The murder of environmental defender Berta Cáceres highlights the repression and impunity which make Honduras one of the world’s most dangerous countries for activists.
At midnight on 2 March 2016, Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was shot dead while sleeping inside her home. News of her murder shocked the international community, but in Honduras, as Berta herself said, ‘it is easy to be killed in the fight for the environment’.
Berta Cáceres was co-founder and coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH). As an indigenous Lenca woman, Berta opposed the construction of the internationally-funded and government-supported Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Lenca people and vital for their self-sufficiency as an indigenous community. In her acceptance speech for the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, Berta said:
‘The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers… COPINH, walking alongside people struggling for their emancipation, validates this commitment to continue protecting our waters, the rivers, our shared resources and nature in general, as well as our rights as a people. Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call.’
Defender of the land
Throughout her years of activism, Berta faced fabricated criminal charges for ‘endangering the security of the Honduran state’ as well as verbal and physical threats and attacks. These intensified when she started resisting construction of the Agua Zarca dam. She was granted emergency protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which the Honduran government failed to provide.
The Agua Zarca dam was one of dozens of projects made possible after the 2009 US-backed military coup which ousted left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya. The new Honduran government privatised land and rivers, granting concessions to international interests, disregarding the rights of indigenous communities over their ancestral lands. From the start, Berta Cáceres denounced the coup for exacerbating the multiple oppressions affecting indigenous people, and indigenous women in particular, for centuries. In an interview with eldiario.es, she criticised the ‘tragic situation in Honduras’ and the ‘advancement of big transnational investment with companies linked to the powerful economic, political and military sectors, with those neoliberal, extractivist policies that have also augmented the repression, criminalisation and dispossession of forcefully displaced communities’.
Her capacity to mobilise her community through resistance and cultivation of their indigenous, anti-patriarchal worldview made her a target. After her death, it was reported that Berta Cáceres’ name was on a hit list belonging to a Honduran military unit trained by US Special Forces. The former Honduran lieutenant who revealed the story and asked to remain anonymous for fear for his life said he was ‘100 per cent certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army’.
The violence of the company behind the dam, Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), towards those opposing its construction was repeatedly denounced by COPINH and ignored by state authorities. In a statement made days after Berta’s murder, her daughters and son asked: ‘How is it possible that the police, the military, the defence ministry, who protect the interests and the property of DESA, are supposed to be the same who should have guaranteed the protection and security of our Berta?’
A couple of months after Berta’s assassination, five people were arrested over her murder, including two DESA employees and one active and one retired member of the Honduran military. Berta’s family expressed their mistrust that these arrests would lead to the intellectual authors of the crime. Months later, emphasising the Honduran government’s incapacity to handle the case, it was reported that the case files were stolen from the car of a supreme court magistrate who supposedly was taking them home to continue reviewing an appeal.
Links between the government, the military and international corporations make the murder of Berta Cáceres particularly sensitive. Her family and COPINH demanded the establishment of an independent commission to investigate her case and for the Agua Zarca project to be stopped. Despite international pressure, these demands have not been met.
Earlier this year it was announced that the entities financing the dam project – the Central-American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), FinnFund and the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO) – had withdrawn their support. Although an independent fact-finding mission commissioned by the FMO confirmed they were seeking ‘a responsible exit from the project’, at the time of writing it is unclear what this will mean in practice and if the dam project will continue. DESA sought to interpret the report positively, stating that ‘as a result of the [FMO] report… the developer Agua Zarca reaffirms its commitment to not rest until this important renewable energy project revives’[sic].
COPINH rejected the FMO’s investigation denouncing the researchers’ bias. Criticism highlighted reluctance to hear testimony from victims of DESA-induced violence and the failure to provide safety mechanisms for people to speak without fear of reprisals. COPINH also criticised the report’s oversight of the systematic violence exerted by DESA and its employees towards opponents, instead blaming victims and seeking to absolve the FMO of any responsibility for the company it was financially supporting.
Meanwhile, a report by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, published two months before the FMO’s, suggested revoking DESA’s contract, licences and other permits, citing ‘acts of threat, harassment and violence perpetrated for years against members of COPINH… who opposed the Agua Zarca project, as well as the incrimination of at least two people associated with the company DESA in the murder of Berta Cáceres, and violations related to the lack of prior consultation’.
Before greenlighting the project, the Honduran government did not seek consent from all affected indigenous communities, as required by international and regional human rights treaties and the ILO Convention No. 169, which Honduras has signed and ratified. More than six months after Berta Cáceres’ murder, her family and COPINH are still seeking justice, but are instead facing further violence.
Berta Cáceres was not the first or last indigenous leader to be murdered in Honduras. According to Global Witness, more than 100 environmental activists were murdered between 2010 and 2015. Several other members of COPINH, including a 15-year-old boy, Maycol Rodríguez, have been murdered. Tomas Gómez, interim coordinator of COPINH, recently told teleSUR that ‘the harassment and threats against COPINH and the Lenca community in Rio Blanco near the site of the contested Agua Zarca dam have increased since Cáceres’ assassination’.
Only 12 days after her death, and despite the IACHR granting precautionary measures to protect Berta’s relatives and COPINH members, another COPINH leader, Nelson Noé García, was killed. A few months later, the body of Lesbia Yaneth, described by COPINH as a ‘fervent defender of indigenous communities’ rights and opponent of the concessions and privatisation of rivers in La Paz department’, was found in a rubbish dump.
International solidarity that helps exert pressure on the Honduran government and the companies financing the Agua Zarca dam, is key to COPINH and Berta’s family’s struggle for justice. They are calling for an independent commission to investigate her murder; that the Agua Zarca project is terminated; that Lenca ancestral land rights are respected; that these areas are demilitarised and the ‘Berta Cáceres Bill’ is passed in the USA to regulate funding of the Honduran military; and that those who back the Agua Zarca project – including the government and financers – are made accountable.
Their final demand is that we honour the life and legacy of Berta Cáceres through our existence and resistance, affirming that ‘Berta didn’t die, she multiplied’.
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)