Honduran indigenous activist Berta Cáceres Flores has been murdered in her home.
Cáceres was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), and won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) last year.
According to local reports, assailants broke into Cáceres’ home in La Esperanza in the western province of Intibucá at around midnight on March 2, and gunned her down.
Tributes flooded in from around the world and there was a wave of shock, outrage, and deep sadness at Cáceres’ murder. The chairman of the SAVE Rivers community organisation in Sarawak, Malaysia, which Cáceres visited last October, was one of many who condemned what he described as a “heinous act”.
Amnesty International said: “The brutal killing of a vocal indigenous leader in Honduras paints a terrifying picture of the dangers faced by human rights defenders and social activists in the country.”
Cáceres was a woman of great courage and strength, and deep spirituality. She knew that her life was in danger and had received numerous death threats, but she continued to fight for the rights of indigenous people and battled against massive odds to protect Lenca land.
The president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, John Goldman, said: “She was a fearless environmental hero. She understood the risks that came with her work, but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction.”
The Canadian author and environmental campaigner Naomi Klein said on Twitter: “Devastating news. Berta was a critical leader and fierce land defender. Part of a global wave of such attacks.”
The actor and ardent environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted: “Incredibly sad news out of Honduras this morning. We should all honour the brave contributions of Cáceres.”
According to Global Witness, Honduras has become the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists. New statistics, released today, show that at least 109 people were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015 for taking a stand against destructive dam, mining, logging and agriculture projects.
Of the eight victims whose cases were publicly reported in 2015, six were from indigenous groups. “This is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” Global Witness stated. “It is safe to assume that some deaths are not being publicly reported.”
The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights raised concerns about Cáceres’ safety with the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, last year and called on the government to apply “precautionary measures”.
The military, paramilitaries, police, and hitmen are sent into Lenca territory, Cáceres told delegates to the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers, held in Sarawak in October, and activists were victims of vicious smear campaigns.
“Ten members of our organisation have been murdered; four of them for defending the Gualcarque River,” she said.
Cáceres was a key opponent of the planned Agua Zarca mega-dam. She told delegates in Sarawak that mega-dams not only destroyed nature. “These dam projects result in murders, political and judicial persecution, criminalisation, and increased racism.”
Cáceres said mega-dams were causing ethnocide and were the product of “predatory capitalism and the logic of extractivism”.
Mega-dams, she said, had led to environmental, ethical, political, social, economic, and cultural conflicts. They caused climate change, a loss of food sovereignty, and a loss of territory and culture.
Cáceres said activists in Honduras had succeeded in stopping 14 hydroelectric dams, but more than three hundred were still planned. Forty-two dams were planned on Lenca land alone. “The government and the corporations want to privatise almost all of the rivers of Honduras.”
During a blockade of the dam site in Río Blanco, there were death threats against activists, who were offered huge bribes to stop their protest, Cáceres said. “The people didn’t give up and, on July 15, 2013, the company fled. And we convinced the World Bank to cancel a planned loan for the dam.”
Cáceres said in October that the dam companies had returned to the site, and the military and police were also back and had been firing shots into the air right next to a new blockade.
There had been increased threats against Cáceres and her organisation in recent weeks. The security forces detained more than one hundred people who took part in a peaceful protest on February 20.
Calls for justice
Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
Caceres’ family issued the following statement: “We are devastated by the loss of our fearless Bertita. She was a leader who fought on behalf of human rights and the environment, and spoke truth to power.
“We ask the international community and human rights organisations around the world to put pressure on their leaders to bring about justice. Her murder is an act of cowardice that will only amplify Bertita’s message to bring about change in Honduras and make this a better, more humane world.”
Americas director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara-Rosas, said: “The cowardly killing of Berta is a tragedy that was waiting to happen. For years, she had been the victim of a sustained campaign of harassment and threats to stop her from defending the rights of indigenous communities.”
She added: “Unless the authorities in Honduras take decisive action to find those responsible for this heinous crime and take measures to protect other activists like Berta, they will have blood on their hands.
“The government must bring those responsible for this crime to justice, and guarantee protection for her family and all members of COPINH.”
Guevara-Rosas said Cáceres’ death would have a devastating impact for many human rights activists and organisations.
The Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) said Cáceres had spent her life defending indigenous people’s rights, their land, and their natural resources. The association demanded prompt, effective action to identify and punish her killers. “We demand justice for Berta, and send our condolences to her family.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, said: “I condemn this dastardly act and I urge the Honduras authorities to investigate this case and bring the perpetrators to justice.
