‘The criminalisation of dissent’: State repression of land and environmental activism in Chile and Honduras (Essay)

Also published on Open Americas: https://openamericas.org/2020/07/20/the-criminalisation-of-dissent-state-repression-of-land-and-environmental-activism-in-chile-and-honduras/

Across Latin America, the centuries-old issue of land conflict is gaining new dimensions as nations are increasingly bound into globalised supply chains of resources, food and energy (Peluso & Lund, 2011).  The growing influence of corporate actors has transformed struggles over who has the right to inhabit and work the land, as states respond to competing claims from powerful enterprises and rural residents, who are often poor and indigenous.  This essay will examine how the authorities in Chile and Honduras have repressed the protests of communities against the appropriation or contamination of their lands by these commercial interests. Despite the many differences between these countries – Chile being one of the most peaceful and prosperous nations in the Americas, Honduras one of the poorest and most violent – they share many similarities in this respect.  Via a process that Bessant (2016) calls the ‘criminalisation of dissent’, their governments have prohibited rural activism through authoritarian legislation and violence in order to serve the interests of powerful national and multinational corporations.

Activism as Terrorism in Chile

In recent decades, the Mapuche people of southern Chile have been at the forefront of the country’s land, indigenous and environmental movements.  With a population of 1.7 million they are Chile’s largest indigenous group, representing 9.9% of the total population (INE, 2018: 16).  After centuries of successful resistance against invasions by the Incan and Spanish Empires, they were conquered by Chile in the late 19th Century and largely dispossessed of their lands (Crow, 2013).  Since the country’s return to democracy in 1990, the Mapuche have increasingly mobilised against development projects imposed on their current and historic territory.  These protests have predominantly concerned environmentally destructive mines, hydroelectric projects and forestry plantations (Tomaselli, 2012).  Mapuche land activism incorporates discourse of both environmental and indigenous rights to protest these developments, reflecting their multidimensional impacts on communities (Schlosberg & Carruthers, 2010). 

As most Mapuche only hold surface rights to their remaining lands, they are vulnerable to subsoil and water rights claims by large corporations; in addition, non-native eucalyptus and pine plantations have depleted aquifers, making small-scale agriculture unsustainable and leading to desertification in some areas (Haughney, 2007; Richards, 2010).  The Ralco Hydroelectric Plant is emblematic of the dual threat that such development projects pose to the Mapuche’s environment and heritage – in addition to massive ecological damage, the dam also flooded Mapuche cemeteries and forced the displacement of approximately 500 people, who were unable to exhume the remains of their ancestors (Tomaselli, 2012).  Therefore, Mapuche activism “is not just a struggle for land or political rights; it is a struggle for the health of the environment, the protection of traditional village economies, respect for sacred sites, and the preservation of native religion” (Schlosberg & Carruthers, 2010: 29).  Faced with multifaceted threats to their lands, culture and environment, Mapuche resistance has radicalised.  The remainder of this section will explain how the intensification of protest has been met with a highly repressive state response that combines authoritarian judicial interpretations with heavy surveillance and sporadic acts of violence by the police and military.

The burning of three logging trucks in December 1997 marked the escalation of the Mapuche campaign, and triggered a severe response from the Chilean state.  The government declared the arson attack an act of terrorism, resulting in twelve convictions.  This application of the Pinochet-era Anti-Terrorism Law (Ley 18314, 1984) fuelled tensions between Mapuche communities and the state, unleashing a cycle of arson attacks and Mapuche occupations of plantations on their historic territories that the state has responded to with further terrorism convictions (Haughney, 2007). 

The anti-terror legislation permits the indefinite detention of suspects without charge, allows evidence gathered through wiretapping and anonymous witnesses, and mandates longer sentences than those for similar offences that are not labelled as ‘terrorism’ (Richards, 2010).  Despite the law’s origins as a tool to repress dissent during the dictatorship, its powers were in fact expanded under the leftist Concertación government to include crimes against property as ‘terrorist acts’ in response to escalating arson attacks on forestry plantations (Haughney, 2007).  The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) has condemned Chile’s application of anti-terror legislation against the Mapuche, ruling that the systematic use of pre-trial detention violates the principles of the presumption of innocence and equality before the law (IACHR, 2014).  Despite this, in August 2019 the Senate approved a further expansion of the Anti-Terrorism law to permit the use of evidence gathered using ‘special techniques’, including undercover agents and hidden microphones (Senado, 2019). 

