On March 3rd, unknown assailants murdered Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental activist and human rights defender who dedicated her life to protecting the land and human rights of indigenous people in her country. Berta and the organization she founded and directed, Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indigenas de Honduras (COPINH), had received violent threats in recent months because of its work to resist the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, which was threatening the existence of the indigenous Lenca people.
AJWS has supported Berta and her organization for many years, and we mourn the loss of a dear friend and remarkable leader.
Sadly, Berta is not the only activist to lose her life for this cause. Another COPINH staff member, Nelson Garcia, was assassinated less than two weeks after Berta, and five other COPINH members have been murdered the past few years. These deaths are part of a tragic epidemic that activists say is an effort to silence those who stand up for justice. Massacres of indigenous people occur on a regular basis, as do attacks on LGBT, labor and other human rights activists. More than 100 Honduran environmental activists have been struck down in the past five years—and almost none of these crimes have been prosecuted or punished.
In the wake of Berta and Nelson’s deaths, AJWS and other global leaders are calling for justice. Last Thursday, during the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, AJWS staff joined a rally in front of the Honduran Mission to the United Nations in Manhattan demanding justice for Berta and Nelson and greater protections for activists in Honduras and around the world.
“Why are we here?”
“What do we want?”
The crowd, gathered in the rain outside the Honduran Mission building in midtown Manhattan, shouted passionate chants and sang uplifting songs in English and Spanish throughout the course of a rally that featured speakers from COPINH and other indigenous rights organizations in Honduras and the U.S.
Their message included demands that the Honduran government agree to an international, independent and transparent investigation into Berta’s death, provide protection for her family and loved ones and other human rights defenders and halt plans for the Agua Zarca dam. They also asked the Honduran government to release Mexican activist Gustavo Castro, the sole witness to Berta’s murder, who is being held in Honduras against his will.
The common denominator was a resounding promise not to let the assassinations intimidate them or stop their struggle to fight for human rights.
Carla García, an organizer with Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH)—whose work AJWS funds—told the crowd that on that very day, Honduran military forces stopped buses full of indigenous and black Hondurans en route to the capital for a protest. But many of the activists didn’t let this deter them.
”They’re walking!” she said. “Our people is power! The Lenca people, Berta’s people, are so determined to defend their territories that [no attempts to stop their activism] will succeed. Berta’s ideal of the struggle lives on.
“Berta has not died,” she continued. “Her spirit lives on in all of the rivers of Honduras, these beautiful waters that are threatened by a false notion of development; these dams that are mistakenly called ‘clean energy.’ They do this in violation of indigenous people’s right to free, prior and informed consent [about the use of their land] and they treat us as if we were mere statistics.”
Berta’s daughter, Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, in town for a UN forum on women, spoke passionately. “I know that my mother would be delighted to see you all,” she told the demonstrators. “The [Honduran] government is trying to distract from the real motives of why she was assassinated. We know: because she struggled for her people [and] to protect nature. She confronted political elites and power interests, military forces, security forces, police—Berta was up against it all.”
Bertha insisted that the Lenca people must continue her mother’s life work: “We must stop the megaprojects of death and destruction and we must transform Honduras from a country and a government riddled with corruption and militarization into the beautiful land that it really is.”
She also called for an investigation that would reveal and punish Berta’s assassins. But, she cautioned, “we don’t just want to know who shot the bullets. We want to know who the intellectual authors [of this crime] are.
“Berta taught us a very special sense of justice,” she continued. “We want the eyes of the world to be on Honduras. This impunity cannot go on.”
Activists Demand Action
The rally drew a diverse group of human rights defenders and concerned citizens, all of whom hoped to add their voices to the growing call for justice. Many spoke about the importance of addressing the underlying issues that led to Berta and Nelson’s deaths.
Berta’s death was “shocking and frightening because we thought that her visibility would be the shield,” said Tatiana Cordero, executive director of Urgent Action Fund-Latin America, an organization supported by AJWS. “This is a very clear message to human rights defenders in Honduras that if you keep on opposing what the government wants, this is what will happen to you. Our worry is that this is a trend in the region. It is cutting across all of Latin America.”
Some activists believe the U.S. government, which funds security assistance in Honduras to the tune of millions of dollars, should bear some responsibility for the corruption and violence that the 2009 military coup unleashed in that country. Marta, an indigenous Salvadoran woman who withheld her last name, said Americans must “wake up to the fact that [the U.S.] is creating the problems in Honduras. It’s just shameful.
