Today’s Illustrated Woman in History was written by Emily Ruth Taylor.
Berta Cáceres was a Honduran activist who was both an environmental advocate and an indigenous leader. In 1993, while she was still a student, she co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH.) In 2015 She was awarded the Goldman Prize for waging a grassroots campaign against the Agua Zarca Dam project. This hydropower project was to be built on the Río Blanco River, which provides food and drinking water for the Rio Blanco community. It is also of significant religious and cultural value to the indigenous groups that survive off of it. One of those groups is the Lenca people.
Cáceres was a born a Lenca woman – a member of one of the indigenous peoples of southwestern Honduras and eastern El Salvador – some time in the early 1970s. She was born in the city of La Esperanza, Honduras. Her birthdate has been listed as 1973, 1972, or 1971. Cáceres said that growing up in the 1980s in a turbulent South America – and her mother’s progressive politics – inspired her own passion for activism.
After the 2009 military coup in Honduras, the government granted concessions for corporate interests to build projects on Lenca territory. Most of these projects were dams. Despite protests from local groups, these were pushed through because the government believed that a pro-corporate atmosphere would bring money into the country. This major government initiative was titled: “Honduras is open for business.”
Although the Agua Zarca dam project had been opposed by the Rio Blanco community (with the help of Cáceres and COPINH) since 2006, this coup raised the stakes – it made opposition and activism that much more difficult and dangerous. With cooperation from the local communities, Cáceres led protests, filed complaints with the government, and organized a local assembly that allowed residents to vote on the dam project. In 2013, after years of protests and even attempts involve the international community, Cáceres and the Lenca operated a peaceful blockade that prevented workers from reaching the dam site. It held for almost a year.
Meanwhile, Honduras remained the “deadliest country for environmental campaigners.” Cáceres continued this work despite continuous death threats – she reported 33 death threats linked to the dam campaign. In her final days, friends and colleagues warned her that there was a hitman “boasting of his intention to kill her.” She in turn warned her colleagues they were in danger. One of Cáceres’ favorite expression was: “They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.”
Cáceres was shot in her home early on March 3, 2016. After her death, there were protests in Honduras and elsewhere, and the government was pressured into investigating her murder – eventually charging five suspects, two of whom were linked to the company that owns the Agua Zarca hydropower project. Another one of the men charged was ex-police. COPINH – and her four children – continue the fight to stop the Honduran government from allowing mining and hydropower projects in indigenous communities.
As of a few months ago, European funders, pressured by the huge international response to Cáceres’ death, planned to exit the Agua Zarca project. The Goldman Environmental Foundation reports that “to date, construction on the project has effectively come to a halt.”