This disregard for the IACHR’s ruling reflects a determination among Chile’s political class to suppress Mapuche demands through judicial repression rather than dialogue.  It also exemplifies Chile’s historic reluctance to acknowledge the collective rights of its indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands, and the government’s prioritisation of economic interests over the Mapuche’s cultural and environmental rights.  As the only Latin American country not to formally recognise indigenous peoples in its constitution, Chile lacks a framework for dialogue between the conflicting territorial claims of the Mapuche, the state and private corporations.  This increases the likelihood of radical forms of protest such as arson, to which the judiciary responds with an authoritarian interpretation of ‘terrorism’ that diverts from international norms by ruling property destruction to be a terrorist act.  Richards (2010: 88-89) argues that the construction of Mapuche as terrorists “permits the state and elites to avoid addressing what many believe are legitimate claims to the preservation or recuperation of Mapuche territory”, and so “an issue that merits national discussion and a political solution is instead criminalised.” 

The ‘terrorist’ narrative is propagated by a media dominated by the conservative duopoly of El Mercurio and COPESA, which were supportive of the military regime and whose journalism overwhelmingly relies on state sources, rather than those from civil society such as indigenous leaders (Bonner, 2018).  This media bias has contributed to a wider apathy and prejudice among Chilean society to the Mapuche cause (Waldman, 2012).  A 2017 survey found that 63% of respondents considered indigenous people lazy, 71% viewed them as unpleasant and 69% felt they lacked solidarity, while 81% considered elements of the indigenous movement to be violent (INDH, 2017: 28).  The Anti-Terrorism Law therefore serves as a tool to isolate the Mapuche movement by portraying its protagonists as violent radicals whose actions are hindering the progress of wider, non-indigenous society.

Terrorism legislation is not the only aspect of Chilean law to have been politicised to suppress land activism.  Although Chile has ratified national and international laws on indigenous land rights, in practice these are routinely manipulated (Stauffer, 2020).  On paper, considerable rights are granted to communities through the Indigenous Act (Ley 19253, 1993), which declared indigenous lands to be inalienable and unseizable, and the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169 (ILO, 1989), which obliges companies to consult with indigenous communities over developments that will impact them.  Haughney (2012: 215) describes these legal reforms as “an ‘authoritarianisation’ of law and policymaking within a democratic framework”, allowing nominal indigenous participation whilst ensuring that major development projects will go ahead.  Strong opposition from communities during the consultation process has failed to prevent numerous developments affecting Mapuche territory, including the Mehuin waste pipeline, a third dam in the Upper Bío Bío gorge, and the expansion of forestry plantations (Haughney, 2012).  Stauffer (2020: 5)criticises corporate consultations with communities as “a purely administrative task… showing more interest in the participants filling out attendance lists than in their opinions.” 

The Mapuche have had more success in challenging projects through the Court of Appeal, which has prohibited certain developments by ruling that they violate the constitutional right to live in an unpolluted environment.  However, the Supreme Court has overturned several of these verdicts, and its “unclear and incoherent” rulings have failed to establish a discernible pattern of what does and does not constitute a violation of the Mapuche’s rights (Tomaselli, 2012: 173). The Supreme Court’s overruling of verdicts favourable to the indigenous movement has also occurred when protesters have been acquitted in high-profile ‘terrorism’ cases; notably in the 2004 Poluco-Pidenco arson case in which the Supreme Court ordered the replacement of a judge who declared the terrorism charge inadmissible.  All five defendants were then given prison sentences of ten years and ordered to pay $679,000 in compensation (HRW, 2004: 40-41).  The various manoeuvres of the Chilean judiciary to suppress the Mapuche campaign are mirrored in many so-called ‘low-intensity democracies’ (Gills et al., 1993), which have the formal characteristics of multiparty democracy while prohibiting the attainment of radical change.  In these post-dictatorial societies, open authoritarianism is replaced by “a new kind of intimidation and repression based on the antagonising of civil and political rights… as threats to national security and interest” (Doran, 2017: 184).  In this manner, successive Chilean governments and legislatures have coalesced around a neoliberal, globalised vision of the Chilean economy, prioritising the market over indigenous rights claims and using a flexible interpretation of the law to suppress challenges from below.   

