How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Exacerbating Risks for Earth Rights Defenders

As we’ve reported, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated threats against earth rights defenders. While the social distancing measures imposed by governments worldwide are critical towards preventing the spread of the virus, in some parts of the world, shelter in place rules leave those who dare to speak out against abusive corporations and governments vulnerable to persecution by death squads and other violent, oppressive forces. 

Yoni, an environmental defender from Tegucigalpa, Honduras is one notable example. Yoni is a spokesperson for the Plataforma Agraria Regional del Valle del Aguán, the umbrella organization for the movement to protect the land rights of the Campesinos–the region’s small-scale and subsistence farmers. Yoni is currently in the Bajo Aguán, a region in northern Honduras that has been the setting for a series of violent land disputes, as part of his advocacy efforts since March and has been unable to return home. He is currently staying with his family in their home in the community of La Confianza in the city of Tocoa, Colón, which puts him at extreme risk because there is a powerful paramilitary group there that has been persecuting him for years. That’s because Yoni is one of many land defenders who have challenged palm oil corporations such as Corporación Dinant that seized and now occupy Campesino land. Yoni is prominent within the movement and leads negotiation efforts with the government of Honduras to restore land rights to farmers.

Yoni first fled the region in 2016 after a paramilitary group murdered two fellow Campesino leaders, José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionisio George, and began to infiltrate their small farming cooperative. Yoni’s life was in danger, so he relocated to Tegucigalpa. The Honduran military and paramilitary forces had placed his name on a list of “heads to collect from the Aguan.” One general explicitly called him out and threatened him during a radio broadcast. He only narrowly escaped one attack on his life. While the Inter-American Commission granted precautionary measures to farmers in the Bajo Aguan in 2014, they have failed to adequately protect earth rights defenders like Yoni. 

Yoni is currently staying with his family and fears for his life. He has noticed heavily armed men in hoods just meters from his family’s home. The police unit normally tasked with ensuring the security of defenders has failed to adequately respond. Yoni’s life and the lives of his family members are at imminent risk. This week, over 100 organizations urged the government of Honduras to adopt all measures necessary to guarantee the human rights of defenders, social leaders, and ethnic communities in that country. 

Yoni’s story illustrates why the government of Honduras needs to guarantee the rights of human rights, environmental, and land defenders in the Bajo Aguán, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch this video to hear Yoni’s story in his own words.