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Activists gathered outside Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland's office in downtown Toronto on March 11 to voice their solidarity with Indigenous activists and environmentalists, as well as to condemn the assassination of Indigenous Honduran activist Berta Cáceres.
"The government killed her!" shouted the audience, as people waved signs the read, "Justicia Para Berta" (Justice For Berta) and "Justice for Berta, Safety for Gustavo."
Cáceres was an Indigenous Lenca environmentalist who grew up amidst the waves of violence that erupted in Central America during the 1980s. While her mother, an activist and midwife, offered refugees from El Salvador a safe home, as a youth Cáceres was taught how powerful activism could truly be. Becoming a student activist in 1993, Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to address the increasing political and environmental threats faced by Lenca communities.
On March 3 gunmen broke into Cáceres' home and murdered her "barely a week after she was threatened for opposing a hydroelectric project," reports The Guardian. Gustavo Castro Soto, director of the NGO Otros Mundos and coordinator of organization Friends of the Earth Mexico, was wounded in the attack.
Organizers of the Justice for Berta rally informed the crowd that Soto is currently being barred from leaving Honduras. According to the Associated Press, officials are treating Soto as a protected witness.
Conversely, organizations Soto is affiliated with have released statements explaining that preventing Soto from leaving Honduras is "unjust and unnecessary" due to the fact that Soto has already provided sufficient information to officials. They claim that Soto "has not been informed what procedures remain outstanding."
Soto's friends and colleagues have good reason to be wary. In 2015 Santiago Rene Moncada, the president of the Association of Honduran Prosecutors (AFH), openly condemned the Honduran government for their poor track record of protecting witnesses.
Tensions run high between activists and union
Indigenous activist Tori Cress spoke about the importance of demonstrating and bringing children to protests. "We bring our kids because they are the next generation," Cress explained. Cress then stressed the importance of the next generation learning how to demonstrate and protest in meaningful ways.
Cress then articulated the importance of consultations in any kind of project that would economically or environmentally affect Indigenous communities.
"There has been no consultation and no consent," Cress explained, with regards to projects that run through, and often significantly pollute Indigenous communities, such as mining projects and pipelines.
While passionate and insightful, the rally was not without tension. Members of United Steelworkers (USW) were met with several inquiries of USW involvement in mining and the Northern Ontario's Ring of Fire.
United Steelworkers, which represents over 800,000 members, is involved in several industries including energy, forestry, rubber, manufacturing, and mining. Protesters yelled, "No ring of fire!" as USW representatives responded, "We are here in solidarity." To that, one demonstrator responded, "It is not solidarity when our people are dying."
The focus, however, was quickly brought to attention with a moment of silence for Berta Cáceres, after which a demonstrator shouted, "One minute of silence and an entire life time of struggle."
Canada's lethal impact in Honduras
Organizers emphasized how Canada is implicated in environmental and human rights concerns in Honduras.
In 1998 when Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America, Canada quickly responded with a development plan. The plan included Canada offering over $100 million to Honduras over the course of four years.
However, the string attached to this deal was that over 40 Canadian mining companies would be able to assess Honduras for investment opportunities. Many viewed this seemingly charitable development plan as a strategic economic opportunity for Canada.
In western Honduras, as in many other areas of the country, communities are being displaced by North American, often Canadian-owned, mining companies.
In 2006 then-President Jose Manuel "Mel" Zelaya took a stance against mining projects stating that he "[did not] want to see more permits for open-pit mines in Honduras. Not one more until we have the guarantees needed for the conservation and preservation of our natural wealth." In a military coup in 2009, democratically elected President Zelaya was forced out.
While the Organization of the American States (OAS), as well as the European Union, condemned the forceful removal of the Honduran President, in July of 2009 Peter Kent, then-Canada Minister of State of Foreign Affairs for the Americas, suggested that former President Zelaya not return to Honduras.
As the crowd chanted "Up, up with the rivers! Down, down with the dams!" organizers condemned corporations around the world for trying to "privatize the earth -- especially the water."
Organizers went onto explain the human rights abuses perpetuated through free trade agreements, like the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, which was signed off by the Conservative government and came into effect in Oct. 2014.
The lethal impact of North American economic interests in Honduras has left the environment polluted. The Indigenous communities that rely on water and agricultural resources have been left with toxic levels of mercury, arsenic, and lead in their bodies.
Organizers explained that the much-debated Trans-Pacific Partnership has been cited as not having adequate labour standards for countries with historically poor human and labour rights records.
If you would like to learn more about Canada and mining see the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network.
If you would like to get involved in demanding safety for Gustavo Castro Soto, click here.
A. Splawinski is a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. You can visit her personal blog www.lionpolitics.tumblr.com and follow her on twitter @asplawinski.
Photo: Idle No More website