The indigenous activist Berta Cáceres was killed in Honduras early Thursday in the city of Esperanza, located in the western department of Intibucá, where she lived. At least two armed men shot her in the middle of the night, evading an armed guard, now under investigation. Her brother was also injured. Cáceres, leader of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares and Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), had been taking extra precautions after facing threats because of her activities in defense of natural resources. She had predicted her own death, calling into question the responsibility of the state.
Last year, she received the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism, the highest worldwide recognition for an environmentalist. During the award ceremony, she denounced the harassment she had received. “I am being followed,” she said. “I have received kidnap and death threats. Threats to my family. We have to face this.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered the neoliberal government of Juan Orlando Hernandez to guarantee her safety.
Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmentalists. According to the NGO Global Witness, 111 were killed between 2002 and 2014. In 2014 alone, 88 ecologists were killed in Latin America, 40 percent of whom were representatives of native peoples. This figure is equivalent to three-fourths of the murders committed against environmentalists around the world. Indigenous people’s organized resistance against big hydroelectric and mining companies, which ravage the land and force the displacement of native populations, has achieved important victories — though they’ve paid dearly for them.
Cáceres, the COPINH and indigenous communities fighting for the defense of their ancestral territories stopped the Chinese multinational Sinohydro. The company decided to withdraw its participation in the construction of a dam on the Gualcarque River, a project that had also captured the International Finance Corporation, an institution of the World Bank. In addition to privatizing the river, the dam would have destroyed several miles of nearby agricultural activities.
Cáceres’ last fight was against the activities of a hydroelectric company in an indigenous community of Rio Blanco, in the department of Santa Barbara. Last week, she denounced in a press conference the murders of four community leaders and threats against others. In recent weeks, the repression intensified. On Feb. 20, in Rio Blanco, locals clashed with the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA, which has access to international funding and has targeted the Gualcarque River.
The coordinator of COPINH had also been in the forefront of resistance to the coup against then President Manuel Zelaya, ousted by the military on June 28, 2009. The moderate “Mel” had had the audacity to turn toward new Latin American alliances, such as the ALBA, designed by Cuba and Venezuela. Since then, in a country increasingly poor and unfair, unregulated concessions to large multinationals have increased exponentially, destroying the possibility of the survival of indigenous peoples. Nearly 30 percent of national land has been assigned to mining concessions, and hundreds of hydroelectric projects have been approved, privatizing rivers and territories, and forcing the exodus of native communities.
The Agua Zarca dam project is planned for construction on the Guarcarque River, a waterway sacred to natives. It was approved without any consultation of the Lenca people, in blatant violation of international treaties regulating the rights of indigenous peoples. Despite entreaties from international organizations for the rights of the natives, large economic interests have continued to impose themselves by violence.
Last year, Honduras and Guatemala were beset by Los Indignados (“the outraged”) protests, sparked by big corruption scandals that have affected the upper echelons of the state. In May 2015, the Movimiento Oposición Indignada held several rallies against impunity, after a $200 million corruption scandal within the country’s healthcare system. Their main demand was the creation of an “International Commission against Impunity in Honduras,” similar to the one created by the United Nations in Guatemala in 2006.
Orlando Hernandez, however, invited the support of the Organization of American States to put up a window dressing. In late February, the OAS and the U.N. launched an anti-corruption mission based on five points, which provide “recommendations” and the creation of an Observatory on Justice, formed by academic organizations and civil society, appointed to evaluate the progress of the reform of the Honduran judicial system. The activist movements have rejected the palliatives.
The system saves face while continuing to protect the interests of oligarchs and foreign actors, including representatives of the U.S. Department of State and the OAS. Central America is a powder keg, where the 21st century winds of socialism have not spread. And yet progressive movements continue to animate the region, resist and organize. After Zelaya’s ouster, the leftist activists moved ahead and even formed an institutional base: the Liberty and Refoundation Party, or LIBRE. Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, who ran under the LIBRE banner last election, won a large consensus.
Support from ALBA countries has never failed. Zelaya, whom we met in December in Venezuela, was one of the international observers to the last parliamentary elections, and he has supported the Chavismo. Cáceres traveled extensively to meet with the leaders of ALBA movements in Latin America. Now, they all mourn her passing.