According to the campaign group Global Witness, 116 environmental activists were killed in 2014, a fifth more than the year before. Many of them were leaders of indigenous communities defending their land. The most dangerous place for environmental campaigners is Honduras, where 101 were reported killed between 2010 and 2014. The chief activist of the indigenous Lenca community, Berta Cáceres, a campaigner against dams and mining projects, told Global Witness that she led a ‘fugitive existence’ because of death threats. ‘They follow me,’ she said. ‘They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten my family. This is what we face.’ She was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Last Thursday she was murdered.
After the 2009 military coup, Honduras was declared open for business. Utopian projects for charter cities to bring in foreign entrepreneurs are still on the drawing board, but Honduras’s mineral resources have already attracted investors. To serve hundreds of new mines, 47 new hydroelectric projects were given the go ahead two months after the coup, overriding the legal protection for indigenous lands. One of them, Agua Zarca on the Gualcarque River, with dams generating 22 megawatts of electricity, would destroy Lenca farmland and villages. The Lenca community of Rio Blanco and the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), co-founded by Cáceres, were determined to stop the dams being built.
They blocked the access road for construction traffic for a whole year in 2013, eventually forcing the Chinese firm Sinohydro to give up its contract. The World Bank also withdrew funding. The community seemed to have won, at the cost of activists being killed or injured by soldiers guarding the construction site.
Then last July, DESA, the local firm that holds the concession to dam the river, decided to go ahead by itself. A new phase of struggle began, with peaceful protests met by violent repression and bulldozers demolishing settlements in the valley. Threats against the leaders, and Cáceres in particular, increased. She was granted special protective measures by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, but the Honduran government never properly implemented them. On 20 February, a peaceful march was stopped and 100 protesters were detained by DESA guards. On 25 February, 50 families had to watch the demolition of their houses in the community of La Jarcia.
In the small hours of the morning on Thursday 3 March, armed men burst through the back door of Cáceres’s house and killed her in her bed. They also injured a visiting Mexican activist, Gustavo Castro. At around eight o’clock, police and army officers arrived, dealing aggressively with the family and community members who were waiting to speak to them. As they left the scene, they insinuated that the motive was robbery. Cáceres’s body was wrapped in plastic and thrown in the back of an unmarked truck. COPINH alerted its international contacts, and there was immediate pressure on the Honduras government – from several US senators and the UN, among others – to bring the killers to justice.
The obvious suspects are the people who had sent death threats to Cáceres and other COPINH organisers, openly calling themselves sicarios and firing at her car. But the police arrested another COPINH leader, Aureliano Molina, and now suggest that the murder might have been a ‘crime of passion’. Meanwhile, Castro has been prevented from leaving the country and has taken refuge in the Mexican embassy. COPINH has called for a proper investigation, with international observers. Although it has now been changed, the official government statement lamenting the murder and promising to find those responsible was at first dated 1 March, two days before Cáceres’s death.