Protecting Honduras: the life of Berta Cáceres

A life devoted to protect indigenous lands.
Berta Caceres, renowned Environmentalist, murdered on 3 March, 2016 by unknown assailants.

Honduras has since 2009 been plagued with endless murders and is today renowned as the world’s most dangerous country for environmental defenders. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, 116 environmental activists have been killed, 12 of whom were reported murdered in 2014.

These murders have been premised on Honduras’ natural resources and how the governments have chosen to use them. For instance, the government has currently handed out about 872 mining contracts, with many others for mega-tourism, wind energy, and logging projects. The government also has plans for more than 300 hydroelectric dams. The most notable aspect of these projects is that the majority of them are planned for indigenous lands.

According to the International Labor Organization Convention 169, to which Honduras is a signatory, “free” and informed consent by the indigenous peoples must be sought prior to any development taking place. Unfortunately, no permission was ever sought from the locals.

In an effort to protect the locals from this intrusion of their rights, Berta Cáceres, an environmental and human rights activist co-founded a civil rights organization in 1993, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) amid growing threats especially to the Lenca territory from loggers, farmers and state-sponsored projects.

Particularly in 2013, Berta with COPINH, protested against the construction of the region’s biggest hydroelectric projects that involved four dams in the Gualcarque river basin, including the Agua Zarca dam. This project was bound to jeopardize the water resources, food and livelihood of the locals. Even though this protest was peaceful, one of the COPINH members, Tomás García, was shot by a soldier. Irrespective of the shooting, the protest caused the Chinese company Sinohydro, to withdraw their contract to construct the dam.

Members of a Lenca indigenous community protest against the planned construction of a dam in Honduras

Members of a Lenca indigenous community protest against the planned construction of a dam in Honduras

However, the Honduran company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), which is internationally financed, continued with the project. Also behind the dam was the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development and the largest dam company in the world, Sinohydro, which later withdrew.

Although the United States insists on continuing to fund the Agua Zarca despite all the protests staged, FMO and Finnfund, European based banks, have also called off their funding to the Agua Zarca megadam.

Constant threats from the Honduras security forces continued thereon, but the locals of Rio Blanco led by Berta persisted in their fight and managed to close off access to the construction site for over a year. This caused Honduran business leaders to take up the cause against Berta. She was unsuccessfully framed and charged for incitement and carrying a weapon unlicensed.

For her unwavering effort, Berta won the 2015 prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her selfless opposition to the proposed projects. Naturally, Berta winning the award didn’t sit well with those seeking to control the country’s resources as all it did was fuel her influence and threaten the political and economic domination of the government.

Berta and others, in the meanwhile, took the campaign to the global scene, building worldwide alliances which brought enough pressure to force the World Bank and Sinohydro to pull out. Having failed to defeat Berta, DESA moved to the other side of the river, last fall, to beat the blockades and resumed the dam construction.

Unknowingly, this was Berta’s last stand against the dam being illegally constructed on the Gualcarque River, which is the back bone of the livelihood of the Lenca people. This, it seems, was too much for DESA and the Honduran government: the recent protests earned Berta and her organization endless threats that eventually resulted in over 100 people arrested on 20 February, 2016.

The repeated efforts to stop Berta, through threats of kidnap, charges of sedition, and many more allegations finally took root. She was murdered on the night of 3 March, 2016. It is unknown who hired the assassin, however, neither the government nor the company were opposed to the act.

Despite Berta’s death, her spirit still lives on. In fact, her death has fired up a momentum so strong that her fight for Honduras has become a global fight with activists all over the world coming together against the Honduran government for its impunity and the United States for supporting the same.

As if the world outcry at Berta’s death wasn’t enough, on 15 March, 2016, less than two weeks after her death, Nelson Garcia, an active member of the CONPINH was shot four times in the face. Having spent the morning with the locals in Rio Chiquito community who were being violently evicted by government security, Garcia was murdered on his way home.

On the same day, 9 land defenders were attacked and 7 members of the United Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MUCA) were arrested.

These, unfortunately, have not been the only murders in Honduras. Aside from the 2009 coup targeted killings, whose murders often went unsolved, a total of 14 COPINH members have been murdered since the group was founded. Currently, the COPINH offices have been subject to illegal monitoring.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has recommended protective measures for all members of those organizations, just like they did for Berta when she was still alive but again, nothing has been implemented. However this is not stopping the Hondurans. They continue to protect their land in the name of  what Berta stood for, and following what she loved to say, “They fear us because we are fearless”, they will continue to resist.

Agodo Shabella Patience

Agodo Shabella Patience is a Ugandan Lawyer with keen interest on the Environment and Climate change. She is the founder and Executive Director of Green Teso Initiative a climate change Advocacy NGO based in Eastern Uganda.
One Comment
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    Words In The Bucket
    22 March 2016 at 11:41 am
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    Leonardo DiCaprio

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