Berta Cáceres, a Honduran woman who organized the indigenous Lenca people in a successful grassroots battle against construction of the Agua Zarca Dam — and whose environmental activism made her the target of numerous death threats — was murdered in her home early Thursday morning.
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 apparently was shot, according to news reports. Her brother also was injured.
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.
“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.”
Marlene Cimons is a freelance writer who specializes in science, health and the environment.