MS Risk Blog

Prominent indigenous and environmental rights campaigner in Honduras shot dead in her home

Posted on in Honduras title_rule

Around 1am on March 3 renowned Honduran environmental and indigenous rights campaigner Berta Cáceres was shot dead by armed assailants at her home in La Esperanza, in Intibucá department, Honduras.

The high-profile murder has sparked international outrage and underlines the significant threats facing social campaigners in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. While Honduras is no stranger to high levels of violent crime, with one of the highest homicide rates globally, few are likely to take seriously any suggestion that Cáceres’ murder was a random act of violent crime.

The campaigner had received multiple death threats in recent years, primarily concerning her involvement in the campaign to halt the development of the partially internationally funded Agua Zarca Damn. In a country where 101 environmental campaigners were killed between 2010-2014,[1] she was aware of the vulnerable nature of her safety. According to local sources, the assailants broke into her house after she had gone to sleep and questions have arisen as to why there was no security service protection. In 2015 the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) formally called on President Hernández’ government to ensure the protection of Cáceres and other human rights defenders by ensuring precautionary measures. Its failure to do so has sparked widespread criticism from local and international groups, and calls on the government to fully investigate the murder. Yet, impunity remains one of the key challenges in the embattled country, where according to former Attorney General Luis Rubí, more than 90% of crimes go unpunished.

Cáceres was a campaigner for the Lenca indigenous peoples, and in 1993 co-founded the COPINH (Civic Council of Indigenous Organisations in Honduras). In recent years COPINH has been campaigning for the rights of the Lenca community and ensuring the right to free-prior and informed consent before a government/or private company can develop their land, as outlined by the ILO, which Honduras is a signatory too. In particular, Cáceres vociferously campaigned against the Agua Zarca Damn, one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects in the Gualcarque. The damn is a joint project between Honduran Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro – the world’s largest dam developer.

Following the ousting of former president Zelaya in 2009, the government has pushed through numerous damn and agricultural projects to make way for major extractives investment in the country, an area they claim is necessary to aid the country’s flailing economy, and raise revenues to tackle major social issues. However, many opponents argue this has been done without proper legislation, information and local engagement, and that those who have spoken out have found themselves at the end of the barrel of a gun, with little investigation carried out by the authorities. Speaking about its 2015 report into this, a Global Witness representative called on governments across Latin America to tackle this regional issue more seriously, claiming that rampant impunity allows perpetrators to get away with it, and that the problem is widespread across the region.

On the evening of 3 March violent clashes broke out in the capital Tegucigalpa, where students accused the government of failing to protect the activist by ensuring basic security measures. The protest voice also points to the complex nature of foreign investment in projects with high social risks if effective due diligence is not carried out. The Dutch development bank and other international lenders have come under increasing pressure to pull out of the highly politicised damn project. Cáceres won the prestigious 2015 Goldman award for her grass-roots environmental campaigning, which had placed the issue onto an international stage and raised her global profile and that of her campaign. This is likely to ensure that the government will come under the scrutiny of global investigation watchdogs to investigate the murder fully.

[1] As recorded by the International NGO Global Witness in a 2015 report.