There has been an international outcry over the assassination of Honduran indigenous activist Berta Cáceres Flores. Tributes continue to flood in, and there have been calls to action from diverse organisations around the world.
Assailants broke into Cáceres’ home in La Esperanza in the western province of Intibucá at around midnight on March 2, and gunned her down.
Cáceres’ murder has sparked immense grief. Environmental activists, politicians, and public figures have raised their voices in shock and outrage at the murder of a woman who touched hearts and minds far beyond her home country.
The activist’s assassination has brought into sharp relief the dangers faced by environmental campaigners, not only in Honduras. It has also turned a spotlight onto the causes Cáceres lived and died for – the fight for the rights of indigenous people, and the battle to defend their lands.
US senator Patrick Leahy said in a statement read at Cáceres’ funeral: “Berta was a champion of the rights of indigenous people and of the natural environment. She risked her life for those causes, braving the threats and the fear, knowing that any day could be her last.
“For her courage and commitment she was admired around the world, including in the Congress of the United States, and she will be forever remembered for it.”
Leahy said Cáceres’ activism represented a larger struggle for justice for all the people of Honduras, and her death could, and should, be a turning point in that struggle.
Petitions have been launched calling for an independent investigation into Cáceres’ murder and for protection for the Mexican activist, Gustavo Castro Soto, who witnessed the killing and was wounded during the attack.
There have been demonstrations not only in Honduras, but in other countries, including Colombia and the United States. A protest vigil took place outside the Honduran embassy in London yesterday (Monday) and there was also a demonstration in the South Korean capital, Seoul.
Gustavo Castro (pictured left) tried to leave Honduras on Sunday, but the authorities refused to let him board a plane for Mexico. He was taken to the Mexican embassy in Honduras, but the Honduran authorities then insisted that he be brought back to La Esperanza.
Fellow activists say the Honduran authorities are treating him more like a suspect than a victim.
Cáceres murder was described by Americas director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara-Rosas, as a “tragedy that was waiting to happen”. Cáceres had received many death threats, kidnap threats, and threats of sexual assault because of her opposition to a hydroelectric dam being built on indigenous community land in Río Blanco.
The threats had escalated in recent weeks since construction of the dam had restarted.
Cáceres, who 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, 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.
“These dam projects result in murders, political and judicial persecution, criminalisation, and increased racism,” she said.
“Ten members of our organisation have been murdered; four of them for defending the Gualcarque River.”
Last year, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) raised concerns about Cáceres’ safety with the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and called again on the Honduran government to apply “precautionary measures” to ensure her protection. Cáceres said the government was not fully complying with the IACHR request.
According to Global Witness, Honduras has become the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists. New statistics show that, between 2010 and 2015, at least 109 people were killed there 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.”
Global Witness joined the call for an immediate investigation into Cáceres murder. “The shocking news of Berta’s killing should come as a dramatic wake-up call for the Honduran state,” said senior campaigner for Global Witness Billy Kyte. “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.”
More than fifty international organisations have written a joint letter to President Hernández about Cáceres’ murder.
“We demand an independent international investigation into the circumstances around Mrs Cáceres’ death, and guaranteed protection for her family and colleagues,” the organisations stated.
There had been an increase in violence against, and intimidation of, people defending their indigenous land rights in Honduras, they said.
The organisations called on the Honduran state to ensure that the right of indigenous peoples to their land is respected “and that they are able to carry out their legitimate work without fear for their safety”.
They also demanded urgent action to protect Gustavo Castro Soto, and to ensure his safe passage back to Mexico.
Castro is the coordinator of the environmental organisation Otros Mundos Chiapas (Friends of the Earth Mexico). The organisation reported that, at 5 a.m. on Sunday, the Honduran authorities intercepted Castro at the immigration bridge of the International Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, when he was attempting to board the plane that would take him back to Mexico.
“Castro is still in Honduras and his personal security continues to be at risk,” Otros Mundos AC said in a statement.
The group said that Mexican diplomats had to protect Castro, taking him to their embassy in an official car.
Castro is also a member of two other organisations: the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected Peoples and the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model (M4).
