The ongoing crime against environmentalists in Honduras must end
by Jeff Conant, senior international forest campaigner
A full week after the murder of Honduran social movement leader Berta Cáceres, the situation in Honduras continues to be urgent. Amnesty International has denounced irregularities in the Honduran government’s handling of the investigation — which includes the Honduran government’s detention of Gustavo Castro of Friends of the Earth Mexico who was wounded in the attack on Berta, and is being detained in Honduras, at great threat to his life.
Berta’s colleagues in the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras, and her community members, continue to be at risk of ongoing repression from the Honduran state. Rather than investigating the many instances of death threats and murder attempts on Berta prior to her killing, the Honduran government has called the killing a crime of passion and a botched robbery, and has focused its investigation on COPINH itself. In a private letter to friends and family written from custody, Castro says that the crime scene has been altered, that all of the photos he has been given to identify the killers were of COPINH members themselves, and that days went by before he was allowed to eat or change out of blood-spattered clothes, after having Berta die in his arms and suffering two gunshot wounds himself in an attempt on his life.
Berta was a widely loved and world acclaimed defender of our environment, and Gustavo Castro worked alongside her and COPINH protecting the environment and the rights of local communities, oftentimes confronting some of the most influential and powerful state and economic interests. The killing of Berta, the targeting of COPINH, and the ongoing arbitrary detention of Gustavo Castro fit a pattern of criminal persecution of environmental and human rights defenders across the hemisphere, including the illegal criminalization of their advocacy by the state, by corrupt police forces, judicial systems and private interests.
Support Friends of the Earth’s demand that the State Department ensure protections for Gustavo and COPINH, and support independent oversight for the investigation.
As this article by our friends at International Rivers explains, there can be no doubt about who killed Berta Cáceres. But in the days and weeks ahead, Honduran authorities and those international interests sponsoring infrastructure projects in Honduras will try to distort the reality of what has happened, and what is happening, in Honduras.
In the course of her work, Berta Cáceres suffered constant death threats against herself and her family, threats of sexual violence and assault, attacks and harassment. She was also the subject of continual legal harassment by judicial authorities and intimidation by security forces and local government officials. In the six months before her murder, according to COPINH, the threats against her escalated and included shots fired at her car and verbal threats by members of the military, police, local authorities and representatives of the hydroelectric company.
Berta had been granted precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2009 but never received the full protection she needed. In fact, she is one of 15 human rights defenders who have been killed in Honduras while beneficiaries of IACHR precautionary measures, as reported by the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). COPINH as an organization also received precautionary measures from the IACHR after the other co-founder of the group, Tomás García, was killed in 2013 by a Honduran soldier — also for protesting the construction of the Agua Zarca dam. On March 5, 2016, following Berta’s killing, the IACHR granted precautionary measures for the COPINH, Berta Cáceres’ family and Gustavo Castro, given the risk to their safety.
By now it should be clear that the killing was no random event. In fact, its not just part of the trend of killings of environmental defenders — it’s an uncanny repeat of an earlier killing of a woman environmental defender in Honduras. Jeanette Kawas, a Honduran environmentalist, was killed in 1995; years later a landmark human rights case based on her murder, Kawas v. Honduras, set international legal precedent for the requirement that States protect at-risk environmental human rights defenders — a precedent that without doubt applies to Berta’s murder.
Especially given the very public awareness of the constant threats to Berta’s life, the precedent of the Kawas case makes the Honduran state culpable in Ms. Cáceres’ assassination. In the days, weeks and months ahead, we’ll see how the State Department, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the many other entities involved in the investigation handle that particular question.
But international legal scholarship aside, the issue at hand is that Berta Cáceres is dead, Gustavo Castro is in danger in Honduras, COPINH is under constant threat, and the rivers and forests of Honduras — like in so many places — are on the chopping block. With that in mind, of all the documents coming out in the days after the murder, there may be none clearer than this statement released by Berta’s family and members of COPINH on March 6:
Delivered from the final resting place of our Berta. Our mom, our daughter, our guide.
