On March 2, Berta Cáceres, a Honduran human rights and environmental activist who led the struggle to protect the Gualcarque River from a proposed dam, was assassinated after years of death threats and intimidation. These threats had escalated in recent weeks since construction of the dam had restarted. Security forces detained more than one hundred people who took part in a peaceful protest on February 20.
In October, Cáceres spoke at the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers, held in Sarawak. “Ten members of our organization have been murdered; four of them for defending the Gualcarque River,” she said. Several Klamath River activists joined Berta at the WISER Summit where they traveled together to indigenous blockades against the proposed Baram Dam, which would displace 20,000 indigenous people living in more than 26 villages in Sarawak.
Sammy Gensaw, a Yurok fisherman and activist who has gone around the world fighting dams and displacement of natives with the local group, Nature Rights Council, said, “Berta showed us what true devotion to rivers and their people means. She made a lasting impression on me that I and many others will apply locally. I am heartbroken by the assassination of my friend and hero but am doubly committed to continuing her fight for justice here and worldwide.”
Berta Cáceres, 44, was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras at around midnight on March 2, less than a year after she was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize—a prestigious award recognizing grassroots environmental activists from around the world.
In her acceptance speech, Berta said, “giving our lives in various ways for the protection of rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet. COPINH*(see below) walking alongside people struggling for their emancipation, validates this commitment to protecting our waters, the river, our shared resources and nature in general as well as our rights as a people. Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our self-destruction.”
She was a long-time leader of her indigenous community’s opposition to the Aqua Zarca dam project that would destroy their ancestral homes and livelihoods. She fearlessly dedicated her life to protecting this river of ancestral and spiritual importance to the Lenca people of Río Blanco, Honduras. She is the fourth activist from Río Blanco to be killed since 2013.
Growing up during the violence that swept through Central America in the 1980s, Berta learned the value of standing up for disenfranchised people from her mother, a midwife and social activist who took in refugees from El Salvador. In 1993, she co-founded COPINH to defend the indigenous Lenca people’s internationally recognized rights.
After a military coup in 2009, the Honduran government awarded concessions for 47 dams to power hundreds of new mining projects in just one law, without consulting the indigenous and campesino communities that rely on the rivers for food and water. The concession to build the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River near Río Blanco was sold to the Honduran company DESA (Dessarollos Energeticos SA). The Chinese-owned Sinohydro Corporation, the world’s largest hydropower construction company, was contracted to build the dam.
Berta and other COPINH organizers filed complaints with the Honduran government and organized peaceful protests, but were met with intimidation through smear campaigns, arrests, and death threats. The attacks and threats only strengthened her resolve. Río Blanco residents set up a roadblock to defend their land. In 2013, Tomás García was shot dead by a Honduran military officer at a peaceful protest. In response, over 500 Lenca people rose against Sinohydro, which ended its bid to build the Agua Zarca dam, and the World Bank withdrew its financial backing of the project, citing concerns over human rights violations. Another active member of COPINH, Moisés Durón Sánchez, was murdered in May 2015 after receiving numerous death threats for his role defending his community’s rights
to their land.
The London-based non-profit organization Global Witness tracks environmental and human rights abuses with a focus on those driven by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption in the global political and economic system. Global Witness figures released on March 4 show that at least 109 people were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015 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.
In April 2015, a Global Witness press release stated that “the case of Berta Cáceres is emblematic of the systematic targeting of environmental defenders in Honduras. Since 2013, three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca hydro-dam on the Gualcarque River, which threatens to cut off a vital water source for hundreds of indigenous Lenca people. Fabricated criminal charges have been filed against her, and two of her children have left Honduras out of concerns for their safety.”
“She was a fearless environmental hero. She understood the risks that came with her work, but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction,” said John Goldman, President of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
In 2015, when Berta Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize, journalist Melissa Cardoza said, “They can attack her. They can even kill her, as they have tried. But her life transcends this moment in time.”
Her family issued a statement saying, “We ask the international community and human rights organizations around the world to put pressure on their leaders to bring about justice. Her murder is an act of cowardice that will only amplify Bertita’s message to bring about change in Honduras and make this a better, more humane world.”
*COPINH is the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), the organization Berta founded.