The two organisations, along with Otros Mundos Chiapas, launched a petition calling on the government of Honduras “to pay immediate attention, to intervene, and to follow up on this devastating moment for the Honduran people”.
The petition also called for all legal and political measures possible to be taken “to guarantee the immediate protection of our friend and colleague Gustavo Castro so that, once he has given his testimony to the Honduran state, he can safely return to Mexico”.
It also demands that the security of all of the members of the coordinating group of COPINH be guaranteed.
US support for the Honduran government
Cáceres’ death is a stark reminder of the United States’ continued backing of the Honduran government.
The organisation International Rivers said it welcomed the call by the US Ambassador to Honduras, James D. Nealon, for a “prompt and thorough” investigation into Cáceres’ murder, 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.”
Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, is currently in Washington, DC. “My family and I thought it was best for me to come here to pressure the US government to suspend billions of dollars in US ‘military and security’ aid to Honduras after the assassination of my aunt and human and environmental rights leader, Berta Cáceres,” Carrillo said.
“I should not be here. This should not have been allowed to happen. We have too many martyrs. She is now one more, but we’re not going to let her death be in vain.
“We cannot allow her assassination to be the end; this is a beginning for all of us to heed her inspiring words: ‘Awake, awake humankind, there is little time to act.’”
Carrillo says the Honduran government is arresting members of COPINH and blaming Cáceres’ murder on an internal dispute. “This is typical of the authorities in Honduras in cases of high-profile murders, of which there have been many. They are creating an atmosphere of confusion to keep the truth from coming out.”
Demands for justice
Cáceres’ family has called for an impartial international commission to be set up to investigate her murder. It should, they say, involve the IACHR, international human rights organisations, and relevant government bodies. “There is a demonstrated lack of objectivity in the investigation that has begun here in Honduras,” they said.
Patrick Leahy said: “The investigation of this crime must be independent and comprehensive, including the participation of international experts. Those responsible for ordering and carrying it out must be brought to justice.
“The Río Blanco and the territory that Berta devoted her life to defend should be protected. The Agua Zarca dam project should be abandoned.”
In their statement, Cáceres’ three daughters Olivia, Bertha and Laura, her son Salvador, and her mother Austra Bertha thanked all those in Honduras and around the world who had shown solidarity after Cáceres’ murder.
They added: “We are thankful for the support of the Lenca people, to whom she dedicated the best of her resistance. To the Garifuna people who were close partners in the struggle for a better world. To all the organisations and social movements of Honduras, Latin America, and the world who have taken on our pain as theirs.
“We are grateful for the immense demonstrations of affection and condolence that the Honduran people have offered, that show that her struggle has been the righteous struggle … and the struggle that the world needs.”
Cáceres’ relatives say that the motives for her murder were her resistance to the exploitation of natural resources and her defence of the Lenca people.
“Her assassination is an effort to end the struggle of the Lenca people against all forms of exploitation and theft. An attempt to stop the building of a new world.”
The family has called for the immediate and definitive cancellation of the dam project on the Gualcarque River. “If the government really desires to do justice, we demand the cancellation of all the mining, dam, and forest concessions and all those projects that threaten our national sovereignty.”
Cáceres’ struggle, her family says, “was not only for the environment, but for a change of the system”. It was a fight against capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.
The advocacy organisation Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights called for “a full and swift investigation of this awful crime”.
The president of the organisation, Kerry Kennedy, said Honduras and the entire world had lost one of the most committed and genuine human rights defenders. “The government of Honduras must act swiftly to ensure that those responsible are held accountable for this terrible crime.
“Bringing the perpetrators to justice is the only way to curb the vicious cycle of violence against human rights defenders in the country and the region.”
International Rivers demanded that the Honduran government:
- conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into Cáceres murder and the murders of other social and environmental justice activists;
- stop all projects that have been denounced by human rights defenders, specifically the Agua Zarca hydropower dam and the Blue Energy project on Rio Cangel; and
- end its campaign of persecution and criminalisation against human rights defenders and take all precautionary measures to protect the integrity and safety of its people.
