Prize-Winning Honduran Environmental Leader Murdered In Her Home

March 4, 2016


Berta Caceres at the banks of the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras where she, COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and the people of Rio Blanco have maintained a two year struggle to halt construction on the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project, that poses grave threats to local environment, river and indigenous Lenca people from the region.

Berta was a close friend of Jesuit Father Ismael “Melo” Moreno, SJ, and a frequent collaborator with the Jesuit-run radio station and think-tank Radio Progreso/ERIC, whose death has sent reverberations not only throughout our Jesuit network in Central America, but around the world. Berta was a high-profile leader of the Lenca indigenous group of Honduras, who had spent years defending Lenca lands and water rights against encroachment by multinational companies. She organized her community and communities across the world against the in defense of the Gualcarque River, a sacred site of the Lenca people and an essential water source which would have been destroyed by the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam project.   Berta is another in a growing list of casualties of violence and targeted killing in Honduras, another friend and companion of our Jesuit works gunned down before her time.

In recent years, Berta had suffered constant death threats against herself and her family, threats of sexual violence and assault, attacks and harassment. She was also the subject of continual legal harassment by judicial authorities and intimidation by security forces and local government officials for her work.   Two of her children were forced to seek refuge abroad due to the constant persecution. In the six months before she was slain, threats against her had escalated and included shots fired at her car and verbal threats and messages, by members of the military, police, local authorities and representatives of the hydroelectric company.

Berta’s untimely death confirms what a 2015 report by Global Witness has shown:  Honduras is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental activists.  At least 109 environmental activists were murdered between 2010 and 2015.    Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has become one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a human rights defender of any kind. Indigenous and Garifuna leaders, social activists, union leaders, women’s rights activists, human rights activists, justice operators, and journalists reporting on human rights and corruption issues are among those who, like environmental activists, are at risk.

Today the Jesuit Conference and the Ignatian Solidarity Network, along with over 200 other faith, labor, human rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice organizations joined together to appeal to the State Department to take urgent steps to ensure that a fair, independent and thorough investigation into Berta’s death along with the protection of witnesses and the communities and lands to whom Berta dedicated her life.  Please join with us to urge Congress and the State Department to stand with Berta Caceres and all those who are putting their lives on the line for the protection of human rights and the environment in Honduras.

As Fr. Melo wrote in an email to friends and allies in the hours after Berta was gunned down, the struggle for justice and human rights in Honduras continues, “from today on with loyalty to Berta Caceres, our sister and traveling companion.”

Cáceres, coordinator and co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, or COPIHN, was killed by unknown attackers who snuck into her home in the middle of the night after she had fallen asleep.  She was pivotal in the Lenca’s fight to stop the dam, a development project in the community of Rio Blanco that would have cut off the water supply, as well as access to food and medicine, to hundreds of indigenous people, and was launched without consent from the local communities. In recent years she had escalated her efforts to protect people and fight dams across Honduras.

Environmental groups around the world decried her murder. “It is truly a dark day for the environmental movement, the human rights movement, and the world to lose such a passionate and dedicated voice for equality and justice,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement. “The fact that she was murdered for her commitment to protect indigenous communities is a devastating reminder that standing up for a healthy, safe future is often extremely dangerous work in too many places all over the world.”

In 2013, Cáceres organized a road blockade to prevent access to the dam site. The Lenca people maintained the blockade for more than a year, enduring violent attacks, and numerous attempts at evicting them. By the end of the year, construction effectively had ended. Last year, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts.

Cáceres’ fellow COPINH leader, Tomas Garcia, was shot and killed during a peaceful protest in 2013, and Caceres had been the recipient of numerous death threats and other forms of harassment from state security forces and the company behind the dam project. There also have been past reports that hitmen were hired to assassinate her, according to teleSUR.

She spoke of the dangers she, her coworkers, and her family faced in an audio interview posted by the Global Greengrants Fund, calling the country’s violent climate, particularly against environmentalists, an assault “to my physical integrity, emotional integrity…and to the organization I work for,” adding: “One of the hardest parts is when these political repressive systems infiltrate your family structures and your personal structures….when you have to leave the place where you are…” in order to escape harm.