“The people of this country have to pay attention,” she said. “It’s good for their soul. If they don’t, it’s like they are dead.”
Percy Lujan, a member of the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee, an organization uniting revolutionary-minded youth and students throughout the CUNY system, was happy to show solidarity, but said action cannot end there. “It is good to bring people together, especially when tragedies like this happen,” Percy said. “It’s important, however, to translate this into widespread condemnation.”
Tatiana agreed: “The rally cannot be seen on its own,” she said. “It’s part of a broader advocacy strategy—a very clear statement that we will continue to support the struggle of COPINH, the defense of land and territory. We will continue to support Berta’s dream, that she was not alone, that this was a collective struggle.”
Angela Martinez, AJWS’s senior program officer for natural resource rights and civil and political rights, was impressed with the turnout at the event—as well as similar recent events all over the world. “I was very moved by how quickly Berta’s death mobilized people,” she said. “She was a very powerful force—a force that touched so many people. She put attention on Honduras again.”
AJWS Advocates for Justice
AJWS understands the nuances of social justice issues in Honduras, which international NGO Global Witness ranked as the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmentalist. Angela explained that “there is no mechanism of accountability in the government and judicial system” to stop or punish crimes like Berta’s murder or the harassment and criminalization of land rights activists. “COPINH has been persecuted for many years and the government has done nothing,” she said. “This is not new.”
But “it’s getting out of control now,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to push and push and push for change. AJWS is committed to creating a more just society.”
AJWS supports five organizations in Honduras working to stop impunity and prevent violence against activists, among other aims. We quickly sprang into action after Berta and Nelson were murdered, convening a group of more than 20 NGO allies in Washington to organize a response and collecting thousands of signatures on petitions to the Honduran government and Secretary of State John Kerry to pressure Honduras to end the brutality against human rights defenders. We also signed an open letter to Secretary Kerry, along with more than 200 other organizations, and published a statement from Robert Bank, incoming President of AJWS.
AJWS staff helped organize and facilitate a series of congressional meetings and briefings featuring Berta’s daughter Laura Zuñiga Cáceres and Gaspar Sánchez, COPINH’s human rights and LGBTI coordinator. With AJWS, the pair told their powerful story at the White House, the State Department, and to members of the House and Senate—including to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the Democratic leader in the House.
Finally, AJWS worked with the Senate Foreign Relations committee on a letter from 11 senators to the State Department and helped gather 60 signatures for another letter from the House of Representatives. The legislators have made a set of key demands, including the need for an investigation and a review or suspension of security funding to Honduras until the country takes action to end the epidemic of violence.
These efforts have added to the actions of other international allies of COPINH and successfully directed global attention to Honduras—and begun to yield results. Two backers of the Agua Zarca Dam—the Dutch development bank FMO and Finnish development bank Finnfund—have suspended their funding of the project.
AJWS Remembers a Friend
For AJWS, Berta’s death was more than the loss of a remarkable activist—it was the loss of a dear friend. AJWS was one of COPINH’s first funders and has continued supporting it for more than a decade.
In November 2015, Berta attended AJWS’s 30th anniversary gala in New York along with Miriam Miranda, leader of OFRANEH, and Alejandra Ancheita, leader of Mexican organization ProDESC, also funded by AJWS. Recognizing the special bond between the activists and their AJWS counterpart, Angela Martinez, AJWS President Ruth Messinger referred to them affectionately as Angela’s “gang.”
The event was a well-deserved break for the tireless activist.
“It was one of the few days I saw Berta relaxed,” Angela said. “It was like a little party for her—a chance to socialize and drink a glass of wine. She’s usually always on the go, working and advocating and trying to represent her struggle. Here, she wanted to linger because she was trying all the desserts.”
Angela was planning to visit Berta in Honduras this spring.
“People at AJWS were very affected by her death,” Angela said. “The kind of relationship we have established with the organizations we support, our partners, is very close. It is a difficult time for me.”
Ruth said Berta’s death devastated the entire organization.
“I’m grateful to have encountered a spirit as indomitable as Berta’s,” she said. “She was a shining example of the power communities hold to make their own change. I know that COPINH members will fight even harder now—with her memory serving as an eternal impetus to continue on. We will, too.”