On Wednesday night, indigenous and environmental-rights activist Berta Cáceres was shot dead in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras. And while the Honduran police claim that she was killed as part of a “botched robbery,” her family, friends and supporters are convinced that her death was a political assassination, particularly after the long string of death threats the 44-year-old had received throughout her career defending natural resources and indigenous lands against corporate projects in Honduras.
“It was absolutely a political crime,” one supporter told Reuters at a Thursday rally, protesting Cáceres’s death and calling for a full investigation into the murder.
“Bertita [an affectionate nickname] Cáceres was totally committed to the fight for the defense of waters, rivers, forests, and the land of indigenous peoples and the rights of peasants. Today she has paid with her life at dawn.”
Honduras is one of the murder capitals of the world, and one of the most dangerous places to be an environmental activist. After the 2009 U.S.-backed coup earmarked 30 percent of the resource-rich country for mining projects, the Honduran government approved hundreds of dam projects, privatizing indigenous land and natural resources without the consent of the indigenous community.
As a result, several members of the indigenous community became environmental activists, out of necessity to protect their land. Many of these activists were either killed by police at local demonstrations, or gunned down by assassins—suspected to be hired by either the Honduran government, or corporations supporting the projects. Over the past six years, more than 100 environmental activists have been murdered in Honduras alone.
Berta Cárceres was one of these leaders—as the co-founder of Copinh, a social and political organization supporting indigenous rights in Honduras, she was frequently involved in environmental activism, and resistance to corporate exploitation of indigenous lands. However, she is most known for her activism against the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project between the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro. While creating cheap energy to fuel mining operations, the dam would also cut off the water supply of the Gualcarque River, a waterway for the Lenca people who depended on it for their livelihood and one that Cárceres describes as “sacred."
“This river has ancestral and spiritual importance to the Lenca people, because it is inhabited by the female spirits. These female spirits guard the rivers—the Gualcarque River is also used for gathering food and medicinal plants. It is vital to the entire population downstream,” she said in a 2014 interview about the campaign.
“This was a violation of indigenous rights from the start, because the national congress granted the concession without providing free, and informed consent,” she continued.
The project was eventually canceled, citing “ongoing community pressure” as the reason—and Cárceres was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her success in organizing her community to stand up to corporate giants, including Sinohydro, the largest hydro-dam developer in the world. Still, death threats against her and her family persisted, causing the Honduran government to assign her police protection, and two of her children to leave Honduras as refugees for their own safety.
Many in her community feel that her death this week was the result of these threats coming to a tragic fruition.
“I have no doubt that she has been killed because of her struggle and that the soldiers and the people from the dam are responsible,” her 84-year-old mother said in a radio interview on Radio Globo.
“I hold the government responsible.”