“[But] but it is a necessary choice because your life is at risk but it’s a completely hard one to make,” she said.

Honduran security minister Julian Pacheco said in a press conference Thursday that police were responsible for protecting Cáceres, and had coordinated measures with her, but admitted that the security had “failed” in their job to protect her, according to teleSUR.

“Ms. Caceres was an inspiration to people around the world, and her death is a great loss for all the people of Honduras,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “The immediate question is what President Hernandez and his government — which has too often ignored or passively condoned attacks against Honduran social activists — will do to support an independent investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible for this despicable crime.”

Global Witness, a nonprofit international organization that investigates human rights abuses, has described Honduras as the world’s most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental activist, saying its research showed that at least 101 people were killed there between 2010 and 2014 for their work against destructive agriculture, mining, or dam projects. The organization called for an immediate investigation into her death.

According to the recent release by Global Witness, How Many More?, since the 2009 coup, Honduras has witnessed an exponential increase in environmentally destructive megaprojects that would displace indigenous communities. Almost 30 percept of the country’s land has been set aside for mining concessions, creating a demand for cheap energy to power future mining operations. To meet this need, the government has approved hundreds of dam projects around the country, privatizing rivers, land, and causing the displacement of traditional inhabitants and the plundering of Commons’ land and Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories (ICCAs).

“The shocking news of Berta’s killing should come as a dramatic wake-up call for the Honduran state,” said Billy Kyte, senior campaigner for Global Witness. “Indigenous people are being killed in alarming numbers simply for defending rights to their land. The Honduran state must act immediately to find Berta’s killers and protect her family and colleagues.”

Similarly, Terry Odendahl, president and chief executive officer of the Global Greengrants Fund — which had supported the activist’s work — said she was “deeply saddened about the death of my friend and courageous leader Berta Cáceres.”

Odendahl, who has known and worked with Cáceres for 15 years, added: “Her assassination is another horrific example of the violence against environmental activists and the criminalization of people, particularly women and indigenous peoples, around the world who are fighting to protect human and environmental rights.”

Cáceres’ work was featured in Greengrants’ 2014 report on Women and Climate, as an example of the violence against women activists.

“The work of COPINH and many other frontline indigenous organizations to defend the basic human rights of people forced off their land and denied access to water and natural resources is violently threatened,” the fund said in a statement. “The inability of governments to provide security makes it increasingly dangerous and difficult to protect their resources. The perpetuators of this violent crime must also be held accountable. We call on the international community to support these organizations to ensure their safety as they work to protect community rights to lands, forests, water, and natural resources.”

Cáceres has also won praise from international NGOs for standing up to powerful landowners, a US-funded police force, and a mercenary army of private security guards in the most murderous country in the world for environmental campaigners.

In an interview with the Guardian at the time of her award, Cáceres was realistic about the risks she faced, but said she felt obliged to fight on and urged others to do so.

“We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action,” she said.

The dangers appear to have increased in recent weeks. After a Copinh march in Río Blanco on 20 February, she and other participants were confronted by the army, police, local mayor and employees of the dam company. Several were detained and some threatened, the council said in a statement.

It was not the first time. Cáceres previously said she had received warnings that she would be raped or murdered if she continued her campaigns. There have also been past reports that hitmen were hired to assassinate her.

Billy Kyte, a campaigner at Global Witness, paid tribute to Cáceres for her “incredible courage” and said the government – which is behind many of the controversial projects – must reverse the alarmingly murderous trend in Honduras.

“The shocking news of Berta’s killing is a dramatic wake-up call for the Honduran state. Indigenous people are being killed in alarming numbers just for defending their rights. The Honduran state must act immediately to hold the killers to account and protect Berta’s family and colleagues,” he said.

Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and environmental campaigner, tweeted: “Devastating news. Berta was a critical leader and fierce land defender. Part of a global wave of such attacks.”

Berta, who attended the Meeting of Popular Movements with Pope Francis, is also a good friend of Scott Wright, who works with the Columbans and is connected with GCCM.  He shares her acceptance speech for the Goldman prize for environmental justice: