Calling the death “senseless and troubling” members of the Presbyterian Hunger Program are saddened by the recent assassination of Berta Cáceres, a respected and renowned environmentalist/activist in Honduras. Authorities say Honduran indigenous leader was killed on March 3 when armed men broke into her home in la Esperanza. Mexican environmentalist/journalist Gustavo Castro Soto was wounded in the attack. The government has said the death was the result of a robbery, but not everyone is convinced.
Cáceres received countless threats of violence, as did members of her family over the years, including legal harassment and intimidation, according to the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The organization, founded by Cáceres, says the threats escalated in the final six months of her life as she continued her fight for human rights in the country, marred by corporate greed, land grab and the extractive industry.
“Cáceres had seen the Honduran government try to extract as much as it could to make money. But she worked to ensure the people’s voices were heard,” said Valery Nodem, an associate with the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “Mining projects were taking everything including homes, villages and the people were not getting anything in return.”
As a result of Carceres’ death, activists in the region are scared of what will happen next.
“In the past year, she had received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, a recognition that is comparable to a Nobel prize for environmentalists,” said Ruth Farrell, Presbyterian Hunger Program coordinator. “But her death is a huge statement by her enemies that despite the attention and recognition she received, they could still get to her.”
The PC(USA) was among numerous organizations and religious institutions signing a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging the U.S. government to support an independent international investigation into Cáceres’ murder and take stronger measures to address human rights violations in the troubled country.
“With this tragic loss, we join together to call for more systemic change. We ask that the State Department make clear to the Honduran government that future partnership and funding depends on demonstrating the political will to investigate and prosecute this crime and all crimes against human rights defenders,” the letter stated. “It must guarantee freedom of expression by ending harsh, constant repression of social protests, ensuring an immediate end to intimidating public statements by government officials, the military and police that place human rights defenders and journalists in danger, and ending special prosecution of human rights defenders.”
The letter calls for the abandonment of the proposed Aqua Zarca dam project and protect the territory that Cáceres devoted her life to defend. It also urges the State Department to suspend all assistance and training to Honduran security forces, with the exception of investigatory and forensic assistance to the police, as long as the murders of Cáceres and other activities are unsolved.
Nodem says Soto survived the shootings by playing dead. He was then detained by government officials for questioning and has not been able to return to his home in Mexico.
“He was interrogated for days and then freed to return home, but they picked him up at the airport and brought him back saying he would have to remain for at least 30 days for further interrogation,” said Nodem. “He is the only one that was there when Cáceres died. We believe his life is in danger now. We want him freed as quickly as possible.”
Since Cáceres’ assassination, the voices calling for reform have grown louder. In the long term, Nodem feels Carceres’ death will likely have the opposite effect her enemies had hoped for.
“The feeling now is that her life and sacrifice should not be ignored. A lot of people are encouraged to continue what she started,” said Nodem. “The reality is she started something and inspired those who did not have a voice. It’s a fight that will continue.”
In fact, this week two European funders, the Dutch Bank FMO and the Finish aid-financed investment fund Finnfund, suspected their disbursements for the dam project.
Presbyterians interested in engaging in conversation around Cáceres’ death and the same kind of work that partners in many countries around the world do, can join the conversation by becoming a part of the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s three roundtables focusing on global issues such as land grab, the extractive industry and more.