Berta Cáceres’ murder and the perilous condition of environment activists in Honduras

NEWS – On the 3rd of March 2016, the long standing environmental and indigenous Honduran activist, Berta Cáceres, was brutally assassinated in her hometown of La Esperanza. Cáceres was respected for her courageous fight against the Honduran government’s will to erect dams affecting the sacred Gualcarque River of the Lenca people. The murder of the 2015 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize symbolizes the deplorable plight of environmental and human rights activists in Honduras. The Central American nation, renowned for its criminality records, is also the theatre of numerous killings targeting the civil society. 

English

Honduras is considered as the most violent nation on earth with approximately 104 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants, compared to an average of one murder per 100 000 people in Great-Britain. This exceptional situation severely impacts on the Honduran civil society. The latest advocate of indigenous rights for the Lenca people and defender of the environment who lost its life, was forty-four years old Berta Cáceres. 

 

The violent disappearance of Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres, herself a member of the Lenca community, was leading a long battle against the grandiose building of four giant hydropower dams in Agua Zarca cascade, along the Gualcaque River, which is considered as a sacred element and land to the Lenca people [1]. More than twenty years ago, Cáceres created the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh) to give a voice to the Lenca. Indeed, many Latin American indigenous communities lack political representation and as such, are easily submitted to real estate projects undermining their landownership and environment, notably in Central America, Brazil or Peru. Cáceres filed a case on the matter at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IAHCR). Interviewed in 2013 by The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani, she expressed her anxiety: “I cannot freely walk on my territory or swim in the sacred river and I am separated from my children because of the threats. I cannot live in peace, I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped. But I refuse to go into exile. I am a human rights fighter and I will not give up this fight” [2]. And on the 3rd of March 2016, three gunmen assaulted the house where she was resting in her hometown of La Esperanza and was killed by four shots. Another human rights activist, the Mexican Gustavo Castro Soto, was also injured during the shooting. The IAHCR had charged the Honduran government to protect Mrs. Cáceres but effectively did not seem to ensure her security. Her brother later denounced this fact. “The police were responsible for providing security for my sister here in the city,” said Gustavo Cáceres adding that “She wasn’t hiding.” 

 

An endangered civil society defending Honduras’ natural resources

Through its defence of the environment, the Copinh faced opposing interests of the dams’ operator Desa, the mayor, police and some para-military groups [3]. The Goldman Environmental Prize was awarded to Cáceres in 2015 and the organisation explains on its website that the dam project threatened to “cut off the supply of water, food and medicine for hundreds of Lenca people and violate their right to sustainably manage and live off their land” [4]. However, it seems that despite the fierce opposition expressed through the voices of the Lenca people’s advocates, the government decided to follow suit with the hydropower dams. In a country plagued by corruption and were paramilitary groups and private security are challenging the rule of law, private companies, landowners can easily exert pressure up to suppress dissident voices. Therefore, the NGO Global Witness listed the death of tenths of activists since 2005 in Honduras, particularly environmental defenders. Billy Kyte from Global Witness explains that: “We are seeing an upsurge in the scramble for land and natural resources, which means more and more companies are encroaching further and further into the lands of indigenous people” [5]. 

 

A worrying level of corruption and judicial impunity

Since the Coup in 2009 overthrowing from power leftist and reformist President Manuel Zelaya, the condition of the freedom of expression and the civil society’s room for action relentlessly scarcened. Such an upheaval against the former democratically elected President Zelaya was even supported by the United States at that time. The current US Ambassador to Honduras, James Nealon, asserts that Washington’s relations with Tegucigalpa are “perhaps the best they have ever been”[6] … Beyond this diplomatic declaration, the list of murdered civil society activists continues to grow longer and Berta Cáceres will not, undoubtedly, be the last one to pay the highest price for her ecological and human commitments. Solely in 2014, twelve environmental militants lost their lives, presumably because of their negative interference towards landowners, companies and other powerful interest groups. Amnesty International observes that “human rights defenders, Indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendant leaders involved in land disputes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists, justice officials and journalists were targeted with violence and intimidation by state and criminal actors in retaliation for their work” [7]. The NGO insists on the State’s responsibility for the crimes committed against the civil society by ensuring a “weak criminal justice system”. In 2013, official statistics demonstrated that 80% of murders remained unpunished… 

Amid allegations of frauds shadowing his 2013 presidential campaign funding, President Juan Orlando Hernandez, went in January 2016 to Washington where he detailed his government’s determination to fight against corruption. Under the auspices of the Organisation of American States, the “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (Maccih) [8], will have the tremendous task to dismantle the networks of criminality infesting the Honduran State. Following the killing of Cáceres, the President declared in a televised address that: “Our commitment is to the truth of the facts and to serve justice, no matter who it might involve. No one is above the law. This death will not go unpunished” [9]. A US led investigation has already started but the Honduran society remains suspicious about the honesty of the investigators. Therefore, on the 3rd of March 2016 students gathered in front of the University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa and protested against the government’s failed mission to protect Cáceres and also expressed their doubts over the course of the investigation. Under the banners “no more impunity”, the demonstrators demanded justice for Berta Cáceres after the early classification of her assassination as a robbery case… Despite the loss of an exceptional militant, the resilience of the Honduran people and the country’s civil society remains intact. During Berta Cáceres’ funerals, the attendees agreed that “the struggle goes on and on” [10]. 

 

Jean-Baptiste Allegrini – Research assistant at the CIPADH.

 

Sources:

1 Malkin, Elisabeth and Arce, Alberto (03/03/2016), “Berta Cáceres, Indigenous Activist, Is Killed in Honduras”, The New York Times, New York. < http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/04/world/americas/berta-caceres-indigenou....

2 Lakhani, Nina (03/03/2016), “Remembering Berta Cáceres: 'I'm a human rights fighter and I won't give up'”, The Guardian, London. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/03/remembering-berta-caceres-i...

3 Watts, Jonathan (04/03/2016), “Murder of activist Berta Cáceres sparks violent clashes in Honduras”, The Guardian, London. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/04/berta-caceres-murder-protes....

4 The Guardian (06/03/2016), “Murdered Honduran activist Berta Cáceres buried as others vow to continue fight”, Associated Press, London. 

5 Carrington, Damian (04/03/2016), “Berta Cáceres one of hundreds of land protesters murdered in last decade”, The Guardian, London. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/04/berta-caceres-environ....

6 Schouwenburg, Bert (04/03/2016), “Hypocrisy surrounds the murder of Berta Cáceres in Honduras”, The Guardian, London. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/04/hypocrisy-surrounds-the-of-....

7 Amnesty International (2016), "Honduras", Amnesty International, London. <https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/honduras/>.

8 Lakhani, Nina (19/01/2016), “Honduras president announces international body to tackle corruption”, The Guardian, London. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/19/honduras-juan-orlando-herna....

9 Watts, Jonathan (04/03/2016), Ibid. 

10 The Guardian (06/03/2016), Ibid.

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