Honduras has in recent years become the deadliest country for environmental activists, with over 100 killed between 2010 and 2014. But environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres refused to back down when powerful interests sought to dam a river considered sacred to her people, the Lenca.
Cáceres was the co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), created to defend the Lenca community – one of Honduras’ largest indigenous groups – against corporate takeover of their land and natural resources, and to protect their culture and the environment. Since their founding in 1993, COPINH has stopped nearly 50 logging and deforestation projects, and plans for 10 hydroelectric dams. Together with other indigenous organizations the organization successfully lobbied the Honduran government to ratify ILO Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous People, and also succeeded in gaining funding from the government for health centers and schools in Lenca communities. They have worked to obtain communal land titles for indigenous communities, winning over 100, all of which are governed by community land councils. Through a structure of General Assemblies, COPINH works toward women’s rights and promotes respect for leadership of women in their communities and organizations, and through a structure of national and international networks, COPINH coordinates action with other indigenous and environmental movements around the world.
Since 2009, when a military coup removed Honduras’ president, COPINH has been operating under a more repressive environment than even in its previous 16 years of existence, but has persisted. In this context, under Cáceres’ leadership and through COPINH’s action, the Lenca succeeded in forcing the world’s biggest dam builder to abandon its plan to build the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River. Four of the government-approved dams, which are known collectively as the Agua Zarca Dam, were along the Gualcarque River in western Honduras, on territory inhabited by the indigenous Lenca people. Cáceres and the Lenca had been trying for five years, since the plans were first announced, to stop them. Three of her colleagues in the protest movement had been killed.
Two of the dam’s main backers—the Chinese engineering and construction company Sinohydro and an arm of the World Bank—withdrew their support because of the public opposition and increasingly bloody state crackdown. Her successful efforts in persuading the Agua Zarca dam investors to withdraw were a victory that earned Cáceres international acclaim — including the awarding of the 2015 Goldman Prize, an award given to international grassroots environmental activists.
But it also earned her also the anger of the project’s influential backers. Cáceres, already under threat as all other Honduran environmental activists, became aware of heightened attention on her work. She had already sent her children out of the country after receiving death threats. But Cáceres was the daughter of a social justice activist, and she was an activist in her own right from her early twenties, and she refused to back down. “I am a human rights fighter, and I won’t give up,” she said. Her commitment, say her colleagues, was almost intimidating. She was effective, and this earned her international fame, but also rendered her visible and subjected her to threat.
While leading a march in a nearby village, she had an altercation with soldiers and police officers, and with employees of DESA, a Honduran company that she had been fighting for years, who wanted to build dozens of hydroelectric dams throughout the country. COPINH had repeatedly applied to the Honduran government for police protection but had not received any. A month after the altercation, for her actions regarding the Agua Zarca dam, and her many other crusades against government corruption and plundering corporations, Cáceres paid the ultimate price. In early March of 2016, extrajudicial forces, allegedly connected to DESA, entered her home while she was sleeping and shot and killed the 44 year-old activist.
In the time since Cáceres’ assassination, COPINH continues to lead the fight to transform Honduras through its fight for political, economic, environmental, human, and indigenous rights, despite threats to her family and the killing of Nelson Garcia, another COPINH leader. Cáceres’ daughter, Berta Zuniga Cáceres, has worked on the investigation into her mother’s death, and further plans to continue her mother’s work to advocate for the Lenca people against the dams.
The Honduran government and the entire world will have to grapple with Cáceres’ haunting legacy. Her name has since become a rallying cry for activists all over the world, from Honduras to Bolivia to Standing Rock.
Learn more: www.copinh.org