Lenca indigenous women protest against the murder of Honduran enviromnentalist Berta Caceres, in front of the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa on April 5, 2016. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images.
Since her mother’s murder a month ago, Bertha Isabel Zuniga Cáceres has scarcely had time to grieve. The 25-year-old student is adamant that her mother, Berta Cáceres Flores, will not become just one more Honduran environmental activist whose work was cut short by their assassination.
“Development in Honduras cannot continue happen at the expense of indigenous peoples and human rights,” says Zuñiga Cáceres, who met today with members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Honduran officials in Washington DC to call for an independent investigation into her mother’s killing. She also requested greater protection for her family and members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the human rights group her mother co-founded.
A growing chorus of voices, from civil society groups to members of the US Congress, have reiterated the need for reform in Honduras in the month since Cáceres was shot dead by assassins in her home. Cáceres, founder of the nonprofit watchdog group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), died less than a week after opposing a major new hydroelectric project. Her death was followed two weeks later by that of her colleague Nelson García. While a suspect has been identified in García’s death, local activists are accusing the government of a cover-up.
A well known leader from the Lenca indigenous community, Cáceres received international recognition – and threats – for her efforts to halt the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the sacred Gualcarque River. Last year, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to uphold indigenous rights.
A deadly place for environmentalists
Honduras now has the highest murder rate for environmental activists in the world, and conflict over land rights is the primary driver. Rampant inequality, a weak judicial system, cozy relationships between political and business elites and near total impunity for crimes against human rights defenders have contributed to 101 murders of environmental activists between 2010 and 2014, according to the British NGO Global Witness.
It’s an upward trend: there were three times as many killings in 2012 as a decade earlier, and 2015 is likely to be the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders in Honduras, according to Billy Kyte, author of a 2015 report by Global Witness spotlighting the dangers faced by activists.
“The environment is the new battleground for human rights, and disputes over land form the backdrop to almost all the killings,” says Kyte.
The Global North’s “rapacious demand” for natural resources is fueling conflict on indigenous lands throughout the developing world, says Kyte. But in Honduras, corruption, organized crime, political instability and increasingly militarized policing have created a particularly acute crisis.
Since the 2009 coup that ousted democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya, the right wing Honduran government has aggressively promoted investment and development in mining, agri-business and large scale energy infrastructure projects. It has privatized land and water resources and removed barriers to large scale development projects, often at the expense of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and small scale campesino farmers.
In large part to meet the mining industry’s enormous demand for energy, the government has granted dozens of hydroelectric dam concessions. Global Witness found that the developers often disregard the land rights of indigenous communities, which become targets of threats and violence. Powerful drug trafficking gangs are also known to use mining and agri-business projects for money laundering.
Honduras is a signatory to the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which requires the free, prior consultation and consent of indigenous communities for projects that impact their traditional territories. But the country has a poor track record when it comes to upholding those rights, according to George Redman, Honduras country director for Oxfam.
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