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March 12, 2016

Berta Cáceres, Slain Champion of the Earth and Human Rights

By Natasha Hakimi


In a country deemed just last year the most dangerous in the world for
environmentalists, Honduran activist Berta Cáceres knew she would not live a long
life. After the indigenous leader was murdered by gunmen in her home in Honduras
on March 3, her nephew Silvio Carrillo told The Guardian, “I think she would have
rather died while in a protest but these cowards took her unawares. She knew this
was going to happen. She had prepared for it.”

In the face of numerous threats to her well-being, Cáceres continued her lifelong
struggle to protect human rights, heading the Council of Indigenous Peoples of
Honduras (COPINH) and leading environmental campaigns such as the fight to keep a
potentially destructive dam from being built on the Gualcarque River. For her efforts
to thwart the hydroelectric project, the activist won the 2015 Goldman Environmental
Prize, an award considered by many to be the Nobel Prize of environmentalism.

As a Lenca community leader, she championed indigenous rights and dedicated
herself to reforming Honduras’ systemic corruption, helping democratically elected
President Manuel Zelaya until he was ousted in a 2009 coup, which the Obama
administration did nothing to condemn.


Asked by “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman what his aunt was “trying to do in her
life,” Carrillo said, “She was trying to be a mother, be a daughter, be an aunt, be a
human being, respect human beings. And this is what she did every day for the
indigenous people of Honduras and across Latin America.”

In the same program, Cáceres’ longtime friend Beverly Bell delivered a powerful
description of the activist’s work:

  There’s no way to overstate the importance of Berta’s work. She was working very
closely, actually, with the democratically elected President Mel Zelaya to work to,
quote, “refound” democracy. And she was doing this in the same way that Berta did
everything, which was through grassroots mobilization of workers, of women, of,
significantly, indigenous people and campesinos, which is the population that was
represented in the organization that she founded some 20 years ago. She was
working for a wholly new form of governance in Honduras, not just a new government,
but a new system whereby people had the say and the riches of the country went to
benefit them instead of the tiny elite. … Berta continued to work for that change for
true participatory democracy that empowered women, that empowered LGBQ
individuals, that empowered those who have always been left on the margins,
excluded from political processes and from economic benefits.

The handling of the investigation into Cáceres death, which is widely viewed as a
targeted assassination, has inspired protests across South America. The only
eyewitness to the crime, Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto—who survived by
pretending he’d been killed by the bullets that wounded him—has been held for
questioning by Honduran authorities. There is growing concern in the activist
community that his life is in danger.

Commenting on Cáceres’ assassination, an article in The Hill invoked a fitting quote,
words that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the funeral for civil rights worker James
Reeb in 1965: “[We] must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but
about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.” The
article—written by Robin Broad, John Cavanagh and Joe Eldridge—blames a “culture
of impunity” and the “long tragic history of misguided U.S. policy that has pursued
expediency above principle,” sending a message that “the United States is an
unreliable defender of democracy and human rights.” The article went on to demand
that the U.S. government rise to the occasion and seek answers to Cáceres’

  The Obama administration, which shamefully capitulated to the Honduran coup, now
has an opportunity to stand decisively against chronic impunity in Honduras. Members
of Congress and Secretary of State John Kerry (to whom over 200 organizations have
written) have a moral and political obligation to speak forcefully and insist on an
unflinching inquiry into the murder of Cáceres and the safe and prompt return of
[Gustavo] Castro to his home country. All U.S. assistance to the military and security
forces—except for investigative and forensic support—should be halted until the
perpetrators are found and prosecuted, and until the shameful legacy of impunity can
be effectively addressed.

  Until there is justice for Berta Cáceres, there can be no justice for the long-suffering
people of Honduras. Washington is poised to play a key role in making that happen.

Cáceres risked and ultimately lost her life to make this earth a better home for all its
children and to save it from the greed and corruption that is systematically destroying
the environment. Her death—on the day before her 45th birthday—is a reminder to
others to continue her life’s work by fighting for justice through peaceful protests and
grass-roots movements, beginning with a unified demand that the crime not go