“Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth – militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits.” –Berta Cáceres, on receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists who protect the natural environment
BANGKOK, 04 March 2016 – Together with indigenous peoples and human rights defenders, climate and environment activists, the Honduran and international civil society community, friends, colleagues, and family of Berta Cáceres, Focus on the Global South condemns in the strongest possible terms the murder of Berta. We call upon the Honduras government to immediately investigate what happened and bring to justice the perpetrators of this heinous crime against a world renowned and beloved leader and defender of indigenous peoples.
With Berta’s death, a crucial voice—a woman’s voice—was silenced, even as on March 8, International Women’s Day, women and men all over the word shall go to the streets, join hands, make their voices heard in marking the continuing struggles against rights violations and all forms of marginalization and discrimination.
The number of human rights defenders killed continues to rise as community struggles against hydropower and other infrastructure projects, mining, agribusiness, logging, and eviction intensify. Over 116 human rights defenders were killed in 2014 alone and 40 percent of the victims were indigenous people. Killings in 17 countries were recorded in Central and South America and Southeast Asia, with Brazil as the worst-hit with 29 people killed, followed by Colombia with 25, the Philippines with 15 and Honduras with 12.[i]
The 2015 Global Witness report, How Many More? also noted that killings of land and environmental activists in 2014 reached an average of more than two a week – an increase of 20% from 2013. Honduras alone suffered 111 killings between 2002 and 2014. Environment and land defenders also face repeated threats to their lives, physical violence, intimidation, criminalization, and restrictions on their freedoms.
At the time of her death, Berta was the General Coordinator of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a social and political organization supporting the indigenous and popular movements in Honduras. Berta spent her life fighting for and defending indigenous peoples rights to their lands and territories. As a key leader in the Lenca struggle against the Agua Zarca Dam, a controversial development project in the community of Rio Blanco that was put in motion without consent from local communities, Berta filed complaints with the Honduran government and organized peaceful protests against the dam in the nation’s capital of Tegucigalpa. The Agua Zarca dam concession was sold to the Honduran company DESA (Dessarollos Energeticos SA). Sinohydro Corporation, a Chinese giant and the world’s largest hydropower construction company, was contracted to build the dam.
The Lenca people denounced the dam and were threatened with smear campaigns, imprisonment and murder, but nobody had heard their voices until they set up a roadblock to take back control of their lands. As Berta’s visibility increased, she became a target for project proponents and backers. Even after the successful campaign to halt the construction of the dam, the community continued to face systematic harassment. One of Berta’s colleagues, Rio Blanco community leader Tomas Garcia, was assassinated in 2013 but Berta and the Lenca community stood strong.
For leading this peaceful campaign to stop one of the world’s largest dam builders which would have cut off the ethnic Lenca people from water, food and medicine, Berta Cáceres was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
Berta Cáceres was killed, but her life shall transcend this tragedy, as communities, activists, and organizations in different parts of the world vow to remember her as a symbol of community resistance and an inspiration to people in Honduras and around the world. We shall all continue to uphold the values and principles she stood for, as we call upon:
Governments to immediately address and put an end to the systematic targeting of rights defenders all over the world, many of them women and indigenous peoples;
The international community to hold governments and corporations accountable for devastating entire communities and territories for profits, and for the increasing and intensifying attacks on environment and human rights defenders; and
Human rights groups, people’s movements and all civil society groups to join us and the rest of the world in urgently demanding justice for Berta Cáceres and all the other cases of extrajudicial killings and criminalization of dissent.
[i] Global Witness. (2015). How Many More? London, United Kingdom: Global Witness Limited. Retrieved from https://www.globalwitness.org/documents/17882/how_many_more_pages.pdf