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In the early morning of March 3, 2016, prominent environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres was killed while sleeping in her bed in Honduras. Cáceres was known for her outspoken yet peaceful campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River. She was also a grantee of Boulder-based nonprofit Global Greengrants Fund, which supports grassroots environmental actions throughout the world.
“She is, was, a really warm, sparkly-eyed, funny, laughing woman who took her work very seriously,” says Justine Reed, vice president and executive director of Global Greengrants Fund, who worked personally with Cáceres on several occasions. “She came from a long line of feisty women, and she herself was feisty.”
Raised by a strong woman who took in refugees from the civil war in neighboring El Salvador when she was young, in 1993 Cáceres cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to advocate for the rights of the indigenous Lenca people on issues that threaten their livelihood, including illegal logging. Starting in 2006, Cáceres rallied behind community members in opposition to the Agua Zarca project on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras.
“It wasn’t so much that she had her specific agenda of what individual action should be,” Reed says. “She was very committed to building consensus within the community, getting the community to have a voice and then taking that voice and fighting for it.”
With funding from international banks and international hydroelectric companies, the dam project was approved without consultation from the local indigenous people, who consider the river sacred. Although formal complaints filed with both the Honduran government and Inter-American Human Rights Commission failed to stop the project moving forward, Cáceres organized a road blockade, with around-the-clock vigilance, preventing further development.
“Her feeling was that there was a lot of criminal activity and out-right lying that the local and national government was doing to assure these international investors that all was good,” Reed says.
Throughout 2013, the group maintained their peaceful position until some major investors pulled out of the project completely. These efforts won Cáceres the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America. “Of all people I thought she was safer because she had a broader audience, a bigger platform, a larger stage and that she would be much harder for someone to take action against because it wouldn’t be easy to hide,” Reed says. “And I was wrong.”
Honduras saw 101 environmental activists murdered between 2010 and 2014 alone. The country was deemed the most dangerous in the world per capita for such activists by Global Witness, a nonprofit investigating human rights and environmental abuses around the world.
“Since the mid 2000s the governments of the Central American region have been governments in the service of businesses, whose powers lie in foreign businesses and not the authorities that we as citizens elect to serve us,” wrote Ibis Colindres, Honduran advisor for Global Greengrants Fund, in an email. “They don’t understand why social movements oppose the projects that they want to develop. The governments do very little to guarantee the state of rights of the citizens, and when they emit concessions, they don’t apply the international conventions and they disrespect people’s rights. It’s a situation that provokes social conflicts, and provokes intimidation and threats to those who lead these organizations.”
Reed says Cáceres was very aware of the threats to her life and went into hiding several times to protect both herself and her family, including three grown children and one grandchild. But she also wasn’t one to back down.
“She felt very strongly that you have to be informed,” Reed says. “And you have to stand up for your people and you have to protect your family and your community and your livelihood. That’s the way she led her life. She spoke very actively, and ironically more consistently, about the likelihood that she would die at the hands of somebody because of the work she did.”
Cáceres continued to fight against the ongoing multi-dam Agua Zarca project until her assassination on March 3.
Twelve days later, her colleague at COPINH, Nelson García, was shot on his way home from working with a Lenca community facing forced eviction by military police. Since then, other international investors have pulled funding for the project amidst increasing international pressure for protection of activists in Honduras as well as an independent investigation into the killings.
“If we don’t let [Cáceres] death go, if we just insist on justice, if we insist on shining the light on this, if we insist that it not be swept under the rug and that we get the answers, I think she will feel like she accomplished something, even in her death,” Reed says. “That’s important, not only for her, but it’s important to give the message to the other Bertas out there, that we will pay attention and they are not alone.”