Late on the night of 2 March 2016, a highly respected and well-known environmental activist was shot dead in her home in Honduras. If you didn't know her name before, you may know it now, because reactions to Berta Cáceres' death have been reverberating not only through Honduras, but through the international community as well. If someone this well known, who was the winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman environmental prize, and had been granted precautionary measures by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, could be killed in her home, what does that mean for all the other activists working with her?
At the time of her murder, Cáceres had been campaigning to stop the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque river in Intibucá, in western Honduras. The Agua Zarca project is partially funded by FMO, a Dutch development bank, and aims to increase the availability of hydro power in Honduras. Immediately after Cáceres was killed, FMO spoke out against her killing and called for a thorough investigation.
The river is an important source of sustenance for the indigenous Lenca people, and opposition to the project is over fears that the dam will limit access to the river. There is also concern that the local community has not been properly consulted on the project. Cáceres had received numerous threats related to this and other campaigns over the years, as had her organization, the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH).
According to numbers released by Global Witness on 4 March, at least 109 people have been killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015 for taking a stand on environmental issues. The victims in six of the eight cases reported in 2015 were from indigenous groups. According to PEN International's report on Honduras, there is a climate of pervasive impunity in Honduras, which stems from the failure to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations in the 1980s. The report states that from the 38 cases of journalists murdered since 2003, there have been only nine arrests and two convictions. That's an impunity rate of 95%.
This is not the first assassination, but one of a series of assassinations of human rights defenders … I don’t want another human rights defender to be assassinated.
-Bertha Cáceres, daughter of activist Berta Cáceres
Bertha Cáceres, Berta's 25-year-old daughter, told the Guardian earlier this week that her mother had spoken often of the threats she faced, but she continued on because it was her life's work. Bertha is critical of the Honduran government's investigation into the murder because it is being carried out in secret. She said of her mother's murder, “This is not the first assassination, but one of a series of assassinations of human rights defenders … I don't want another human rights defender to be assassinated”.
Gustavo Castro Soto, another well-known environmental campaigner and coordinator of Friends of the Earth Mexico, witnessed Cáceres's murder and sustained two gunshot wounds in the attack. After being escorted to the Tegucigalpa airport by the Mexican ambassador on 6 March, Honduran authorities stopped Castro Soto from getting on a flight to return to Mexico. He is now being detained, and the reasons are unclear. ARTICLE 19's Mexico and Central America office called Castro Soto's detention illegal, and has demanded that he be allowed to return immediately to Mexico. Beverley Bell, a colleague of both Castro Soto and Cáceres, has said that Castro Soto believes that his life is still in danger.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, has also called on the Honduran government to allow Castro Soto to return home, noting that “It is high time that the Government of Honduras addressed the flagrant impunity of the increased number of executions of human rights defenders in the country, especially targeting those who defend environmental and land rights.”
It is high time that the Government of Honduras addressed the flagrant impunity of the increased number of executions of human rights defenders in the country.
-Michel Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
On the same weekend that Castro Soto was stopped at the Tegucigalpa airport, the body of a missing student protestor was found dead. Jairo Ramírez, an engineering student at the National Agricultural University, went missing on 3 March at a demonstration protesting Cáceres' killing, and was found a few days later. Like Cáceres, he had been shot in the face. According to local NGO Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre), students from the Honduras National Autonomous University were subjected to tear gas and faced with armored anti-riot vehicles when they also held a demonstration asking for justice in the Cáceres case.
On Monday 14 March, a journalist working for La Voz Lenca community radio station, which is connected to Cáceres' organization, reported to C-Libre that they were threatened by military soldiers while taking pictures of troops. Out of fear of retaliation, the journalist did not reveal their identity to C-Libre. COPINH reported that four other community radio stations have also suffered police harassment since Cáceres was killed.
The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) released a statement demanding justice for Berta Cáceres, an end to the persecution of the Lenca people and for preventive protection granted by the IACHR to be respected. In October 2015, the IACHR had met with a Honduran state delegation and discussed the shortcomings in the implementation of protective measures for Berta Cáceres.
On 15 March, the crisis reached a new level, with the assassination of one of Berta's fellow activists, Nelson García. García was killed in Rio Lindo, close to an area where members of the Lenca Indigenous community were being violently evicted from their homes by national police. He, too, was shot in the face.
In the wake of escalating violence and attention on the Agua Zarca project, on 16 March a press release from FMO stated that it has suspended all of its activities in Honduras and will be evaluating their involvement in projects in the country. While this may halt the project for now, there is no guarantee this will remove dangers for COPINH and other environmental activists. In 2013, after another activist was killed, the project was stalled, however the threats to environmental activists reappeared when the project was resumed at the end of 2015.
While the killings of environmental activists continue to take place with impunity in Honduras and elsewhere, many groups are calling urgently for action on the Cáceres case and for protections for those working to protect the land and stand up for the rights of indigenous peoples.
The escalating violence, deteriorating human rights climate and shocking rates of impunity should have been enough to wake people up to the reality of this small central American nation. But with the recent tragic events, the world's attention is finally being drawn to Honduras. Silvio Carrillo, Cáceres' nephew, hopes that they can mark a turning point. He wrote in the New York Times that, “The outrage in Honduras and around the world is palpable.”
Erin Woycik is the IFEX Section Editor for the Americas.