What It’s Like To Be A Human Rights Defender In One Of The Deadliest Countries On Earth

<span class="copyright">Photographed by Daniella Zalcman.</span>
Photographed by Daniella Zalcman.

Pull back the label on a T-shirt or a pair of trainers and you might see “Made in Honduras”. Fish your favourite long-lasting lipstick out of your makeup bag and it may contain palm oil, another of the tiny Central American country’s major exports.

But although Honduras is one of the smallest countries in the world, it boasts one of the highest murder rates per capita. Human rights defenders, many of them women, pushing for better conditions in these industries and beyond, often find themselves in the crosshairs of the violence.

So what is it like to wake up each morning and fight for change in a place where such efforts could cost you your life?

“We can’t say that we are superwomen. The fear exists, but what is important is to not let the fear paralyse us and to keep moving forward,” said Miriam Miranda, a human rights defender from the African-indigenous Garifuna community. “For me, my identity and spirituality have been very important. From a cultural and spiritual perspective, our fight is a basic, fundamental one.”

As the coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), Miranda is constantly challenging the business interests that threaten to make her community disappear. Drug traffickers have made Garifuna communities along the coast violent battlegrounds for routes and territory. Major corporations want to build beach resorts in the villages the Garifuna have called home for centuries. Low-wage factories making clothes for export to Europe and the U.S. exploit workers, and plantations growing palm oil for cosmetics and food violently take over entire towns to plant more of the cash crop.

But the stakes are high. Earlier this year, Berta Cáceres, a prominent human rights defender from another Honduran indigenous community, was brutally murdered by hitmen in her home just months after receiving a major international prize for her opposition to a major dam set to be built on the river her people consider sacred.

“Berta travelled across the country, and they could have killed her anywhere. But the message that was sent by killing her in her own home was very clear: 'You’re not safe anywhere. We are watching you. We can get you anytime we want and we can do whatever we want to you,’” Miranda said. “I think that’s one of the strongest messages we as defenders in Honduras have ever received, and that’s why we believe we are more vulnerable now than ever.”

Even in the face of threats and violence, Miranda has refused to give up. Ahead, she shares her story with Refinery29.

<span class="copyright">Photographed by Daniella Zalcman.</span>
Photographed by Daniella Zalcman.

Tell us a little about the Garifuna community and culture...

The Garifuna are a mix of African people and indigenous peoples from the Caribbean. Our community was formed on the island of San Vicente off the coast of Venezuela in about 1600. Culturally, we are indigenous people with dark skin, and we have lived all along the Atlantic coast of Honduras for the past 219 years. Along the coast, there are about 48 communities. We live right in front of the sea, and we have a rich indigenous culture with its own spirituality and identity. We also have our own language.

Garifuna women play an important role, because we are a matrilineal and matrifocal system… Women play a fundamental role in everything having to do with community life. We are not just the ones who give birth to sons and daughters, we as women are responsible for making sure that our cultural identity as Garifuna lives on.

In 2002, as a result of all that we have done to preserve our cultural identity as Garifuna, UNESCO named us to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But even though we have been recognised in this way, there still isn’t any protection from the government to make sure our identity lives on.

The human rights situation in Honduras right now is very serious, particularly after the murder of Berta Cáceres. What is it like to work as a human rights defender when there are so many threats?

After Berta’s murder, more women and people have come forward to demand that human rights be respected, to demand that nature be respected, to demand that our rivers and our forests be protected. So on the one hand, the number of human rights violations has multiplied. But on the other hand, so have the voices of people fighting back.

With Berta’s murder, the government showed that it could snatch away the lives of people who fight for human rights. I think it was a very clear message, the fact that they assassinated a woman who was recognised around the world, who had just received the Goldman International Prize. Even though she was high-profile, they still dared to do that. And if they dared to kill her, what do we think they could do to all of the women working across the country and in other communities? The fact that they killed her in her own home was a clear message to us.

Honduras is also one of the countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, and one of the most dangerous for journalists.

But we also can’t let fear paralyse us. That’s also very clear. We have to redouble, triple our efforts to protect ourselves. Honduras is also one of the countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, and one of the most dangerous for journalists.

The [2009] coup also created a very strong climate of misogyny. Police feel that they can control women’s bodies, the bodies of LGBTQ activists. Before the coup, there had never been so many LGBTQ people murdered. Many of them have had to flee the country. Why? Because the military believes that going out in the street to protest is a reason for them to take your life. That at any moment, they are free to stop you, detain you and do whatever they want to you. If there is no rule of law, there is no guarantee you will be safe. That’s the horrifying reality we’re currently living in Honduras.

Some women aren’t even allowed to go to the bathroom when they have to.

Two of Honduras’ major exports are clothes for big North American and European brands, and palm oil, which is used in food, soap and cosmetics. What do you want young women outside of Honduras to consider or know when they buy these products?

One of the most important things to understand is that the women who work in these clothing factories have their rights violated in a major way. Ever since the maquilas [low-wage clothing factories] arrived in Honduras, they have not had to pay taxes. Workers there can’t unionise. Some women aren’t even allowed to go to the bathroom when they have to. And when women working in these places at some point demand better conditions, they can all be fired immediately. Not just one or two people, but the entire group. It’s horrible.

Many of the things that are bought in countries in the north are produced in places where women experience enormous human rights violations. In some cases, there are women who earn just 3,000 lempiras per month. That’s less than $130. But the factory owners offer that salary to them and say, ‘Take it or leave it’, because we are also living in a country where there are really limited jobs. So the factory owners don’t care at all about the working conditions.

Palm oil is a monoculture crop that not only damages the land, but also hurts people’s ability to feed themselves because they’re not able to produce basic staples like rice and beans when the land is being used to produce palm oil. Palm oil is most often used in soaps, but there are companies that use it in makeup and cosmetics, too. It’s also made into cooking oil for food products.

It’s also important to know about the working conditions in the palm oil industry and how they affect women’s health. One issue in particular is that when they are producing the palm oil, there are palm seeds that fall down, and it’s mostly women whose job it is to collect them. The problem is that the trees and plants are sometimes sprayed with toxic substances, and some of the women go and pick up the seeds without any protection – no gloves, no mask, nothing. The workers aren’t told that it can be a health hazard. For me, it’s also a major human rights issue, because later on, it isn’t just the women who get sick, it can be their children as well.

That’s why I think it’s important for young people who live in Europe and the U.S. to investigate really closely what the working conditions are like for the people producing the products they buy.

What is one piece of advice you would like to share with young women?

One fundamental piece of advice is that you don’t have to lose your roots. Young people have to understand that we are always connected to our ancestors, to our grandparents, to our mothers and to our communities. We need to ask ourselves why we live in a state and a system that can be dehumanising and that teaches us to be individualistic and only think about ourselves. We have to realise that we are part of a bigger collective. There are many hands, many thoughts, many hearts that we can bring together to find the answers when we feel as though we are drowning or we don’t know what to do.

Ed. note: This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.

The Rainforest Foundation UK ranks brands that produce palm oil to help consumers make educated choices. And labour organisers in the global garment industry suggest many ways consumers can get involved and engage with their favourite brands to help improve working conditions.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

Why A Children's Book About Being Transgender Has Sparked Outrage

After The Election U.S. Applications To Canadian Colleges Rise

My Wish For The Children Of The World