The concept of ‘neoliberal violence’ helps to explain both the radicalisation of the Mapuche movement and the repressive state response that has ensued.  Goldstein (2005) defines neoliberal violence as the social unrest that arises from a context of extreme inequality, which is met with state violence to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful.  The Mapuche’s marginalisation means they reap few benefits from the corporate development of their lands that forms part of the state’s neoliberal development strategy (Richards & Gardner, 2013).  This increases the likelihood of violent or radical forms of protest such as arson, which the Chilean state has responded to with heavy-handed and violent policing strategies, in addition to the authoritarian rulings of the judiciary.  In 2018 President Piñera deployed a special forces unit armed with military technology, including drones, to Araucanía, where they are known as ‘Jungle Command’ for the counterinsurgency training they received in Colombia (Figueroa, 2018). 

The state’s newly-militarised response to the Mapuche protests epitomises how Chile’s political institutions “no longer serve as vehicles of reform, but rather as agents to diffuse social conflict”(Haughney, 2007).  This is reflected in the relatively common police killings of Mapuche protesters.  A prominent recent case was the murder of community leader Camilo Catrillanca in November 2018; it later emerged that officers destroyed video footage showing he was unarmed and shot in the back, and that an adolescent present at the scene was arrested and beaten in a clear case of witness intimidation (USDS, 2020: 15). 

State violence is accompanied by extensive surveillance of Mapuche activist groups.  For example, leaked police documents reveal that in 2013 an undercover agent was sent to establish “emotional links” with a Mapuche woman with the objective of incriminating members of her community (Carabineros, 2013: 1).  The agent later reported on a boy that he claimed “will be a future Machi [spiritual leader] and a subversive” (Carabineros, n.d: 2).  In addition to the state spying on children, in 2018 the Unidad de Inteligencia Operativa Especial (UIOE) in the city of Temuco was revealed to have planted incriminating messages, including pictures of weapons, on the mobile phones of eight detained Mapuche; when police raided UIOE headquarters they found several computers with their hard drives removed, raising the question of whether other evidence used against the Mapuche has been fabricated (Sepúldeva & González, 2018).  

The fact that charges are being brought against Camilo Catrillanca’s killers and the former director of the UIOE demonstrates that Chile’s security and judicial institutions have evolved from the days of the dictatorship – when total impunity for human rights violations enabled the state to murder or disappear over 3,000 of its citizens, and torture at least 30,000 others (Opotow, 2015: 232).  However, the heavy surveillance of indigenous communities and the fabrication of evidence in order to label dissenters as ‘terrorists’ indicate that human rights in Chile have yet to attain a standard worthy of the country’s reputation as Latin America’s most successful democracy.  

The Terror of Activism in Honduras

In Honduras the repression of land defenders is both cruder and more rampant than in Chile, and has worsened significantly since the 2009 military coup that removed Manuel Zelaya from office.  Assassinations of environmental activists increased fourteen-fold in the seven years following the coup, making Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world to protest against land grabbing and resource extraction (Middledorp & Le Billon, 2019: 330).  Despite the dangers, communities across the country have mobilised against the appropriation or pollution of their lands by the mining, hydroelectric and palm oil sectors.

Grassroots activism gathered momentum in the early 2000s, in response to disastrous ecological damage caused by the San Martín gold mine in Valle de Siria.  The mine seriously depleted water levels in the region, causing fifteen of the valley’s eighteen rivers to run dry, and toxic chemicals in the remaining waterways have caused high rates of cancer and infant mortality (Holland, 2015).  Facing escalating protests, then-President Zelaya drafted a bill that would have limited mining companies’ water use and banned open-pit mines and the use of cyanide (Middledorp et al., 2016). 

Zelaya was ousted before these reforms could be implemented, however, and the next government slashed mining regulations in order to attract international investors.  In 2013 a new Mining Act abolished permits for small-scale mining, allowed unlimited water use, and weakened the consultation process by declaring that community rejection of a project is only valid for three years, whereas a community’s approval is indefinite and irreversible (Decreto 238/12, 2013).  Perhaps most controversially, the law also stipulates that one third of the royalties generated from mining operations must be spent on the police or military.  As well as diverting funding that could be used to tackle the 60% poverty rate in rural Honduras (World Bank, 2020), this has also brought more immediately lethal consequences.  The establishment of a mutually beneficial relationship between the mineral industry and the security forces has encouraged the violent repression of anti-mining protests, which have multiplied in response to the many concessions granted since 2013 (Middledorp et al., 2016). 

