Indigenous Rights Defender Berta Cáceres Murdered
I believe that through all of this we have learned to fight with joy, even though it gets very hard and painful. We must know that we don't have a backup planet, we only have one.
- Human rights defender Berta Cáceres
There is a special sort of bravery required to do a job in one of the most lethal countries in the world in which to do it. For environmental rights defenders, that country is Honduras.
On 3 March 2016, unidentified assailants broke into the home of world-renowned indigenous rights campaigner Berta Cáceres and murdered her. Berta was a Lenca indigenous woman who, for the past 20 years, has been defending the territory and rights of the Lenca people.
In 1993 she co-founded Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares – COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisations), which led fierce campaigns against megaprojects that violated the land and environmental rights of local communities. She faced off – and often won – against illegal loggers, plantation owners, multinational corporations, and dam projects that would cut off food and water supplies to indigenous communities. As a response to her battle for the rights of her people and other indigenous groups in Honduras, she received threats of death, rape, and physical attack. She faced false charges of “illegal possession of a firearm endangering the security of the Honduran state,” usurpation of land, and coercion. She was also charged with causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company.
In an interview with La Prensa, her brother Gustavo said:
Berta received thousands of threats. Her weapon was her voice. She never carried any other weapon. 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.
In recognition of extreme risk she faced to defend indigenous Honduran people, Berta was selected as a finalist for the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, and in 2015 she received the world’s leading environmental award. Berta won the Goldman Prize for COPIHN's battle against the construction of the “Agua Zarca cascade” - four giant dams in the Gualcarque river basin that have the potential to starve whole communities. As a result of local protests, two companies involved in the construction of the dam - SinoHydro and the International Finance Corporation - backed out of the project.
As news of her killing sweeps across social media and Spanish news outlets, many are (rightly) placing her horrific killing alongside the hundreds of other indigenous activists who have been slaughtered in Honduras for defending their communities right to land.
In its 2016 Annual Report, Front Line Defenders found that 45 percent of HRD killings worldwide were linked to the defense of land, environmental, and indigenous rights. For each of the last five years, more people were killed in Honduras per capita than in any other country as a result of their efforts to defend land and the environment, according to a report by UK-based NGO Global Witness.
But Berta's death is more than another number or name in the long line of defenders who risked – and ultimately lost – their lives to defend indigenous peoples. Her killing is but one chapter in the story of a woman who empowered whole communities to struggle for their land and livelihoods. Yesterday was her last day on the front lines of that struggle. But the spirit which motivated her work continues in the powerful organisation she built and the peoples she fought to protect. It lives on in the strategy of Honduran human rights defenders who learned from Berta's smart approach to battling colonial and capitalist exploitation, in the homes of indigenous leaders that she urged to participate, and in the board rooms of multinational corporations who now know that before logging, mining, or building massive dams on stolen land, they'll have to confront human rights defenders like Berta Cáceres.
We have learned to fight with joy, with hope and with faith. We have learned to fight in diversity, we have learned to fight with music, with ceremonies and with spirituality, where we are accompanied by our ancestors, our “Nahuales” and our spirits. I believe that this is what encourages us. - Berta Cáceres
Front Line Defenders condemns in the strongest terms the killing of human rights defender Berta Cáceres, and urges the Honduran authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into her killing, and to protect human rights defenders who peacefully and legitimately defend the rights of their communities.
Berta Cáceres was a peaceful, powerful human rights defender. 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. - Front Line Defenders Executive Director Mary Lawlor