Berta Cáceres’ assassination, land rights and the growing criminalization of social justice leaders

April 11, 2016
Autumn Spanne
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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.
 
It’s not uncommon, says Redman, for communities to first learn about a concession when the company shows up on their land to break ground. In recent years, the Honduran government has fast-tracked approvals for large projects, overlooking legal violations of indigenous rights.
 
That’s just what happened to the indigenous Lenca community of Río Blanco a decade ago when developers arrived unannounced one day to break ground on a massive dam project called Agua Zarca, a joint venture between the internationally-financed Honduran company Desarrollos Energeticos SA and China’s state-owned Sinohydro.
 
The Agua Zarca project had been approved despite the fact that it violated international treaties on the rights of indigenous peoples. Fearing for their sacred river, their land rights and their safety, Río Blanco appealed to Cáceres for help, who was subsequently recognized for her work to fight the project.
 
Agua Zarca has become emblematic of the Honduran government’s failure to address corruption, law enforcement abuses and land grabs.
 
“You have on the one hand poor indigenous communities up against some of the richest and most powerful people in the country who are also enjoying a degree of protection from Honduran security forces,” says Redman. “So it’s a very, very uneven playing field.”
 
Companies have been known to forge signatures on consent documents and engage private security contractors and government security forces to subdue protesters. Hours from the nearest cities and often lacking telephones and electricity, indigenous communities are often powerless to fight back.
 
Recent investigations have estimated that the vast majority of attacks and killings of human rights defenders in Honduras go unsolved.
 
“People involved in this kind of protection work, they always say, ‘We feel so vulnerable, at any minute we could just be murdered because of this culture of impunity,’” says Redman. “And the powers behind these kinds of investments are so strong”.
 
A call for reform
 
Since the killing of Berta Cáceres and Nelson García, international pressure has increased for the Honduran government to take stronger, more decisive action to strengthen protections for activists and uphold indigenous rights.
 
The very fact that someone of Berta Cáceres’s stature was killed indicates the grave risk faced by other Honduran activists who don’t have that recognition, says Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based human rights advocacy organization.
 
“To have someone like Berta and Nelson García assassinated shows the fragility in Honduras,” says Beltrán. “It’s a test not only of capacity but the will of the Honduran government and authorities to investigate these types of attacks and killings against environmental and other human rights defenders.”
 
Speaking on the floor of the US Senate last month, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) called on the Honduran government to cancel the Agua Zarca concession. He criticized the administration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for failing to deliver on a promise made to defend human rights while lobbying last year for a significant share of the $750m in US aid allocated for regional security.
 
Two weeks after the Cáceres assassination, 11 members of Congress, including Leahy, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the State Department to press the Honduran government to grant an independent international investigation into her death, fund a system of protection for activists and permanently stop the Agua Zarca project.
 
The letter also urged a review of US security assistance, including aid allocated for training of Honduran security forces. It furthermore called for a review of US-backed loans for Honduran development projects from institutions like the World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
 
A long road ahead
 
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The family of Cáceres says the response from the US State Department in particular has so far been insufficient to call Honduras to account for the entrenched corruption.
 
“We’re trying to get people to understand that these are oligarchs who put their friends in strategic places to control the message,” says Silvio Carrillo, a nephew of Berta Cáceres, who traveled to Washington this week.
 
“We want [the US State Department] to say that they are not confident in the Honduran government – they have no track record and it’s clear that they are not going to produce the proper investigation,” he says.
 
There’s also a need for companies doing business in Honduras to show greater responsibility for community rights, says Marcia Aguiluz, program director for Central America and Mexico at the Center for Justice and International Law, which accompanied the Cáceres family before the IACHR this week.
 
“It’s not enough to find out who killed Berta,” says Aguiluz. “I would say it’s important for the international community to understand the conflicts going on in Honduras.”
 
Following García’s murder on 16 March, the Dutch development bank FMP, which had provided financing for Agua Zarca, announced an immediate suspension of all operations in Honduras. The company said it would send a delegation to communities affected by the project and promised a thorough investigation of all its projects in Honduras. A second major investor, Finnfund, quickly followed suit.
 
“There is still a [corporate] culture of ‘why do we have to take into account the rights or concern of poor rural communities?’” says Redman. “There’s a discourse that says: this is good for the development of the company, so if you have to stop on a few toes, that’s too bad.”