Berta Cáceres, an environmental campaigner who won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize was shot dead in her home in La Esperanza last week. Several unknown assailants broke into Caceres’ home at about 1am on Thursday and killed her.
She is survived by her husband and four daughters.The 43-year-old activist had won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her efforts in stopping a dam project along the Gualcarque river. The co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh) struggled for years to prevent a Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro from building a hydro-electric dam along the Gualcarque River in western Honduras considered sacred by the Lencas people of Honduras. A court order banned her from the area and she has constantly faced many years of threat against her life, but successfully led protests that thwarted the project.
Police told local journalists that the killings occurred during an attempted robbery, but mother of deceased Berta refuted claims that she had been killed during a robbery saying she was killed because of her “struggle” for indigenous and environmental rights.
“I have no doubt that she has been killed because of her struggle and that soldiers and people from the dam are responsible, I am sure of that. I hold the government responsible,” her 84-year-old mother said on radio Globo at 6.
Karen Spring, close friend of Cáceres’, said it was unclear how many assailants had participated in the attack, but that Cáceres was hit by at least four bullets.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa hailed her as a “martyr of Laudato Si’”, the Pope’s environment encyclical.
Violence against human-rights and environmental campaigners in Honduras has markedly increased since a 2009 coup, and investigations into their murders and assassinations often fall by the wayside. Environmental activists are more likely to be killed in Honduras than any other country, according to a study by the NGO Global Witness. More than 80% of murders go unpunished. In 2014, 12 environmental defenders were killed in Honduras.
Fr Ismael Moreno, director of Radio Progreso and the Jesuit-run Team for Reflection, Research and Communication speaking on her fearlessness said, “She was a woman committed to fighting for the protection of the environment and indigenous people’s territories and the common struggle.”
“This has been what she was known for,” since founding the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras in 1993, Fr Moreno added. “It’s been 25 years of perpetual struggle … She was the woman with the most recognition in all of Honduras” and was well known abroad.
In 2014, during the World Meeting of Popular Movements at the Vatican, Caceres participated in that event, though she protested mostly against proposed mines and hydroelectric projects, which were planned by foreign firms – and, her supporters alleged, she dealt with threats from landowners and the authorities.
“We’re heartbroken,” said Fr Moreno, who considered Caceres a close friend. “She was constantly under threat.”
Cáceres’ death was widely condemned, with calls for an investigation coming from the Organization of American States (OAS), the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández declared the investigation of the murder a priority,
“This act causes mourning for all of us,” he said via Twitter.