Crisis in Honduras: The murder of a prize-winning activist
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Crisis in Honduras: The murder of a prize-winning activist

Early Thursday morning, environmental and human rights activist Berta Cáceres was murdered by gunmen in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras.

Last year Cáceres was awarded the world’s most prestigious environmental honor, the Goldman Environmental Prize, for her work as the co-founder and coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

In this capacity she fought against illegal logging, destructive plantations and — most recently — against the construction of four giant dams in Honduras’ Gualcarque River basin. Known as Agua Zarca, it is one of Central America’s largest hydropower projects.

A brave struggle until the end

Cáceres did not back down from her campaign against powerful local landowners, private mercenaries, a U.S.-funded police force and a huge project backed by major international investors, including Siemens, Voith and the Dutch Development Bank. She did not back down from local company Desa, which is building the dams and known to utilize nefarious methods to achieve its goals.

She persevered even after receiving multiple death and rape threats. Even after several of her colleagues were tortured and/or murdered, including one 14-year-old son of an activist and another who was shot by a Honduran soldier.

She has now similarly paid for her courageous efforts with her life.

According to local police, Cáceres was killed during an attempted robbery. In a radio interview with Honduras’ Globo, her 84-year-old mother, a midwife and social activist, disagreed with this conclusion (via the Guardian):

I have no doubt that she has been killed because of her struggle and that soldiers and people from the dam are responsible, I am sure of that. I hold the government responsible.

Agua Zarca: A murderous project

Since a military coup in 2009, in which U.S.-trained forces seized power, Honduras has embarked on a series of large-scale industrial development projects, destroying the country’s natural environment and displacing its indigenous population.

Nearly 30 percent of the country was designated for mining projects, while lands and even rivers were sold off to private corporations. These mines required cheap and accessible power, which was to be supplied by massive hydropower dams.

If constructed, the Agua Zarca dam project would strangle local irrigation and drinking water supplies to the local population.

Berta Cáceres and her fellow activists were not about to let that happen. Despite the obvious dangers to her life, she fought the project, and claimed some victories along the way.

The world’s largest dam builder, China’s Sinohydro, pulled out of Agua Zarca back in 2013 due to ethical concerns relating to how Desa would acquire the land on which the dams would be constructed. Later, the International Finance Corporation — part of the World Bank Group — also pulled out due to human rights concerns.

Honduras leads the world in eco-murders

Cáceres’ high-profile murder is just the latest in an epidemic of such killings in Honduras.

According to research by NGO Global Witness, Honduras led the world in per capita murders of “land and environmental defenders” with 111 between the years of 2002 and 2014, making it the most dangerous country in which to be an environmental activist.

Berta Cáceres of course knew this and decided to fight on anyway.

We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.

—Berta Cacéres (1971–2016)

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