Indigenous activist and defender of the environment and human rights, was murdered. But for people, ‘Berta lives, the struggle continues and continues’.
Berta Cáceres, the renowned environmentalist and defender of the Lenca indigenous people in Honduras, was murdered by three armed men on March 3 in her house located in La Esperanza, the capital city of the western department of Intibucá.
Cáceres was the general coordinator for the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), as well as a staunch defender of the environment and human rights. Last year she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize ‘for her fearless work to defend the Gualcarque River, its surrounding environment and people from the Agua Zarca Dam’.
In 2010 the government approved the construction – by the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) – of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, located in the Gualcarque River, considered to be sacred by the Lenca indigenous people. The measure did not respect the right to prior, free and informed consultation, something that is guaranteed by the Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Over 150 indigenous assemblies voiced their rejection to the construction of the dam, which, if constructed, would force the people in the communities to move and would prevent them from pursuing their agricultural activities.
The indigenous communities blocked the highways between 2013 and 2014 to keep all machinery and equipment out. The harassment from the police, the military and from private security guards hired by the company, increased during this time. Three Lenca leaders were killed during the time of the roadblocks, according to Global Witness.
Although the construction of the hydroelectric plant is stopped for now, COPINH has denounced the intentions of DESA of reviving the project without the consent of the Lenca people.
María Paulina Gómez, a defender of the Gualcarque River, said that on February 20, during a demonstration on the road to the San Francisco de Ojuera municipality, in Intibucá, a group of police agents, military personnel, and the city mayor threatened those participating in the protest. Cáceres immediately made public this threat through the social media. “Employees from DESA Agua Zarca and the mayor’s office of San Francisco de Ojuera and the [governing] Partido Nacional are detaining and harassing more that 100 supporters who are taking part in the peaceful march that COPINH is conducting at the moment. This is happening in San Francisco de Ojuera, with the backing from the army, security guards, hitmen, and the police. We are filing a complaint against Sergio Rodríguez, from DESA, as well as Mayor Raúl Pineda and the nationalist hordes for threatening the physical and emotional integrity of our fellow demonstrators”, declared Cáceres at the time. According to Gómez, armed men, the Mayor and Vice-Mayor accompanied DESA executives. “They told Bertita that they were going to kill her at any time. What will happen now is that they are going to finish us all, the defenders of the river, but we are not afraid, we are not afraid of bullets”, she said.
Anticipated her own death
One day before her murder, Cáceres was participating in a workshop on renewable energy in La Esperanza with defenders of the Gualcarque River. Gómez points out that Cáceres told the participants to continue the fight without her because she could be killed at any moment.
On February 29, when Cáceres was at the airport with her former husband Salvador Zúniga, dropping off one of their daughters who was traveling at the time, she warned him regarding the threats that she was a victim of. “When we were at the airport, Berta told me that she had already prepared her will and testament and that she was letting me know this just in case. I told her that this was not important, what was important was for her to take care of her life”, Zúniga said, who is the coordinator of the Popular Indigenous Council of Honduras (CINPH). “In this country, anyone can be murdered at any time because this is a violent country, she told me. Berta confronted death constantly. Her coherency, her rebellious attitude, led her to give her blood for these people. That is why we must continue with the fight”, Zúniga added. The government of president Juan Orlando Hernández qualified the murder of the indigenous leader as ‘a hard blow for Honduras’ and made a commitment to solve it. Although Cáceres was the beneficiary of precautionary measures, the police were not around to prevent her murder. Security minister Julián Pacheco Tinoco said in a press conference that Berta had declined the precautionary measures by not informing the authorities of her change of address. Cáceres’ three daughters and son demanded that an international mission named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), who had already awarded interim protection measures to their mother since 2009, after the coup in Honduras that she was opposed to, takes over the investigation.
They expressed that they do not trust the actions taken by the government. “The truth regarding the crime that ended her life cannot be distorted. We know with clear certainty that the motives for her despicable murder were her resistance to and her fight against the exploitation of the common goods of nature and in defense of the Lenca people. Her murder is an attempt to bring to an end the fight of the Lenca people that is waged against all forms of exploitation and plundering. It is an attempt to stop the construction of a new world”, said Olivia, Berta, Laura and Salvador Zúniga Cáceres in a statement before her mother’s funeral. The funeral took place on March 5 amid a multitudinary gathering shouting slogans such as, “Berta lives, the struggle continues and continues”. (L.A.M.)