They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.
A favourite expression of environmental activist Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres spent her life building a movement to protect the environment and indigenous peoples' rights to defend it. Her murderers tried to silence that movement by killing her, but instead her death has amplified the message.
When she won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, Berta Cáceres had spent decades building a movement to protect and defend the land of the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras. She had founded the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH) and taken on powerful hydroelectric and mining corporations in her work to preserve the environment. In her Goldman prize acceptance speech she dedicated her award “to the martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources”. Little did she know that less than one year later she would join the many martyrs of environmental activism in Honduras.
Born in La Esperanza, in western Honduras, Cáceres grew up in the 1970's – a time of civil unrest and violence in Central America. Her mother, Bertha, was a mayor and governor, as well as a midwife, and taught Berta and her siblings to believe in justice. As a student in 1993, Cáceres co-founded COPINH and helped to harness the strength of the indigenous community at a time when being indigenous in Honduras was neither a source of pride or power. COPINH is now made up of 200 Lenca communities in western Honduras and fights for the rights of the Lenca people to defend their land and way of life against mining, damming and other environmentally harmful projects.
In 2006 Cáceres began what would become a long-standing campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project for the construction of four dams on the Gualcarque river. Local Lenca activists in Río Blanco were worried that the dams would reduce their access to water and damage the surrounding environment, and because they had not been consulted in earlier stages of the project's planning, contravening an International Labour Organization convention ratified by Honduras. For their work, the Río Blanco community and COPINH have received numerous threats over the years.
When President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup in June 2009, activists and local leaders who had run campaigns for change were once again put under threat. Before the coup, Honduran activists had been successful in getting Zelaya to make decisions that improved the lives of Hondurans, such as lowering school fees, raising the minimum wage, and blocking many hydroelectric projects.
On 28 June 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) put Cáceres on a list of people who were at risk during the coup, including other popular leaders, state authorities and people related to the ousted president. The following day, Cáceres was granted precautionary protection measures by the IACHR, which asked the Honduran government to guarantee her “life and personal integrity”. At the time, the IACHR had received reports that military forces had surrounded her home.
According to a report by Global Witness, 101 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2014. Despite the threats and extreme violence that skyrocketed in the fallout of the coup, Cáceres and COPINH continued their activism, including campaigning against the Agua Zarca project. In 2013 Tomás Garcia, a Lenca Indigenous Council representative, was killed by members of the Honduran army during a peaceful protest. Following the murder, Sinohydro, a Chinese investor, pulled out of the Agua Zarca project.
In 2014 Cáceres was a finalist for the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award and in 2015 she received the Goldman Environmental Prize, which honours “grassroots environmental heroes” and their efforts to protect and enhance the environment, often at the expense of personal safety. Máxima Acuña, a Peruvian activist who won the 2016 Goldman prize for the Americas, has also faced repeated threats, physical attacks, and police harassment for her efforts to defend her land.
In a statement the day after Cáceres was murdered, the IACHR noted that only months earlier it had met with a delegation from Honduras and spoken about the risk that continued to face Cáceres, as well as “the shortcomings in the implementation of protective measures” that the state was supposed to have supplied to her.
Unfortunately, Cáceres had no protection when she was shot dead in her home on the night of 2 March 2016. The one witness to her murder, fellow Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto, was also shot in the attack, but pretended to be dead until the assailants left. He was later detained by authorities when trying to leave Honduras.
On 15 March 2016 another of Cáceres's fellow activists, Nelson García, was shot and killed, while Lenca community members nearby were being forcefully evicted from the land. Following García's murder, FMO, a Dutch development financier, and Finnfund, another investor, suspended their financial backing for the Agua Zarca project, leaving the project stalled, but not cancelled.
Whoever was behind Berta Cáceres's murder tried to send a message that if the best-known activist in Honduras could be brazenly killed for her work, then the same could happen to anyone else. It was a crime that shocked many, but her murderers have not succeeded in killing her message or her movement. Demonstrations following her murder were full of posters reading “Berta Vive” (Berta lives) - and it's true. Not only is COPINH continuing their work, her family and supporters continue to demand justice in her case, and her daughter, Bertha, continues to fight for the rights of indigenous peoples in Honduras. As Castro Soto wrote in an open letter after her death, “I saw Berta die in my arms, but I also saw her heart planted in every struggle that COPINH has undertaken.”