By wedding the fortunes of the mining and security sectors, the Mining Act facilitated what Harvey (2005: 137) calls “accumulation by dispossession”, through which the privatisation of previously public land and rivers enables their enclosure by multinational corporations.  In this manner, rural communities are severed from the lands they depend on, and criminalised as ‘trespassers’ or ‘vandals’ in the case of resistance.  The state has committed overt acts of violence against the opponents of such developments.  For example, the prominent activist Tomas Garcia was killed by soldiers while protesting the Agua Zarca dam in July 2013 (León, 2016).  The following year, police fired live rounds at demonstrators protesting the demolition of a cemetery in Azacualpa for the expansion of the San Andrés mine (Middledorp et al., 2016).  Instances of state violence such as these demonstrate how the Mining Act has transformed the role of the security forces, which increasingly act as a form of private security for corporations rather than fulfilling their official role of ensuring the safety of Hondurans. 

The multinational companies whose interests are served by the security forces have gained a highly influential foothold in Honduras since the 1990s, and have been linked to to grave human rights violations (León, 2016).  After Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in 1998, reforms were implemented to attract international investment in the mining, energy and tourism sectors with the hope of stimulating economic recovery (Stonich, 2008).  This experiment in disaster capitalism has indeed proved disastrous for Honduran ecosystems and land defenders.  Brecher and Costello (1998: 22) argue that the increasing power of multinationals has triggered a “race to the bottom… in labor, social, and environmental conditions that results directly from global competition for jobs and investment.” 

Canada stands out as the foreign power whose business interests have most contributed to this decline in Honduras, where in recent years up to 90% of foreign investment in mining has come from Canadian firms (Escalera-Flexhaug, 2014).  The Canadian Official Development Cooperation provided technical support in the drafting of the controversial 2013 Mining Act, which made state repression profitable by creating an economic incentive to suppress protests (Middledorp et al., 2016: 933).  The Mining Act was passed several months before the signing of the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement further increased the profitability of mining projects, adding another motive for the violent repression of activists.  According to Gordon and Webber (2014: 614), “Canada has sought a strategic economic advantage in the Central American country by aiding in and exploiting the setback to its social movement.” 

However, state repression is not the only area in which transnational capital has encouraged violence.  Shipley (2016: 460) argues that Honduras’ reputation as a violent or even failed state is in large part due to the “processes of dispossession through which North American capital has seized land previously used by rural Hondurans, and thus undermined the related structures of community.”  Foreign mining interests have therefore added to the maelstrom of violence in Honduras by tacitly encouraging repression by the security forces, whilst simultaneously eroding social bonds by uprooting and impoverishing rural communities.

Injections of foreign capital have also influenced the targeting of campaigners against Honduras’ hydroelectric expansion – most famously in the case of the Agua Zarca dam, which resulted in the murder of the renowned environmentalist Berta Cáceres in 2016.  Cáceres’ success in mobilising opposition to the dam had made her the subject of an intense intimidation campaign, and by the time of her assassination she had received 33 death threats that the Honduran authorities failed to act on; it later emerged that her name had been on the target list of a military death squad (Lakhani, 2016). 

León (2016: 528) describes Agua Zarca as “a perfect example of the role transnational investment plays in grave human rights violations, as well as in the ongoing repression and criminalisation of indigenous peoples in Honduras.”  Co-financed by the Dutch bank FMO, FinnFund, and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration, with construction subcontracted to the Chinese firm Sinohydro, Agua Zarca exemplifies how international firms bankroll controversial development projects in Honduras (Lakhani, 2017).  Corporations are able to avoid legal liability for human rights violations through the strategic use of transnational investment-sharing platforms, with a strict delineation of roles as investors, suppliers or contractors offering further cover against prosecution (León, 2016: 528-9). 

In any case, the likelihood that any of these companies will ever face prosecution is miniscule.  Honduras’ post-coup judiciary has been highly politicised and staffed with military personnel, and the Supreme Court purged of uncooperative judges (Bebbington et al., 2018).  The IACHR offered to run a parallel investigation into the Cáceres murder, but this was rejected by President Hernández (León, 2016). International outrage did pressure the sentencing of seven men to 50 years in prison for the murder, but the man alleged to have given the order – David Castillo, CEO of Honduran hydroelectric company DESA – has yet to face trial (Palencia, 2019). The systemic corruption that has pervaded Honduras’ legal and political institutions since the coup has facilitated a climate of impunity in which human rights violations are permitted and even encouraged in order to attract international investment.  Although those who pull the trigger are occasionally brought to trial, the forces behind such killings remain unaltered and effectively immune from legal repercussions.   

