Agua Zarca: A Stain on the Dutch and Finnish Human Rights Record


Six indigenous people were killed in the Dutch-funded Santa Rita Dam in Guatemala (CODECO)

"Respect for human rights," the Finnish government says, is a guiding principle for its development policy and cooperation. The Dutch government has identified "supporting human rights defenders" as one of the three top priorities of its human rights policy. How is it that in spite of such commitments the two countries support projects with severe human rights abuses such as the Agua Zarca Dam through their development finance institutions, FMO and Finnfund?

On March 2, Berta Cáceres, the indigenous leader of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was killed after she had received numerous threats for her resistance to the Agua Zarca Dam. Berta's murder did not happen in a vacuum: The dam builder, Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), has close contacts with the Honduran military, and orchestrated a campaign of intimidation against Berta and her comrades. Three other COPINH activists have been killed for their resistance against Agua Zarca.

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have an obligation to respect human rights, and to carry out human rights impact assessments and other due diligence measures before they invest in sensitive regions and sectors. Sinohydro, China's biggest state-owned dam building company, undertook such due diligence in 2013 and pulled out of the Agua Zarca Dam in 2013 because of "uncontrollable" conflicts.

These conflicts did not deter FMO and Finnfund from approving loans of $15 million and $5 million respectively for Agua Zarca in 2014. The two financial institutions have consistently defended the project in their public announcements. They appear to live in a parallel universe, and to primarily rely on DESA and the Honduran government, which are parties in the conflict over the project, for their information.

When it comes to human rights abuses Agua Zarca is not an isolated case. Local activists have been killed in dam conflicts again and again. As Both Ends and SOMO, two Dutch advocacy organizations, have documented, FMO has supported several hydropower projects that have triggered serious conflicts and human rights violations.

In Panama for example the indigenous Ngäbe-Bugle people are strongly resisting the Barro Blanco Dam. Two indigenous activists were killed in 2012, and an official investigation found that FMO and other financiers did not follow their own guidelines in financing the project. FMO is also supporting the controversial Santa Rita Dam in Guatemala, which is linked to the death of six indigenous people.

Of course contradictions between human rights and foreign aid policies are widespread among governments. The United States, for example, strongly condemned Berta Cáceres' murder as a "despicable crime," but continues to train, equip and fund the Honduran military in spite of its human rights abuses. Yet when it comes to the Agua Zarca Dam, the spotlight is on the Dutch and Finnish governments.

Under the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, governments have a particular responsibility to ensure that state-owned enterprises, including financiers such as FMO and Finnfund, respect human rights. If the managers of these banks don't realize that Agua Zarca is the source of serious human rights abuses, the governments which control them must bring them into compliance with their human rights obligations. Sixty NGOs from around the world presented this demand to the Dutch Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Development on March 14.

Last week, the Dutch government announced that it will send an ambassador to Honduras "to express concern over the killing of human rights activist Berta Cáceres" and presumably assess the state of the Agua Zarca Project. In response to International Rivers' online action, FMO said that it would decide about continued involvement in the dam project on the basis of this visit. Finnfund says that speculation about an exit from Agua Zarca is "at the moment premature," but the financier would probably follow if FMO pulled out of the project.

As Agua Zarca, Barro Blanco and other projects demonstrate, we cannot count on the judgment of financiers when it comes to human rights. The governments of the Netherlands and Finland must take responsibility for the actions of their development financiers. The noble principles of their human rights policies are only credible if they also apply when their own interests are at stake. Continued involvement in the Agua Zarca Dam is a stain on the Dutch and Finnish human rights policies.

You can still call on FMO, Finnfund and other actors to withdraw from the Agua Zarca Dam through this online action.