Berta Cáceres : Activist to the last

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By Sylvia Revello, translated by Emily Milne

 Her battle cost her her life. On the 3rd of March, the Honduran environmental activist was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, in the north west of the country, under suspicious circumstances. Described as a “politically motivated crime committed by the government” the tragedy has provoked an international outcry. It demonstrates, if that were even necessary, just how tragically the power struggles between multinational companies and indigenous peoples can turn out. Known for speaking out against the harmful consequences posed to the indigenous Lenca people by the hydroelectric dam, Agua Zarca, the 42-year old activist was no stranger to threats and scare tactics. Now she has paid the price for her freedom of expression. While Amnesty International laments the “numerous flaws in the investigation”, the Honduran authorities maintain that her death was nothing more than a burglary gone wrong.

Rising inequality, gang violence, and even corruption: Honduras has a terrible reputation and regularly distinguishes itself as a violator of human rights. Ever since the military coup in 2009, during which the then-president Manuel Zelaya, who was on the centre left, was forcibly removed from office, this little Central American country has seen a noticeable rise in judicial persecutions and state-sponsored assassinations. Between 2002 and 2014, close to 110 human rights defenders have been killed there in retribution for speaking out, of which 12 alone were in 2014.

Cofounder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, Berta Cáceres was also involved in politics and was an activist in an anti-government organisation set up by civilians. She was, however, most active on the environmental front. Since 2006, for example, she had been protesting against a huge project launched by the energy company DESA (Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anonima). Supported by two European investment funds, the aim of the project was to construct a hydroelectric dam in the Rio Blanco region. The consequences? The disappearance of the Gualcarque river, a source of sustenance and a very sacred place for the 400,000 members of the Lenca community to which Berta Càceres belonged.

From complaints in court to peaceful protests to road blockades, the activist increased her efforts in an attempt to have the rights of the local populations respected and to have them consulted on the suitability of the project. She even took the case to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to get the World Bank, which was partly financing the dam, to withdraw funds. She won her case at the end of 2013. Last year, her tireless struggle won her the Goldman prize, one of the most prestigious awards for defenders of the environment. Her nephew Silvio Carillo, when interviewed by an American media company, had no doubts about the circumstances of her death: “She was killed because her international reputation was starting to make her untouchable.”

In the United Nations, many are speaking out against “a situation in which the murderers of a growing number of human rights activists are clearly enjoying impunity, particularly when environmental campaigners have been executed”  in the words of Michel Forst, who oversees the protection of activists, as reported last Thursday by French newspaper Le Courrier.

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