Locating the source of human rights violations is further complicated by the fact that assassinations are usually carried out through intermediaries, including street gangs, private security companies, and former military and police officers (Middledorp & Le Billon, 2019).  For example, of the seven men convicted of the Cáceres murder, one was an army officer, one a security worker for DESA, and several others have been linked to the mara crime syndicates that are omnipresent across Honduras (Lakhani, 2019; 2020). 

In a society with an impunity rate of over 90% (EFE, 2020), rights activists operate in extremely dangerous conditions and with the knowledge that they can be murdered without consequence.  This creates a climate of fear that dissuades activism, as reprisals can come not only from state security forces but also from neighbours in the community.  In this manner, “insidious forms of repression are experienced not only by activists and their families, but also by broader members of affected communities as fear and suspicion come to permeate everyday life” (Middledorp & Le Billon, 2019: 329).  This collusion between corporations, the state and criminal networks encourages “violent entrepreneurs” to carry out assassinations on behalf of the authorities, who in turn provide immunity to the killers (Cruz, 2011: 2).  These murders are often brutal and public in order to further discourage opposition.  One activist in El Níspero was found with his tongue cut out – the clear implication being that speaking out will get you killed (Middledorp et al., 2016). 

Appeals to the widely corrupted legal process are also met with violence – 59 lawyers were killed in Honduras from 2010-2016, and a judge was among 89 people murdered for protesting the expansion of palm oil plantations in Bajo Aguán (León, 2016: 521; Middledorp & Le Billon, 2019: 331).  The targeting of legal professionals further undermines community resistance by dissuading lawyers from taking up their cause, thereby denying publicity to local campaigns and isolating activists that do dare to speak out.  Although legal protections theoretically exist to protect communities from land expropriation, including ILO Convention 169, these are routinely circumvented through violence.  For example, the Mining Act states that communities are able to reject a project, but that another ‘consultation’ may be held after three years.  This means that if a community dares to oppose such a project, they must then sustain their campaign for another three years in the face of violence and intimidation.  This process may continue indefinitely.  As uniformed officers only occasionally act as the face of repression, this campaign of intimidation is masked by the smokescreen of general violence that pervades Honduran society.  

It initially appeared that Berta Cáceres’ murder had proved a step too far.  International outcry over the killing of the Goldman Prize-winning campaigner forced investors to abandon the Agua Zarca project, and the targeting of activists declined.  However, this trend was reversed following a crackdown on protests against the fraudulent 2017 election – in 2019 almost 500 members of the OFRANEH indigenous movement awaited trial on charges of terrorism, illicit association and water usurpation (Middledorp & Le Billon, 2019: 333).  In 2017 Cáceres’ daughter survived an assassination attempt amid a renewed wave of violence against land defenders (FLD, 2017).  Despite the lost investment in Agua Zarca, the Cáceres murder may have nonetheless had its intended effect.  In an already perilous context for human rights campaigners, the murder of the internationally renowned activist served as a warning that none are immune from repression.  Future opponents of similar projects will have to contend with that knowledge when confronting powerful corporations that count on the aggressive support of the authorities, and whose modus operandi is the constant threat of brutal violence.

Conclusion

In both Chile and Honduras, the state has answered the conflicting claims of rural communities and private corporations by siding aggressively with capitalist interests over the livelihoods of those who live in contested areas.  The governments of both countries have viewed the separation of communities from their lands as a necessary consequence of modernisation and development, resorting to repressive tactics and human rights violations to ensure that rural activism cannot impede this process.  As Honduras drifts deeper into authoritarianism, the state is able to suppress protests with the threat or commission of extreme violence from the security forces and hired intermediaries.  Chile’s democratic status necessitates a more subtle approach based on highly politicised judicial interpretations, which are occasionally reinforced with state violence.  In the end, both strategies serve the same purpose – to deter activism through fear, either of incarceration or death, in order to facilitate corporate expansion.

Lewis Harrison

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