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Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist, Berta Cáceres, is gunned down

  • Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a prestigious award for her environmental activism on behalf of her fellow indigenous Lenca people.
  • During her last few weeks of life, Cáceres and COPINH faced an escalation in threats and violence.
  • In a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, Cáceres’ murder joins hundreds of other indigenous activists who have been slaughtered in Honduras for the right to land and resources.
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. Photo courtesy of The Goldman Environmental Prize.

Berta Cáceres’ colleagues allegedly kept a eulogy for her for years, one they never hoped to use.

“Her murder would not surprise [them],” read last year’s Goldman Environmental Prize announcement, published when Cáceres won the top prize for her environmental activism on behalf of her fellow indigenous Lenca people. Early this morning, two armed men stormed into her home in the city of La Esperanza, in western Honduras, killing her on the spot.

Since 2006, she led a seemingly endless campaign against the Agua Zarca Dam that threatened to displace thousands of Lenca people from the community of Río Blanco. Alongside her work, she fielded multiple death and rape threats.

According to her colleagues, Cáceres was tireless and endlessly optimistic: she would file complaints with government authorities, organized local meetings with community members, led peaceful protests, and brought proof of injustices to international courts.

But her activism went way back, to more than three decades ago. She grew up during the Central American wars in the eighties. She became a student activist and in 1993, she co-founded the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares or COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations), which stood up for the rights of peasant and indigenous communities in western Honduras as they faced transnational corporations, dam projects, illegal loggers, and plantation owners.

“Berta received thousands of threats. Her weapon was her voice,” said her brother Gustavo in an interview with Honduran paper, La Prensa. “They threatened her because of her brave struggle and for the rich resources of our territory. Berta was a precious treasure in the struggle for the rights of the indigenous population.”

Moments after her assassination, Gustavo Cáceres asked Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández to make sure that his sister’s assassination does not end up as “one more statistic in the country’s violence.” During a press conference, Cáceres reminded journalists that his sister had protective orders, and yet she was killed.

During her last few weeks of life, Cáceres and COPINH faced an escalation in threats and violence.

On February 20th, in the community of Río Blanco, there was a confrontation between peaceful protesters and security forces hired by Honduran dam construction company DESA. Five days later, another Lenca community in the western department of Intibucá was violently evicted and destroyed from their lands.

In a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, Cáceres’ murder joins hundreds of other indigenous activists who have been slaughtered in Honduras for the right to land and resources.

In its 2016 Annual Report, the Ireland-based organization Front Line Defenders found that 45 percent of killings of human rights defenders worldwide were linked to the defense of land, environmental, and indigenous rights.

“Berta Cáceres was a peaceful, powerful human rights defender,” said Front Line Defenders Executive Director Mary Lawlor. “She withstood more than two decades of threats and intimidation to protect her own communities and thousands of other indigenous peoples in Honduras. She built a movement that cannot be killed.”