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Demands grow for a thorough investigation of Berta Cáceres’ assassination in Honduras

Berta Caceres at the banks of the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras where she, COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and the people of Rio Blanco have maintained a two year struggle to halt construction on the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project, that poses grave threats to local environment, river and indigenous Lenca people from the region.

  • A report calculates that at least 101 people were assassinated in Honduras alone between 2010 and 2014 in connection to a wave of large mining, agriculture, and dam projects.
  • Since last week, Cáceres’ family has asked the Honduran government to join the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the creation of a “commission of experts that supervise, support, and participate on the investigations by the Public Ministry.”
  • Cáceres had an order of protection from an international court on human rights, yet she was still regularly harassed and ended up being murdered.
Berta Cáceres en Honduras. Foto cortesía de Goldman Environmental Prize.
Berta Cáceres in Honduras. Photo courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize.

Two weeks ago, the activist Berta Cáceres was shot and killed while she slept in her home, in the city of La Esperanza, in western Honduras.

The news of her assassination travelled around the world generating sadness and frustration not only among her colleagues and admirers, but also among thousands of people who work in the defense of the environment.

In the case of Cáceres, she’s one of hundreds of indigenous leaders and environmental activists who face threats –and often, death– for their work in defense of forests and other natural resources in her native Honduras.

“Berta received thousands of threats. Her weapon was her voice,” said her brother Gustavo Cáceres in an interview with the Honduran newspaper, La Prensa. “They threatened her for her brave fight and for the rich resources of our territory. Berta was a precious treasure in the battle for rights by the indigenous community.”

Within a few days of her assassination, Cáceres’ mother also revealed that the Honduran police was investigating the crime as a robbing attempt. “But we all know it was for her fight,” she said.

Cáceres belonged to the Lenca indigenous community –“the place of a lot of water, a lot of rivers” in the Lenca language–, an ethnic community that has occupied part of Honduras’ and El Salvador’s territories since before the Colonial Era. There are more than 100,000 Lenca people in Honduras, and around 37,000 in El Salvador.

Alongside her ex-husband Salvador Zúniga, Cáceres founded the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras or COPINH) with the goal of defending the human and territorial rights of the Lenca people in the western part of the country. She turned into a fierce opponent of hydroelectric dams in the region, as well as other infrastructure or natural resource extraction projects that affected the area.

Moments after her assassination, Gustavo asked Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández to make sure that his sister’s death didn’t end up “as another statistic in the history of violence in the country.” During a press conference, Cáceres reminded the journalists in attendance that his sister had been granted protection orders, dictated by an international court for human rights. But despite this, she kept receiving threats and was ultimately killed.

In its 2016 Annual Report, the Irish organization Front Line Defenders found that 45 percent of the killings of human rights defenders around the world have been tied to the defense of territories and rights to the environment by various indigenous communities.

How Many More?, an analysis carried out by the nonprofit Global Witness, calculated that at least 101 people were assassinated in Honduras alone between 2010 and 2014 in connection to a wave of big mining, agriculture, and dam construction projects. This means that, on average, more than two people a week were killed in defense of the environment –making Honduras the most dangerous place in the world for activists such as Cáceres.

“Global Witness is calling on governments and the international community to monitor, investigate and punish these crimes, and for Honduras to address abuses in the upcoming review of its human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council,” begged the document. A year has passed since the publication of this report, but no substantial changes in the law nor in its enforcement have taken place in Honduras.

There is widespread fear that Cáceres’ assassination will remain in impunity like those of hundreds of other activists, in a country with one of the highest rates of homicide in the world.

Since last week, COPINH and Cáceres’ family have been asking the Honduran government to join the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in naming a “commission of independent and trustworthy experts to supervise, support, and participate in the investigations currently being carried out by the Public Ministry.”

They also asked for the cancellation of the concessions given to DESA, the company behind the hydroelectric project “Agua Zarca”, the main target of protests by Cáceres and the Lenca people for many years –and according to her family, also the reason why Cáceres was ultimately murdered.

Honduras’ government has not responded to these demands. But DESA has chosen to remain quiet, too. In an interview with the investigative news website, The Intercept, a spokesperson said the company “has not given any declarations, nor do [they] plan on doing so until the authorities in charge of the investigation determine the causes, or those responsible for this unfortunate incident that ended the life of indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres.”

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