Indigenous activist murdered in Honduras defending the environment and human rights
On March 5, two days after environmentalist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was murdered, thousands of her supporters clogged the streets of La Esperanza, Honduras, carrying her coffin for burial and shouting slogans such as, “Berta lives … the struggle continues.”
Cáceres, 45, a defender of the Lenca indigenous people in Honduras, was shot to death by three gunmen in her home in La Esperanza, capital of the western department of Intibucá. As coordinator for the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), she was a staunch defender of the environment and human rights. Cáceres was fighting to stop the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project that would dam the Gualcarque River, considered sacred by the Lenca people.
Last year she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which cited her for “fearless work to defend the Gualcarque River, its surrounding environment and people from the Agua Zarca Dam” project.
In the same attack that killed Cáceres, fellow environmentalist Gustavo Castro Soto, coordinator of Friends of the Earth Mexico, was wounded. Despite the danger Castro Soto faced as a witness to Cáceres’ murder, the Honduran government refused to allow him to return home to Mexico for almost a month after the assassination of Cáceres. The ban on his travel was lifted following international pressure to allow him to leave the country.
According to Cáceres and other opponents of the Agua Zarca Dam, the Honduran government’s approval of the project in 2010 ignored the Lenca people’s right to prior, free and informed consultation as guaranteed by Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labor Organization. More than 150 assemblies of local indigenous people voiced their rejection of the construction of the dam, which would force the people off their ancestral land.
The government awarded the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project to the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer.
In an effort to stop the project, Cáceres and the indigenous communities organized a road blockade in 2013 and 2014 to keep the construction company’s machinery and equipment out. The response from the police, the military and from private security guards hired by the company was increased harassment, the protestors say. Three Lenca leaders were killed during the time of the roadblocks, according to Global Witness, a non-profit organization based in London and Washington, D.C., that focuses on environmental and human rights abuses.
As a result of the protests and violence, Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA, publicly citing ongoing community resistance. The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, withdrew its funding, citing concerns about human rights violations. Although the construction of the hydroelectric plant is stopped for now, opponents fear DESA intends to revive the project, again without the consent of the Lenca people.
María Paulina Gómez, a defender of the Gualcarque River, says that DESA employees and local political officials had threatened to kill Cáceres and she publicized these threats through social media.
“They told Bertita that they were going to kill her,” Gómez said, using the diminutive form of Berta Cáceres’ first name.“What will happen now,” she said “is that they are going to finish off all of us, the defenders of the river, but we are not afraid.”
One day before her murder, Cáceres told defenders of the Gualcarque River who were participating in a workshop on renewable energy in La Esperanza to continue the fight without her because she could be killed at any moment.
“Berta confronted death constantly,” says her former husband Salvador Zúniga, who is the coordinator of the Popular Indigenous Council of Honduras. “Her coherency, her rebellious attitude, led her to give her blood for these people. That is why we must continue with the fight.”
The government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández called the murder of the indigenous leader “a hard blow for Honduras” and vowed to solve it. However, Cáceres’ three daughters and son have called for the investigation of her murder to be turned over to an international mission named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying they did not trust the government to take action.
“The truth regarding the crime that ended her life cannot be distorted,” said Olivia, Berta, Laura and Salvador Zúniga Cáceres in a statement before their mother’s funeral. “We know with clear certainty that the motives for her despicable murder were her resistance to and her fight against the exploitation of the common goods of nature and in defense of the Lenca people.”
They said the government and DESA would be responsible for any possible attempt against their lives and the lives of their family. They also cautioned that the indigenous communities were being left unprotected and exposed to the murder of their leaders at any moment.
A month after Cáceres’ murder, her family called upon the U.S. government to work for justice in Honduras and to pressure the Honduran government to stop the killing of social activists.
“As painful as Bertita’s assassination is for our family, this event is now an opportunity to begin pushing back hard against Honduras’ pervasive corruption, impunity and lack of rule of law,” the family said in a statement posted on the website bertacaceres.org.
“The U.S. government has enormous leverage in Honduras, through its assistance programs and veto power over multilateral loans,” the family said. “It’s time for the U.S. to begin using that leverage to promote justice and stop the killing of social activists rather than continuing to hand the Honduran government a blank check to carry on with business as usual.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Latinamerica Press, based in Lima, Peru.