Steve Shaw

Human rights groups have condemned the murder of the environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres and called for the government of Honduras to conduct an in-depth and independent investigation.

Gunmen broke down the door of Cáceres’s home in La Esperanza, Intibuca in the early hours of 3 March and shot her four times, according to local media. The killers then fled the scene without being identified. 

Many of Cáceres’s family and colleagues suspect she was murdered because of her work as an activist and her fight against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam along the Gualcarque River. The dam was to be built on indigenous community land sacred to the Lenca people and threatened to cut off their supply of water, food and medicine.

Cáceres’s campaign against the dam led to her receiving multiple death threats from police, the army and landowners’ groups. When she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her opposition to the dam, she remarked on the danger she was in: “They follow me and threaten to kidnap and kill me. They threaten my family. This is what we have to face.”

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) had granted Cáceres emergency protection measures, which she later claimed were not being implemented by the Honduran state.

Julián Pacheco Tinoco, the country’s security minister, said at a news conference that she was not under the protection of the security forces when she was killed because she was not in the location she had reported as her home.

Amnesty International’s Americas director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, said in a statement that the killing was a tragedy that was waiting to happen. “For years, she had been the victim of a sustained campaign of harassment and threats to stop her from defending the rights of indigenous communities,” she said. 

“Unless the authorities in Honduras take decisive action to find those responsible for this heinous crime and take measures to protect other activists like Berta, they will have blood on their hands.”

Advocacy group Global Witness has published an open letter signed by over 50 human rights groups, which demands an independent, international investigation and asks the Honduran government to ensure indigenous peoples’ land rights are respected.

The group has also released new research which rates Honduras as the world’s most dangerous country to be an environmental or land defender, with at least 109 people killed between 2010 and 2015, for taking a stand against destructive dam, mining, logging and agriculture projects. 

Of the eight killed in 2015, one was Moisés Durón Sánchez, a member of Cáceres’s indigenous rights group COPINH. He was murdered in May 2015 after receiving numerous death threats for his role defending his community’s rights to their land.  Cáceres’s fellow COPINH leader Tomás García was also shot dead by a military officer during a protest in 2013.

Billy Kyte, a campaigner at Global Witness, said: “Hondurans are being shot dead in broad daylight, kidnapped, or assaulted for standing in the way of their land and the companies who want to monetize it. 

“These are not isolated incidents – they are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by a collusion of state and corporate actors. Urgent action is needed to protect those in the firing line, and bring perpetrators to justice.”

Image via Goldman Environmental Prize

Steve Shaw is a freelance journalist living in Manchester, England. He has worked for The Tibet Post International and The Shan Herald News Agency; his work has focused primarily on human rights, injustice and conflict. He also contributes to the Bhutan News Agency and the business publication P1.