On Thursday, March 3, Central America woke up to a tragic loss: Berta Càceres’ life had been taken. She was murdered in her house in La Esperanza, in the region of Intibuca, Honduras.
Berta Càceres was the founder and General Coordinator of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). She was one of the most prominent protectors of human rights in Honduras and Central America, well known for her battle to safeguard the interests of the indigenous Lenca people.
The Honduran government and the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro, with the support of the International Finance Corporation, was in the process of implementing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, against the will of the local population. It planned to be developed along the Gualcarquè River, which would have posed a serious threat to the survival of the indigenous Lenca people. Thanks to the commitment of Berta Càceres, the Agua Zarca project was put to an end. It was one of the most important civil victories for Honduras, as well as a fundamental milestone towards the defense of human rights of the indigenous populations of Central America.
Once again, the battle for the defense of human rights in Central America had the face of a young indigenous woman. But national and international economic interests took the life of Berta Càceres. Her murder undoubtedly involved representatives of those economic industries that sought wealth through the exploitation of the natural resources belonging to Central American indigenous peoples, specifically of the Lenca people in Honduras. Honduras’s democracy has succumbed to the power of the military, in the service of economic strength. It is a country that suffers the highest murder rates of human rights defenders, and along with Guatemala and El Salvador, has one of the highest crime rates worldwide.
Berta Càceres had already been a victim of several kinds of persecutory acts, including arrest warrants and death threats. Nonetheless, the Honduran public authorities denied her any sort of protective measures, which are mandatory as per the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The morning of the murder of Berta Càceres also saw the injury of her friend, Gustavo Castro Soto. He was the coordinator of NGOs Otros Mundos and Amigos por la Tierra México, both of which are pivotal to the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected Peoples (REMA) mines.
The battle for environmental defense in Mesoamerica (Southeast Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua) takes place in difficult and extremely adverse conditions. Multinationals are investing enormously inside this region with extraction activities, hydro-electrical plants and intensive agriculture, supported by governments that offer tax incentives for foreign investments. Corruption and impunity of public officers also contribute to the continuation of such activities in the region. Adding to this already difficult situation is the struggle that local farmer and indigenous associations for the defense of human rights face. In light of the renewed model of support of international cooperation following the global economic crisis, financial support for Mesoamerica has been greatly reduced.
The criticism of these horrific acts at regional, national and international levels has been immediate and salient. The cowardly murder of Berta Càceres has been condemned and the Honduran government has demanded further investigation in order to identify the murderers and masterminds behind this crime in a rapid, efficient and transparent manner. Our gesture of solidarity toward the Honduran population, ecological organizations and defenders of human rights will be to keep the attention focused on the current situation in Honduras and to express our support to the management of COPINH, so that the example set by Berta Càceres can be the beginning of a different world which is still possible.
Sergio Vives is a Member of the Center of Studies and Documentation of the Western Border of Guatemala CEDFOG and Human Rights Defense Attorney.