Hundreds of human rights defenders rallied outside the First Avenue Honduras Mission to the UN last week demanding justice for the murder of 44-year-old environmental activist Berta Cáceres, gunned down on March 3 while she was sleeping in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras.
Berta Cáceres was a Lenca indigenous leader — the largest indigenous group in Honduras — about 100,000. For years, she worked to preserve the community and their land.
In the weeks preceding this barbarous act, Berta and the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) — the organization she co-founded — had repeatedly received death threats for their opposition (over a decade) against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, a sacred river within Lenca indigenous territory.
Just two days before this rally, on March 15, fellow activist Nelson Garcia was shot and killed for helping a group of poor families resist a land grab in the small town of Rio Lindo. These recent acts of targeted violence highlight the need to end impunity and enact laws for human rights protection.
Last year, Berta was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her fearless work to defend the Gualcarque River and its surrounding environment and people from DESA’s Agua Zarca Dam project. Goldman Environmental Foundation President John Goldman released a statement, “She understood the risks that came with her work, but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction.”
Demonstrators — New York-based activists and allies as well as international women attending the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) braved the rain, which stopped as the program began. And, filled with emotion, they continuously expressed their outrage and solidarity during the rally.
Speakers from the Cáceres family, from COPINH–Lilian Esperanza López, from the Honduran Women’s Human Rights Defenders Network– Yessica Trinidad, and other social justice leaders were among those addressing the assembled rally.
Berta’s 25-year-old daughter Bertha Isabel Zúniga Cáceres looked into a sea of chanting supporters, waving cut-out face masks of the slain activist. “We know that Berta was assassinated because she struggled for her people, and we also know that she struggled to protect nature,“ she said. “Berta would be delighted to see you here, sharing for rebellion and demand for justice.”
Cáceres listed harborers of power that Berta continuously confronted –economic interests, political elites and military, security and police forces.
Demands read at the rally called for immediate and transparent investigation into this crime, protection for the crime’s witness, fellow activist Gustavo Castro Soto, as well as urging the creation by the Honduran state of a safe and secure atmosphere for human rights defenders.
While Berta’s courageous voice cannot be replaced, her fortitude and resolve motivates those struggling to continue her work. Her spirit as well as her many-multiplied image was amidst the crowd.
Global Witness issued a 2015 report detailing that Honduras is the most dangerous place in the world for environmental activists — 109 were killed there in the last five years.
Goldman Prize staff is working with Global Witness and other partners to demand a full investigation by the Honduras government into the killing, immediate measures to ensure the safety for the Cáceres family, and protection for Honduran activists.
Sixty-two members of Congress have called for an independent investigation.