Murder of Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres "a tragedy that was waiting to happen"

Killed activist had led resistance campaign against dam project threatening Lenca people lands · Goldman Prize winner Cáceres and her family had received death threats

Berta Cáceres.
Berta Cáceres. Author: Goldman Environmental Prize
"The cowardly killing of Berta is a tragedy that was waiting to happen. For years, she had been the victim of a sustained campaign of harassment and threats to stop her from defending the rights of indigenous communities,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, as it was known that prominent activist for the rights of the Lenca people in Honduras Berta Cáceres (42) had been murdered.

The murder took place yesterday at Cáceres's home in La Esperanza, Intibucá, one of the main areas inhabited by the Lenca. The Gualcarque river flows through this area. It was here that Cáceres had led an indigenous resistance campaign against the construction of a dam, the Agua Zarca project. The Lenca movement argued that the infrastructure would prevent Lenca communities from access to water, food and traditional medicines.

Cáceres, coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), eventually achieved an unexpected victory as both the World Bank and Chinese dam builder Sinohydro gave up the project.

Victory turned Cáceres into a prominent figure of the indigenous and environmentalist movement, and earned her the 2015 Goldman Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of conservation.

But all this came with a cost.

In a statement, the Goldman Prize staff yesterday announced it was working with Global Witness "to demand that the Honduran government conduct a full investigation into the killing, take immediate measures to ensure the safety of the Cáceres family, and grant protection for activists in Honduras."

According to a Global Witness report, Honduras is the most dangerous country for environment defenders. From 2010 to 2014 there were more murders of environmental activists per capita than in any other country in the world.

Global Witness had already quoted the case of Berta Cáceres in that report. At that time, the COPINH coordinator was being threatened and persecuted. "Since 2013," the text said, "three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca hydro-dam." "Fabricated criminal charges," the report went on, "have been filed against her, and two of her children have left Honduras out of concerns for their safety. The true authors of these crimes -a powerful nexus of corporate and state interests- are escaping unpunished."

UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz warned in 2015 that indigenous and African-American groups in Honduras were facing a "critical situation" as violence against them persisted, their lands were being illegally occupied, and some of their activists were being killed.

Indigenous and African-American peoples make up 8% of the population of Honduras, according to Minority Rights Group data. The groups include the Lenca, Pech, Tawahka, Xicaque, Maya, Garifuna and Miskito peoples.