International Rivers’ interim executive director, Peter Bosshard, stated: “We don’t know who fired the bullet that killed Berta Cáceres. But we need to call out the actors who share a moral responsibility for the murder of our friend and partner.”
The Honduran government leads the country with the world’s worst track record of environmental killings, Bosshard says, and did not protect Cáceres even though it had been ordered to do so by the IACHR.
Bosshard says that the owner and operator of the Agua Zarca dam project, Desarrollos Energéticos, has “close contacts with the country’s security forces”. The company, he alleges, “has orchestrated an intimidation campaign against Berta Cáceres in recent months”.
UN Women – the United Nations organisation dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women – said Cáceres’ murder contravened not only national law that protects individual citizens, but also the provisions of United Nations General Assembly resolution 68/181 of 2013 that specifically addresses the protection of female human rights defenders.
The organisation recalled the statement made by the Honduran president in September last year in which he noted the “significant increase in women’s violent deaths” in Honduras and his strong belief that the issue of femicides should be prioritised in renewed efforts to promote and achieve gender equality.
“UN Women encourages the Honduran authorities to follow the president’s statement, and the clear direction of the United Nations resolution for ‘appropriate, robust and practical steps’.
“We call for urgent and diligent investigation of the Berta Cáceres murder and an end to impunity, so that the masterminds and perpetrators of violence against the defenders of human rights can be promptly brought to justice.”
The international peasant movement La Via Campesina demanded that the state of Honduras “punish those responsible for this vile assassination”.
In its report How Many More, published in April last year, Global Witness states that, in 2014, at least 116 environmental activists were murdered. Forty percent of the victims were indigenous people, “with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business”. Nearly three-quarters of the deaths were in Central and South America.
“Globally, it’s likely that the true death toll is higher. Many of the murders we know about occurred in remote villages or deep within the jungle, where communities lack access to communications and the media. It’s likely many more killings are escaping public records.”
Outside of South and Central America, three of the countries where environmental activists are in particular danger are the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia.
At the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER), held in Sarawak, Malaysia, last October, delegates demanded that the government of the Philippines “end the political vilification, harassment, and red-tagging of activists, stop extrajudicial killings, and deliver justice to all victims of political killings”.
They also called for an end to the persecution of all environmental activists in Cambodia and the immediate release of the four activists held in detention.
According to Global Witness, 84 environmental activists were killed in the Philippines between 2002 and 2016. There were 21 such murders in Thailand over the same period, and 14 in Cambodia.
The number reached 454 in Brazil, 80 in Colombia, 57 in Peru, 45 in Mexico, and 27 in Guatemala.
Map courtesy of Global Witness.
Anti-dam activists from the US, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Brazil who attended the WISER summit have written a joint letter to Honduran embassies worldwide urging the Honduran government to conduct a prompt, independent, and thorough investigation into Cáceres assassination, stop the Agua Zarca dam, and provide human rights defenders with the necessary protection.
The activists expressed their grief and anger over Cáceres’ murder. “Her death comes at a time when Lenca communities are being violently forced from their land and the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, defeated in 2013, has resurfaced,” they said.
During the WISER conference, Cáceres spoke about the military, paramilitaries, police, and hitmen being sent into Lenca territory, and delegates heard that indigenous activists face the same threats in other countries.
“Traditional practices and territories are threatened by dams, extractive mining, logging concessions, monocultural expansion, and faulty carbon credit projects that result in so-called ‘development’ for the already wealthy elite,” they said in their joint letter.
“We deeply admire Berta for her great courage and strength. She knew that her life was in danger, and continued to fight for the rights of indigenous people and to protect the land and rivers. We stand in solidarity with the people of Honduras who bravely continue the fight to which she devoted her life.”
The chairman of the Malaysian anti-dam grassroots movement SAVE Rivers, Peter Kallang, said that, in her life, Cáceres’ passion for the indigenous Lenca and her leadership in pressuring the dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca project was an inspiration.
“Now, in death, her spirit lives in many who fight for human rights and the rivers all over the world.”
Article updated on 9/3/2016 to include statement from WISER summit delegates.
Also updated to include information about Gustavo Castro’s forced return to La Esperanza.
Photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.