By Fr. Ismael Moreno, SJ, Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación
As the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15), being held from December 7-19, 2022, gets underway in Montreal, Que., we bring you this guest editorial by Fr. Ismael Moreno (a.k.a. Padre Melo). Until recently, Padre Melo was the director of Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación and Radio Progreso (ERIC/RP), amalgamated Jesuit organizations whose community development and public-interest media work is supported by Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada. Through his continuing role in ERIC/RP, he has unique insights into how the Honduran people cope with the issues that will be discussed at the COP15.
Delegates from 185 countries will gather in the icy Montreal winter at the COP15 to discuss how to better protect biodiversity and live in harmony with nature. From the warmth of my tropical terrace in El Progreso in northern Honduras, I will follow the discussions with interest.
My Central American country is teeming with terrestrial, marine and freshwater biological resources, all of which are now threatened by human activities. The loss of global biodiversity and the acceleration of global warming are symptoms of a predatory system that, in my region, is manifested in a crisis of deepening social inequality, increasing environmental degradation and weakening democracy.
Deepening social inequality
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many inequities that were partially hidden. The concentration of power and capital in ever fewer hands and massive increases in unemployment and poverty seem to be the landscape of the future. In these crises, multinationals and powerful groups never lose. On the contrary, their losses are borne by the state and, therefore, by peasant, Indigenous and black communities.
In Honduras, the low carbon footprint and sustainability of their traditional fishing practices have not protected coastal Afro-Caribbean Garífuna communities from being dispossessed of their lands by supposedly green ecotourism resorts.
This crisis of deepening inequality challenges us to heal the wounds inflicted by the neoliberal capitalist model whose economic dynamics produce inequalities, exclusion and violence. This requires us to identify and accompany affected populations. Any proposed solution to the crisis of inequality must entail solidarity with small farmers, the urban poor, Indigenous peoples, unemployed and excluded youths, migrants, displaced and refugee populations and women.
Those who bear the burden of the impacts of neoliberalism have to be part of the solution. No change can come without a focus on and commitment to the communities that suffer the consequences of inequalities.
Increasing environmental degradation
Instead of prompting a shift to more environmentally friendly programs, decisions and practices, the crises have propelled the redistribution of capital to guarantee profits for the powerful minority and the dumping of losses and catastrophes on the backs of the oppressed majority. The forces driving neoliberalism never lose!
The drivers of the dominant model wilfully ignore all damage to the planet. When any measures are taken, they are inevitably merely palliative and designed to placate multilateral organizations.
In my country, the island of Zacate Grande in the Gulf of Fonseca teems with biodiversity that is protected by the sustainable agricultural and fishing practices of smallholders who have lived there since the 1950s. Yet, the State handed the land over to a few rich and famous families by rubber-stamping a decree they authored. The decree characterized the island as a protected area that peasants were destroying. Perversely today, these farmers are criminalized for “usurping” the land they were born on!
In this crisis, the more capital comes into play, the more the dispossession continues, and the more natural resource extraction remains an investment priority. This is evident in the continuation mining operations in already-plundered Central American countries like Honduras. Large corporations and multinationals continue with their logic of dispossessing Indigenous and peasant communities.
We can expect more conflict between the defenders of human rights and the environment and the businessmen and politicians who promote agro-industrial investment projects and, especially, natural resource extraction. Water will continue to be a growing source of conflict, and its control will define who in society has the real power.
“It is our duty as citizens to promote grassroots democratic alternatives to the dominant power paradigm that disregards democracy, legitimizes dispossession and accelerates biodiversity loss and global warming.”
― Padre Melo
The extractive industry is not just about pillaging forests, rivers, water; mining; industrial African palm plantation; or building hydroelectric dams. It is about any investment that seeks profit by exploiting natural or human goods without considering their regeneration and disregarding human rights and the rights of nature.
This crisis of environmental degradation opens up another huge challenge: that of fostering in diverse social, church, environmental, academic and political actors a commitment to the struggle to protect the environment and the rights of nature; and solidarity with the communities dispossessed or threatened by extractive projects. This challenge also necessitates research on predatory projects that threaten the environment and the identification of regions and territories whose populations are most threatened.
The defence of the environment and of peasant and Indigenous territories is incompatible with extractive projects. Environmental experts and grassroots activists, academics and researchers must come together to formulate an environmental plan that protects communities and the rights of nature with a vision based on the common good.
Democracy has been gradually deteriorating over the past century. Instead of creating openings for greater participation, the trend, especially in Central America, has been one of the closing of democratic spaces and the consolidation of power by authoritarian caudillos or dictators.
This crisis presents us with a third challenge: tackling the political problem head-on and identifying the factors that weaken institutions and create fertile grounds for populism, authoritarianism and dictatorships.
It is our duty as citizens to promote grassroots democratic alternatives to the dominant power paradigm that disregards democracy, legitimizes dispossession and accelerates biodiversity loss and global warming. This is where we must focus our action in these uncertain times when threats to our planet are aggravated by wars.
In Honduras, these forces are threatening Garifuna communities on the Atlantic coast; facilitating the dispossession of communities in Santa Barbara by multinational mining companies; and enabling the eviction of smallholders on Zacate Grande by predatory businessmen who claim to protect biodiversity.