forested land too. The World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility
(FCPF) promotes and facilitates a program called “Reducing Emissions
from Deforestation and Degradation,” also known as REDD-plus. Like the
other programs, this involves selling oxygen based in the South.
Officially, REDD-plus has not yet been implemented in Honduras. But a
$3.4-million grant for REDD Readiness Preparation was approved for
Honduras and five other countries at a March 2013 meeting in Washington, DC. Prior to this, an agreement to participate in the preparation toward REDD-plus was signed in January 2013 with the Confederation of Autonomous Peoples of Honduras (CONPAH) after a year of negotiations over indigenous rights.
The Indigenous and Grassroots Organizations Council of Honduras
(COPINH) wrote a public letter to FCPF in February 2013 to clarify that
neither it nor the Afro-descendent Fraternal Black Organization of
Honduras (OFRANEH) is part of CONPAH, and neither group will participate
in the process to prepare REDD-plus. Indeed, they have been strongly
critical of it and reject it outright.
Berta Cáceres of COPINH lives in the frosty, rural, and indigenous
Lenca territory of La Esperanza. In a public letter, she explained that
her organization is not against indigenous people being compensated for
caring for forests; this is something they have done for centuries. She
pointed out instead that genuine efforts to stop deforestation would
require stopping large timber companies from clearing the land, not
commodifying the forests to provide credits for big polluters around the
world to continue contaminating.
In a January 2012 interview, Berta warned me about how REDD-plus will
impact communities where it's implemented. “It means that they are
going to put army or security guards to make sure nobody enters," she
said, "so families can't go and collect firewood or medicine." The land
will be privatized and conceded to companies, and the community will be
excluded from making any decisions about it. This process opens doors to
concessions of commercial projects, CDMs, mining, dams, and other
projects damaging to forests. In light of this situation, perhaps
REDD-plus would be better described as a business of “Reinforcing
Enforcement of Dispossession” against communities—and one that causes
Death threats are just as real to those defending communities against
REDD-plus as they are to those defending farms and rivers. Cáceres
closed the 2012 year reporting serious and escalating death threats
against herself and her family. In May 2013, while at a highway blockade
organized against the damming of Rio Blanco, Berta was captured by
police and detained overnight. She is still battling the charges against
It is no coincidence that Honduras is a hotbed for oxygen traders.
Not only are there vast natural resources, but the state of impunity
that the 2009 military coup intensified makes the country all the more
attractive for profit making ventures. Still, Honduras is just one
example of a global phenomenon.
Official international efforts to curb climate change have not always
gone well. The latest UN climate negotiation that took place December
2012 in Doha, Qatar was condemned by Friends of the Earth International
for not achieving emissions cuts agreements. The only winners from the
talks were the polluting industries and the carbon trading market. The problem, as Carbon Trade Watch puts it, is that the UN talks have been finding “ways to expand the trading experiment, but the evidence suggests it should be abandoned.”
As UN negotiations have not solved the problem, the necessity for
grassroots collaboration to create real change is all the more urgent.
There is right now an opportunity for activists worldwide to join
forces, share experiences, analyze the way markets dominate our lives,
and decide collectively as communities from around the world what real
climate solutions would mean and how to create a different system.
The stories of Vitalino, Berta, and the rest—and the memories of the nearly 100 farmers killed in Bajo Aguán—remind us of the urgency and importance of activism to stop the oxygen trade and start finding real solutions.
Published by: Magne Ove Varsi