In April 2015, she received international recognition for her firm action against a mega dam project Agua Zarca in Honduras and for upholding the rights of the indigenous group Lenca. Eleven months after and a few days before her 45th birthday, she was shot dead by unknown assailants in her house in La Esperanza, Honduras. As of this writing, perhaps, her case is the latest high-profile killing against human rights defenders and indigenous leaders that we know – she is not the first – unfortunately, may not be the last.
She is Berta Caceres, a mother and a Lenca woman who have risked her life to protect their environment, rights, and culture. Berta’s works for her community echoes to the world when she received the Goldman Environmental Prize last year; a prestigious award given to grassroots environmental heroes.
Goldman noted on their website that Berta grew up in a violent years in Central America in 1980s. On that time, Berta’s mother, a midwife and social activist, took in and cared for refugees from El Salvador. That event somehow played largely on the advocacy works of Berta; hence she became a student activist and helped established Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993 that since then had been campaigning to stop illegal logging and other development aggressions in Lenca communities. As clearly stated on their website, COPINH defends the Lenca territory and their natural resources as part of their cosmovision of respect for Mother Earth.
For COPINH, the murder of Berta is a political assassination that aims to curtail efforts of the community in their struggle for their rights and the environment. (source: http://copinhenglish.blogspot.com/2016/03/copinh-urgent-denunciation-march-6-2016.html)
It started in 2006, when COPINH responded to the call of Lenca people in a far flung community in Rio Blanco. Without a hint about the project and who are the organizations behind it, People in Rio Blanco expressed great alarm on the entry of several construction materials in their town. Clearly seeing that the situation is a grave violation and disrespect to the rights of the Lenca, Berta with her organization, began filing complaints to the government, led community assemblies, and together with the community raised their voice against the dam project.
In 2013, after many years of paper works and lobbying activities for the cancellation of the project, the community decided to mount a road blockade to prevent the access of the company in the site. People take turns in manning the barricade withstanding several eviction attempts from military and security forces for almost one year. Since then there had been many cases of attacks, intimidation, imprisonment and tortures among the protesters. Berta’s case is an addition to the growing list of community leaders who have been killed in line with their commitment to uphold the rights of the indigenous communities and the conservation of the environment. Sadly, in many incidents, impunity is the reigning culture for the brutal attacks to human rights defenders.
Berta is very much aware of the dangers that come to her advocacy. For one, in 2009 following the coup, political situation in Honduras has become uneasy and at certain point violent. In 2015, Global Witness, an organization monitoring human rights violation around the world, noted that Honduras is the most dangerous country to be an environmental activist. Immediately after the death of Berta, the group reported in their website that “at least 109 people were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015, for taking a stand against destructive dam, mining, logging and agriculture projects. Of the eight victims whose cases were publicly reported in 2015, six were from indigenous groups.” (source: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/global-witness-releases-new-data-murder-rate-environmental-and-land-activists-honduras-highest-world/)
Before she was killed, Berta already received several threats to her life making it not hard to understand that at in many interviews with her, she was like foreshadowing her fate. This is how she gives meaning to her works, “Giving our life… for the protection of the rivers is giving our life for the well-being of humanity and our planet.” (Goldman Prize)
Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc., condemns the killing of Berta Caceres and all the other environmental and human rights activists in Honduras. We echo the call and prayer for justice to be served for her and the Lenca community. And just like our calls in many indigenous communities in the country who are also facing aggression from the supposed development projects like large-scale mining and coal-fired plants, may our government leaders recognize more firmly the rights of our indigenous communities to protect their land and culture; that they may uphold more importantly our right for a balanced and healthful community.
Roughly two weeks after Berta was killed, another Honduran activist was gunned down. Nelson Garcia, also an active member of COPINH was shot dead in the face by unidentified gunmen last March 15, 2016. Following these two killings, some European funders have claimed to withdraw their support for Agua Zarca Dam.
PHOTO: TAKEN FROM THE INTERNET,FROM THE GOLDMAN PRIZE WEBSITE
- Goldman Environmental Prize Facebook Page
This article was first published on pmpi.org.ph