Her daughters Olivia, Bertha and Laura, her son Salvador, her mother Austraberta alongside family and friends, wish to make public our thoughts in this moment of profound sorrow.
Our Berta is the greatest inspiration we have known, that is why we feel a need to ensure that the truth about her life and struggle is heard. Firstly, we want to say thank you for all the solidarity, both national and international. We want to say thank you for the support of her Lenca people, to whom she gave the best of her resistance. To the Garifuna people, with whom she bonded in struggle and visions of utopia. To all the organizations and social movements in Honduras, Latin America and the world who have made our pain their own. We are grateful for the enormous showing of affection and condolences that the Honduran people have offered, demonstrating that Berta’s fight is the dignified fight of all the peoples and the fight that the world needs.
We must not allow the truth about the crime that ended her life to be distorted. We know with complete certainty that the motivation for her vile assassination was her struggle against the exploitation of nature’s common wealth and in defence of the Lenca people. Her murder is an attempt to put an end to the struggle of the Lenca people against all forms of exploitation and expulsion. It is an attempt to halt the construction of a new world.
Her death comes in the middle of her fight against the installation of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River. We demand that it be made clear that the responsibility for this lies with the company DESA, which is developing the project. We hold DESA, the international financial organizations backing the project (the Netherlands Development Finance Company FMO, Finnfund, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, Ficohsa Bank), and the contractors (CASTOR and the Atala Group) responsible for the persecution, criminalization, stigmatization and constant death threats against Berta, us, and COPINH. We hold the Honduran state responsible for obstructing Berta’s protection and for contributing to her persecution, criminalization and murder. For having chosen to favor the interests of the company over and above the decisions of the communities.
How is it possible that the very police, army and security ministry that protect the interests and installations of DESA are the same institutions that were expected to guarantee the protection of our Berta? How is it possible that the same police, army and Honduran state that was supposed to protect her well being are the same ones that sent her death threats, harassed her, and persecuted her?
It is the business groups in bed with the national government, the municipal government and the State’s repressive institutions which are behind the extractive projects being developed in the region. The financiers of these extractivist projects of death are the same ones responsible for the death of our Berta, and so many others struggling against the exploitation of their territories. Because it is this money that allows for the imposition of economic interests over the ancestral rights of the peoples.
We will not allow Berta’s image to be transformed into an empty logo. Our Berta will be celebrated as part of the permanent and energetic struggle in defence of life and territory, and against this system of exploitation and pillage.
Given the demonstrated lack of objectivity seen in previous investigations in this country, we demand that the investigation of this crime be handled by an impartial international commission formed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, international human rights organizations and the appropriate governmental organisms.
We want the integrity of Berta’s status as a resistance figure to be respected. She is an eternal fighter against racism, patriarchy and the oppressive and murderous capitalist system. Her struggle is marked by a vigorous anti-imperialism, consistently affirmed in her international activities and her thorough rejection of the coup d’état financed and supported by the United States. The coup marked the beginning of this handing over of national territory to the transnational corporations to the detriment of the rights of the Lenca people and the Honduran population.
We demand the immediate and permanent cancellation of DESA’s Gualcarque River concession, guaranteeing the free flow of the waters of the Gualcarque. If the government is honestly interested in justice, then we demand that they cancel all concessions for mining, dams, logging and all projects that threaten our national sovereignty.
We demand respect and guarantees of physical, legal and emotional security for our family, the communities of COPINH, Rio Blanco in particular, and all those organized in COPINH.
Berta’s struggle was not only for the environment, it was for system change, in opposition to capitalism, racism and patriarchy.
Not only did they kill our mother, they killed the mother of an entire people. We are calling for an intensification of the mobilizations, denunciations and demonstrations of solidarity demanding true justice.
As Berta said: “Wake up! Wake up humanity! There’s no more time. Our consciences will be shaken if we simply contemplate our self-destruction based on predatory capitalism, racism and patriarchy.”
Delivered in La Esperanza, Intibucá on the 5th day of March of the year 2016.
Act NOW: Tell the State Department to protect Gustavo and COPINH!