On 3 March 2016, unidentified assailants broke into the home of world-renowned indigenous rights campaigner Berta Caceres 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 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.
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. She was considered by the New York Times, one of the most prominent environmentalist activist in Honduras.
Cárceres was aware of the danger, but she persevered in her defence of human rights, and never surrendered for the love of her people.
Since the regional instability and U.S. involvement characterising the years 1980s and 1990s, violence is still widespread with the presence of gangs and drugs traffickers which make human rights defenders particularly at risk.
On 30 November, 2018, a court ruling convicted seven men of murdering Berta: Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, communities and environment manager for Desa; Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, former Desa security chief and ex-US trained army lieutenant; Mariano Díaz Chávez, US-trained special forces major who served with Bustillo; Henry Javier Hernández, former special forces sergeant who served with Díaz; Edwin Rapalo; Edilson Duarte Meza; and Oscar Torres. An eighth defendant, Emerson Duarte Meza, was cleared and freed. The court ruled the murder was ordered by executives of the Agua Zarca dam company Desa because of delays and financial losses linked to protests led by Cáceres. The murder was contracted to a group of hitmen who were paid to kill Cáceres.
Berta’s message resonates in her strength and determination to the environmental cause. Her perseverance, hard work and passion to claim justice for the Lenca people make her an inspiration for those fighting against environmentally disruptive projects, political violence and human rights violations.