Justice for Berta Cáceres?
In early March, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous environmental rights activist in Honduras, was murdered in her home. Considering Cáceres’ hugely influential work in the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a political organization dedicated to protecting indigenous rights, and in leading the campaign to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, many see her murder as an assassination. Some of these same people believe that the United States, a country that has strong economic ties with Honduras, should follow in the footsteps of Cáceres’ outspoken criticism of the Honduran government and begin to pull back some of the millions of dollars they pour into the country each year. This is, after all, a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world.
Cáceres’ activism aimed to ameliorate conditions in Honduras for its indigenous people, a large percentage of the country’s population and a group certainly in need of the help. According to the Goldman Environmental Foundation, who awarded Cáceres the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, the Honduran coup in 2009 created the need and justification for environmentally destructive projects, including the Agua Zarca Dam, which was to be constructed on the Gualcarque River. Not only would this project be conducted without the permission or support of the indigenous Lenca people who inhabit the area, it would also cut off vital access to water, food, and medicine for the Lenca, who consider the river to be sacred. Cáceres contended that this was a breach of international law. The Chinese company Sinohydro, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), and Honduran company Desarrolos Energeticos (DESA) were behind the massive project. For the past few years, Cáceres and COPINH had led community protests, including attempts to block access to the construction site. In 2013, a peaceful protester Tomás Garcia was shot dead by a Honduran soldier, but despite the violence protests continued.
The Honduran government’s support of the project also remained steadfast, and they constantly claimed that support also existed within indigenous communities. Local authorities doctored minutes of community meetings and offered cash to locals in exchange for signatures of support.
In response to international pressures and ongoing protests from COPINH, both Sinohydro and the IFC withdrew from the project in 2013. DESA continued and leveled criminal charges against Cáceres with the support of prominent Honduran business leaders such as Aline Flores, the president of the Honduran Council for Private Business. Flores claimed that Cáceres and COPINH were “boycotting, invading, and making Honduras look bad internationally.”. In the face of such blatant opposition to her work, the charges of weapon possession and later incitement against Cáceres seemed terribly obvious in their bias. Amnesty International was ready to declare Cáceres and her fellow activists, who also faced charges, prisoners of conscience should they be imprisoned. Huge amounts of support poured in internationally.
The indigenous activists left behind after Cáceres’ murder have received support, but remain justifiably dissatisfied. Some of the remaining European supporters for the Agua Zarca, including FMO and Finnfund, withdrew their support, citing ongoing violence in the country and calling on the Honduran government to do “anything in their power” to fix the political climate.
Human rights and environmental groups have also risen their voices to protest Cáceres’ death, but her family needs more in order to feel that justice has been done. The Cáceres family is skeptical of the explanation given by the local police, who claim that the murder was the result of a burglary gone wrong, and explicitly believe that the government is to blame for her death. If not directly, then they are responsible for her death by failing to provide proper protection despite the history of death threats aimed at Cáceres.
Honduras’s record for human rights, especially after the coup that took place in 2009, speaks to a deeper institutional problem within the government. The murder rate was the highest in the world in 2014, as it was the year before. Human Rights Watch states that “the institutions responsible for providing public security continue to prove largely ineffective and remain marred by corruption and abuse.”. Defenders of human rights and journalists around the world are particularly vulnerable to violence and suppression. In the past decade alone, over 200 activists and 100 journalists have been killed in Honduras. And yet, the United States allocated over $50 million to the country between 2010 and 2014. Why is the US funneling any money to a country like Honduras, whose government seems to care very little about its citizens and even less about those who speak out about it?
The Honduran government is not being accused of Cáceres’ murder, despite what her family may believe. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernádez called her death an “attack on Honduras.” But there is no evidence that investigations into the situation will yield concrete or useful results. In fact, just two days after Cáceres’ death, another COPINH member, Nelson Garcia, was murdered.
We have to ask the question: who can be killed in Honduras before the United States does anything about it? The US did not stage the coup that ousted former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, but they were and remain one of the country’s biggest supporters. When the United States provides monetary support to a country with a worsening human rights regime, it is reasonable to begin to question their priorities in the region. Berta Cáceres is certainly not the first activist to be murdered in Honduras, nor will she be the last, but hopefully her death and her family’s attempts to get the US to answer for their support will eventually secure some measure of justice for her and her people.
- Alexie Schwarz