“Berta Cáceres did not die. She multiplied”

Peaceful demonstrations are being held today, on 15 June, in Honduras, amid heavy security, and in front of its embassies around the world, ranging from Argentina and the US to Spain and Italy, to protest the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.

The organisers are calling for justice and an independent investigation, as well as the withdrawal of the concession granted to the energy firm DESA (in Río Blanco) to build the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, one of the projects Cáceres was campaigning against.

On 5 April, a group of human rights defenders walked out of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) inbetween sessions and gathered in front of the World Bank building, in Washington DC, with placards. All of them bore the picture of a woman. Her name had been graffitied in red on the walls of the building. The message was clear: “Berta Lives”…

Berta Cáceres, a Honduran indigenous leader, was murdered on 3 March 2016 after receiving threats and in spite of the precautionary measures ordered by the IACHR in 2009, as her daughter, Berta Zúñiga, pointed out to Equal Times in a radio interview from Honduras.

Twelve days after the activist’s murder, Nelson Noé García, another member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the group led by Cáceres, was silenced by the gun.

These cases add to the long list of environmental defenders murdered around the globe, a list covered in the April 2015 report How Many More? published by Global Witness. In Honduras alone, a total of 101 environmental activists were murdered between 2010 and 2014, placing the country at the top of the global ranking, per capita, for murders of this kind.

The homicide rate in Honduras follows the trend in the region. In 2014 alone, Global Witness recorded 116 killings targeting land and environmental defenders around the world, of which 88 took place in Latin America, in the centre and south of the continent for the most part, with 29 murders in Brazil, 25 in Colombia, 12 in Honduras, nine in Peru, five in Guatemala, three in Paraguay, three in Mexico and one in both Ecuador and Costa Rica. In almost four out of ten cases, the victims were indigenous people.

As pointed out in the London-based organisation’s 2015 report, “disputes over the ownership, control and use of land was an underlying factor in killings of environmental and land defenders in nearly all documented cases in 2014. The rise in killings related to hydropower projects, it warns, was a particular issue in Honduras.

Indeed, the murder of Cáceres was linked to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project of the energy firm DESA, financed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), to the tune of US$24.4 million, the Dutch development bank FMO, with a contribution of US$15 million, and Finnfund, providing US$5 million. Cáceres had received 33 death threats during the campaign against the project.

But the killings are only the corollary of a much wider intimidation campaign suffered by environmentalists. During a public hearing at the IACHR, requested by the Centre for Justice and International Law and COFADEH (Committee of the Families of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras), held on 5 April, the organisations denounced the criminalisation of at least 700 environmental defenders between 2010 and 2016 in the Bajo Aguán area of Honduras. Protestors and activists are not only faced with criminalisation but also are also the victims of attacks, including sexual violence.

Mining, extraction, logging and agribusiness projects also represent a source of conflict, as illustrated by the multitude of similar cases reported, such as the struggle of the Ngabe-Buglé people in Panama or the fight of indigenous communities against oil exploration and drilling in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. The case of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku v Ecuador concluded in 2012 with a ruling that has not yet been implemented.


Intimidation compounded by a lack of political will

In the case of Cáceres, denounces Zúñiga, the Honduran authorities showed no interest in ensuring the effectiveness of the measures supposed to protect her. Nor did they conduct the inquiries required to clear up the facts following her murder. All, according to Zúñiga, because of the economic interests of the private firm and the government itself in the project.

“The state has no political will to solve the crime because vested interests are at stake. My mother opposed the government’s conduct, she stood up against all the interests in the megaprojects, to which state representatives are strongly tied, having investments in them. We are calling for an independent investigation through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but the state does not want to agree to it. Why? That is the big question,” points out Zúñiga.

During the April hearing at which the Cáceres case was raised, Leonidas Rosa Baustista (Honduras’ representative to the Organisation of American States, or OAS) and her delegation denied the criminalisation of the campesino [peasant farmer] movement in Honduras, and pointed to drug trafficking as a factor fuelling the violence in the area.

The delegation listed the various actions taken to promote respect for human rights, such as the creation of a human rights observatory, dialogue, and the establishment of a commission with human rights defenders from the area to promote protection measures, etc.

At the beginning of May, the Honduran authorities detained four suspects in connection with Cáceres’ murder. Amongst them were Douglas Bustillo, former head of security at DESA, and Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, chief engineer of the Agua Zarca project. Rodríguez Orellana was reportedly responsible for numerous death threats against Cáceres.

In an interview with Equal Times, COPINH representatives condemned the curtain of secrecy placed over the investigation by the Honduran authorities and the fact that they had not been involved in the inquiries.

And their accusations go further, pointing to members of the country’s economic, political and military elite as the “masterminds behind the murder of sister Berta”, as José Asunción, the organisation’s social and political coordinator, told Equal Times.

“The Dutch and Finnish banks should withdraw their financing from Agua Zarca,” said Zúñiga, whilst in Brussels, in mid-April.

Cáceres’ daughter, who travelled to the capital of the European Union to take part in various activities, including a protest held by civil society organisations in front of the Honduran embassy, is campaigning for an independent investigation to be conducted by the IACHR in her country, to clarify the causes of her mother’s murder. She has no faith in the Honduran authorities’ neutrality and believes they may try to bring the case to a false conclusion (hence her insistence on an international investigation).

On 9 May, following the detention of various murder suspects, Finnfund and FMO both issued press releases announcing their intention to withdraw from the Agua Zarca project should DESA prove to be involved.

“FMO will withdraw from the project if a credible connection between one of our clients and an act of murder were to be established,” points out the Dutch institution in its press release. It goes on to say, “this implies that the suspension of disbursements will continue” until further notice.

“While keeping in mind that charges are not convictions, there is a need for FMO to seek a responsible and legal exit from the project,” it explains.

At the end of May, Finnfund, which has also suspended all payments to the Honduran company, told Equal Times, “We are seeking a responsible and legal exit. These things need thorough preparations and necessarily take some time…”.

In the meantime, the graffiti will continue to mark the walls of the World Bank as a symbol of the dangerous fight waged by Berta Cáceres and other environmentalists, in Honduras, in the region and the rest of the planet, against unscrupulous private interests and state authorities that look the other way.

“We continue to receive threats, because we are not giving up… Let’s see what happens,” commented Asunción.

“The people who murdered my mother made a mistake. My mother did not die, she multiplied,” says Zúñiga.


This article has been translated from Spanish.

This article has been translated from Spanish.