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Why Was This Prominent Honduran Activist Murdered in Her Own Home?
Honduran activist Berta Cáceres feared for her life before she was shot dead.
In April 2015, Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her commitment to fighting hydroelectric projects that threatened the livelihood of indigenous Lenca communities.
“Giving our lives in various ways for the protection of rivers means giving our lives for the good of humanity and this planet,” she said in her acceptance speech, which came two years after one of her colleagues was murdered publicly for organizing against a massive hydroelectric project known as Agua Zarca.
On Thursday, just ten months after that speech, unidentified gunmen shot Cáceres to death in her home in the city La Esperanza. Local authorities say it was a robbery gone wrong, but many of her friends, relatives, and colleagues believe she was murdered.
“We all know that [the government’s claims are] a lie, that they killed her because of her political struggle,” Cáceres’s mother, Berta Flores, reportedly told Radio Global, a local station.
Cáceres knew her life was in danger. In Honduras, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, 111 environmental activists were murdered between 2002 and 2014.
Despite the challenges of her work — which included threats, intimidation, and multiple arrests — Cáceres continued to fight back against Agua Zarca, the same fight that cost her colleague his life.
Monti Aguirre, a longtime friend and colleague of Cáceres and the coordinator of the Latin America program for International Rivers, an advocacy organization that focuses on protecting rivers from large dam projects, told Foreign Policy in a phone call that the activist “was not afraid.”
Aguirre said that when the two last saw each other in person in 2014, Cáceres told her she had been followed and threatened by guards from the hydroplant and had often come home to find intimidating men standing by her door. Aguirre recalled that Cáceres told her at the time that her followers were “getting really close to me now.” Last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Honduran government to implement precautionary measures to protect Cáceres.
According to a 2015 report co-written by three environmental NGOs, the Agua Zarca project was approved by the Honduran government without consulting the Lenca people and will cut off river access for the indigenous communities who depend on it. The construction project has already destroyed corn and bean crops, which the tribe depends on for survival.
The local community’s resistance to the dam prompted Sinohydro, a Chinese state-run company — and the world’s largest dam developer — to pull out of the project in 2013. The dam’s construction has continued under the management of the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA. The Dutch development bank Netherlands Development Finance Company, is currently helping to fund the project. The bank could not be immediately reached for comment.
In September 2013, a judge ordered her into “preventative detention” for inciting damage to a business. Cáceres responded at the time that the “companies are mistaken in thinking that the Lenca people will stop their historic struggle in defense of the common good.”
Cáceres, who founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations in 1993, was particularly focused on drawing international attention to the Lenca people, who had previously been relatively invisible on the world stage. Her death, Aguirre said, has shaken their community there. Many people reached out to Aguirre through e-mails and phone calls Thursday. “Everybody’s enraged about the situation,” she told FP. “She [Cáceres] knew what her mission here on Earth was. She worked on it every day.”
Cáceres told the BBC last April that she learned advocacy work from her mother, a midwife, nurse, and mayor who took in refugees from El Salvador during that country’s brutal civil war in the 1980s. Cáceres herself was the mother of four children.
U.S. Ambassador to Honduras James D. Nealon said in a press release that Washington “is calling for a prompt and exhaustive investigation into the crime and for all the weight of the law to be applied against those responsible.” And Aguirre told FP that activists are now concerned for the safety of Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist who witnessed her murder.
Cáceres saw her work as not only local to the Lenca people, but as a global struggle against “capitalist, racist and patriarchal pillaging” of the environment. “Let’s wake up, humanity,” she told the Goldman Awards ceremony audience, “There’s no more time left.”
Watch Cáceres’s April 2015 speech in its entirety here:
Photo credit: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images