Honduran activist Berta Cáceres assassinated, but her fight goes on

People hold up photos of Berta Caceres outside the coroners office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)

We dedicate this year’s International Women’s Day to Berta Cáceres – internationally recognized indigenous Lenca leader, grassroots feminist and environmental justice activist – who was killed in her own home on Thursday for the work that she did to fight transnational corporations and the government of Honduras.

Cáceres was killed in a targeted attack in her home in La Esperenza, Intibucá, just a day before her 46th birthday. The news sparked shock and outrage in a nation that is already struggling with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

The Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), a group Cáceres founded in 1993, is calling her death an assassination. The group wrote:

“In the last few weeks, violence and repression towards Berta, COPINH, and the communities they support, had escalated. In Rio Blanco on February 20th, Berta, COPINH, and the community of Rio Blanco faced threats and repression as they carried out a peaceful action to protect the River Gualcarque against the construction of a hydroelectric dam by the internationally-financed Honduran company DESA. As a result of COPINH’s work supporting the Rio Blanco struggle, Berta had received countless threats against her life and was granted precautionary measures by the InterAmerican Commission for Human Rights.”

She was most widely known for her recent role as one of the leading organizers for indigenous land rights in Honduras, but her impact was much more than what can be captured in her contributions to the Rio Blanco struggle.

“Berta was close to many movements,” Ana Paula Hernandez, Fund for Global Human Rights program officer for Latin America, said in an interview with Humanosphere. Hernandez knew Cáceres for many years, and worked with her in the effort to progress the human rights movement in Honduras. “It wasn’t just the indigenous movement; it was the environmental movement, the social movement, women’s rights… [her impact]was across the board.”

But as Cáceres became more deeply involved and more publicly visible as an activist, she also became more of a target for those who opposed these movements in Honduras.

Cáceres was currently working to stop the internationally financed Honduran company DESA from constructing a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, which the Rio Blanco community said would drastically change their way of life. According to La Prensa of Honduras, authorities initially reported the case as an attempted robbery, but most believe the killing was an assassination ordered by people behind the Agua Zarca dam project. Cáceres and other members of COPINH have long been in conflict with DESA, the local mayor, police and soldiers.

As a result of COPINH’s work supporting the Rio Blanco struggle, Cáceres had received countless threats against her life and was granted protection by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.

Such threats are commonplace for activists in Honduras, where some in power see the demands of indigenous people as a direct threat to corporate or political interests. The London-based nonprofit group Global Witness calls Honduras ‘‘the most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental activist,” with 101 such advocates slain between 2010 and 2014. In 2014, 40 percent of the environmental defenders killed were indigenous people trying to defend their land and water sources.

Berta knew these risks. The danger inevitably faced by activists in Honduras was part of the reason she had to fight so hard for the movements she helped lead.

Cáceres spoke with Humanosphere’s Tom Paulson last year about her life as an activist. She told Paulson that her mother got her involved early in life. Her mother, a midwife, helped refugee mothers and children, even hosting them in their home, which was illegal.

“Most human rights activists in Honduras are women … being a political or human rights activist in Honduras is risky for anyone, but especially if you are an indigenous woman … their children are also threatened,” she said. “Perhaps it is because we recognize that without taking action our children, our communities, will have no future … Men maybe don’t think like that as much.”

“Berta truly loved life, loved her children, loved COPINH, knew the role that she played within the movement,” said Hernandez. “But at the same time, I think she was very aware that [what she did]was a risk. She knew that she could be killed. She was very clear on that.”

Despite promises by President Juan Orlando Hernández to find and prosecute the killers, Cáceres’ assassination has caused outrage from those who are fed up with widespread impunity and with the government’s failure to protect such a public and visible activist. After Cáceres’ death, rock-throwing students clashed with riot police, according to the Guardian, who retaliated by firing tear gas at the University of Honduras. From afar, international NGOs have called for foreign investors and companies to withdraw from the Agua Zarca hydropower project that Cáceres and others in COPINH died fighting against.

“The reality of impunity and corruption in Honduras is huge. It is very real,” said Ana Paula Hernandez. “If this can happen to Berta, in this way, it confirms the level of risk and vulnerability for so many human rights defenders in Honduras … and not just human rights defenders, but anybody that opposes those economic and political interests in that country.”

According to Ana Paula Hernandez, Hondurans do not trust their government to hold an impartial investigation. If Cáceres’ case is to be handled objectively, the government of Honduras must be open to international actors getting involved to support the prosecution.

President Hernandez said authorities were investigating Caceres’ killing with assistance from the United States, according to the Guardian, and Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales said Friday that justice would be done, and “there is abundant information to solve the case.”

But as thousands gathered to mourn the loss of the leading indigenous land rights activist in Honduras, her spirit lives on in the many people she inspired to join her fight. The fact that she received the Goldman Environmental Prize just last year, only to be killed this year, is a disquieting sign that the risks faced by environmental activists in Honduras are grave and still very, very real.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering health, inequality and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.