March 4, 2016; The Guardian

The world lost a beloved and important environmental activist last week. Berta Cáceres, a member of the indigenous Lenca group in Honduras, was gunned down by at least two gunmen who forcibly entered a friend’s home in La Esperanze where she had been staying recently because of threats to her safety. Cáceres was 44 years old and the mother of four.

Internationally recognized for her work to protect the Gualcarque River, Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), through which she led opposition to the Agua Zarca Dam, one of the largest hydroelectric projects in Central America. As a result of her organizing efforts, fabricated criminal charges had been filed against Cáceres, and two of her children were forced to leave Honduras because of concerns for their safety.

After COPINH held a march in Río Blanco in February, she and other participants were confronted and detained by the Honduran army, local law enforcement, and employees of the dam company. On previous occasions, Cáceres had received warnings that she would be “raped or murdered if she continued her campaigns.”

Cáceres’ assassination is especially shocking as it comes shortly after a judgment issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declaring Honduras responsible for violations of collective ownership rights and lack of judicial protection for indigenous people, as well as its failure to uphold their right to “free, prior, informed consent in front of development projects on their lands.” As detailed in Cultural Survival Quarterly, the case leading to the judgment was brought by OFRANEH, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, which has worked for years defending the territory of another indigenous group—the Garifuna peoples—and is part of a broad coalition of indigenous rights organizations throughout the country. The Court stated unequivocally that “consultation must be applied prior to any exploration project that may affect the traditional lands of the indigenous and tribal communities.”

Cultural Survival is an NGO that advocates for indigenous peoples rights. In 2014, the organization worked with OFRANEH and a coalition of other indigenous organizations to submit a Universal Periodic Review report on Honduras to the UN Human Rights Council detailing a litany of human rights abuses. In 2015, Honduras was censured by the Council for its treatment of indigenous communities and the use of repressive violence with regard to land rights. As a result, the Honduran government formally agreed, among other recommendations, to:

  • Ensure prompt investigations into attacks and threats against human rights defenders, indigenous people, and journalists;
  • Ensure that they can carry out their activities without fear of reprisals; and
  • Continue ongoing efforts to enhance the participation of indigenous peoples on public policies that affect them, fully implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization Convention concerning indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries.

While the intention of the dam’s developers may have been to create benefits for the local population by giving them access to electricity and jobs, the project did not receive the prior informed consent required by the UN and ILO. On the contrary, as Peter Bosshard points out, “the Lenca people, for whom the Gualcarque River has an important agricultural and spiritual value, vigorously protested against the project and blocked construction for several years. As a result, the dam builder militarized the region.”

In July 2013, Cáceres’s comrade, Tomás Garcia, was killed and his 17-year-old son was shot multiple times. (The School of the Americas Watch created a moving photo essay on Garcia’s work and death). Shortly thereafter, Sinohydro Group, the Chinese company originally contracted to build the dam, terminated its agreement, noting that “right from the very beginning” of its mobilization, “there were serious interest conflicts between the [project’s employer, Desarrollos Energéticos S. A], and the local communities.” Cáceres had called on other foreign partners and investors, including the Dutch Development Bank and the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation, to follow Sinohydro’s lead and withdraw from the project.

According to human rights groups, Honduras is ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental activists, with 101 deaths between 2010 and 2014 alone. Global Witness, an NGO that campaigns to end the world’s worst environmental and human rights abuses, undertook and published a study last year, How Many More?, showing that the killings of environmental activists are increasing, with indigenous communities being the hardest hit.

According to the report, “At least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014— almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period. A shocking 40 percent of victims were indigenous, with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business. Nearly three-quarters of the deaths we found information on were in Central and South America.”

The murders known to Global Witness occurred in highly remote areas, where communities lack access to communications and the media. Worldwide, the group believes the real death toll is even higher, and that many more killings are escaping public records: “The case of Berta Cáceres is emblematic of the systematic targeting of environmental defenders in Honduras. Since 2013, three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca hydro-dam on the Gualcarque.”

COPINH has issued a statement asking for national and international actions to stop such acts of political aggression and the systematic violation of the rights of the Lenca people. Demanding actions that “denounce the strategies used by corporations to control and privatize the commons and nature itself,” the organization is issuing an impassioned plea to the Honduran people, calling on them to reaffirm the struggle for the Gualcarque River and demand justice for Berta Cáceres death.

In 2015, Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, “often at great personal risk.” John D. Goldman, the foundation’s president, issued a statement expressing his condolences and praising her tireless work and fearlessness:

She understood the risks that came with her work, but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction. [We] will honor her life’s work by continuing to highlight the courageous work of Goldman Prize winners like Berta. She built an incredible community of grassroots activists in Honduras, who will carry on the campaign she fought and died for.

In her acceptance speech, Cáceres spoke eloquently about her work, and the natural environment that inspired it:

The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth—militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated—demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this earth and for its spirits. I dedicate this award to all the rebels out there, to my mother, to the Lenca people, to Rio Blanco, and to the martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources.

—Patricia Schaefer