“I condole and deeply sympathize with Bertha’s family, relatives and community. Such impunity is totally unacceptable and the State has to do something about this.”
The President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, said Cáceres was a courageous advocate on the frontlines of social change.
“There must be justice for her murder. Impunity is not an option in any case where courageous activists who risk their lives are targeted and murdered for fighting for justice.”
United States Senator Patrick Leahy said Cáceres was an inspiration to people around the world, and her death was a great loss for all the people of Honduras.
“This horrific crime demonstrates that no-one, not even an internationally known social activist, is safe in Honduras if they speak out against corruption or abuse of authority.”
“The immediate question is what President Hernández 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.”
What steps would the government take, Leahy asked, “to protect the many other Hondurans who have been deemed in need of protection, and to stand up for the rights of people like Berta who risk their lives in peacefully defending the environment and their livelihoods”.
The answers to these questions, Leahy said, would weigh heavily on the US Congress’s support for future assistance for the Honduran government.
The US Ambassador to Honduras, James D. Nealon, called on the Honduran government to conduct a “prompt and thorough” investigation into Cáceres’ murder and for the full force of the law to be brought to bear against those found responsible. He said the US strongly condemned “this despicable crime”.
The organisation International Rivers said it welcomed the ambassador’s statement, but added: “During the 2009 military coup in Honduras, the US government, with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, worked behind the scenes to keep Honduras’ elected government from being reinstated.
“Additionally, the US government continues to fund the Honduran military, despite the sharp rise in the homicide rate, political repression, and the murders of political opposition and peasant activists.”
‘A leader who never stopped fighting’
Professor of anthropology at the American University in Washington DC, Adrienne Pine, told the pan–Latin American network TeleSUR that Cáceres was a powerhouse and a key figure in fighting racist and exploitative policies and projects that threatened indigenous rights in the name of corporate profit.
“She was a leader of the popular resistance movement against the 2009 coup, and never stopped fighting,” Pine was quoted as saying. “Even when she had to go underground to hide from the illegitimate Honduran government’s attempts to criminalise her activism; even when faced with multiple – obviously credible – death threats.”
Coordinator of the Honduras Solidarity Network, Karen Spring, said Cáceres’ death would have a profound impact on the many Lenca communities that she worked with, and on COPINH, the Honduran social movement, and everyone who knew her.
John Goldman cited other Goldman Environmental Prize winners, who, he said, were reeling from the loss of a fellow grassroots activists:
- “No one should die trying to do the right thing.” (Maria Gunnoe, US);
- “My soul weeps for Berta and the planet.” (Craig Williams, US); and
- “We draw strength from her life and her death to continue her work here.” (Atherton Martin, Dominica)
Goldman prize staff were working with Global Witness and other partners to demand that the Honduran government conduct a full investigation into the killing, take immediate measures to ensure the safety of the Cáceres family, and grant protection for activists in Honduras, Goldman said.
“We mourn the loss of an inspirational leader, and will honour 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.”
Darren Walker cited Cáceres’ comment “They fear us because we are fearless”. He said her courage to continue speaking out and doing the right thing was “an inspiration to us all”.
He added: “We honour her memory by recognising the countless lives she touched, and know that the legacy of her dedication to her community and humanity will endure.”
The work Berta began would continue unabated until the rights of all indigenous populations were respected and fulfilled, Walker said.
‘We have no other spare or replacement planet’
In an interview with the Guardian when she won the Goldman prize, Cáceres said: “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.”
Cáceres, who was murdered on the day before her 45th birthday, told Changing Times last October that the Gualcarque river was sacred to the Lenca community and the people conducted ceremonies and practices that reaffirmed their spirituality and gave them strength. “Our spirituality is the base and the strength of our resistance.”
When the people made a compostora pact with Mother Earth, Cáceres said, they became nature’s caretakers. Certain ceremonies were particularly focused on the river. The river, Cáceres said, was where the female spirits lived. “An aggression against the river is an aggression against our spirits.”
The murder of Berta Cáceres has left her family, friends, and fellow activists devasted, but people are vowing to continue the fight to which she devoted her life – a life that has been tragically and brutally taken away.
Photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
Full statement by International Rivers
Statement by Focus on the Global South
Article updated to include comments from Cáceres’ family, John Goldman, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and new statistics from Global Witness.
Public letter to the president of Honduras