Honduran campaigner’s assassination highlights the risks of standing up for environmental justice and human rights in Latin America
Photo:Goldman Environmental Prize
Berta Cáceres spent nearly a decade fighting against the construction of a complex of dams, Agua Zarca, on land owned by the indigenous Lenca people in her native Honduras. Her fight led to the world’s largest dam builder, Chinese-owned Sinohydro, to pull out of the project, a resounding victory for which Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
Early in the morning of March 3, gunmen broke down the door of the house where she was staying in La Esperanza and shot her dead. Her fellow activist, Nelson García, was killed two weeks later during an operation to evict a Lenca community.
Across Central and South America, increasingly organised indigenous groups are often the last line of defence against the destruction of the environment by infrastructure, mining, agriculture and logging projects pursued by governments who are reliant on dwindling commodity prices for their revenues.
“We are seen as public enemies of the so-called system of legally-sanctioned development; we are seen as a problem to those whose interest is to become richer by stealing the resources we protect on our traditional territories,” says Candido Mezua, an elected leader, or cacique, of the Emberá-Wounaan General Congress in Panama, who also handles international affairs for the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, which represents indigenous communities in Central America.
“For resisting this, indigenous peoples are threatened, intimidated, robbed, dispossessed, expelled, destroyed and killed. We are accused of being terrorists who oppose development, of being kidnappers or vandals, and are imprisoned without rights.”
According to the campaigning organisation Global Witness, 116 environmental activists were murdered worldwide in 2014, and at least 109 people involved in protests against infrastructure or extractive industry projects were murdered in Honduras between 2010 and 2015.
The conflict between indigenous groups and economic interests is complex, but it has often been simplified as a struggle for compensation and financial restitution for lost land. However, in-depth analysis of 400 such resource-related conflicts by the research organisation The Munden Project showed that money was the driving factor in only 7 per cent of cases.
Instead, indigenous communities are generally fighting for recognition of their rights, and to preserve ecosystems that are culturally significant, meaning that these local conflicts have global ramifications. The worldwide agreement on climate change signed in Paris last December hinges on limiting the destruction of rainforests and other critical areas. Research shows that land inhabited by indigenous people with legal title is typically better preserved and more sustainably managed than unoccupied land — people with a historical, economic and cultural connection to land tend to work harder to protect it.