March 25, 2016 — Berta Cáceres, an internationally renowned Honduran activist who fought for indigenous and environmental rights, was murdered in Honduras on March 3 at the age of 44.
In the course of her work, she and her family suffered constant death threats, threats of sexual violence and assault, and harassment. Although Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, it is believed that she was targeted because of her work to stop a dam project.
Cáceres worked to protect the Gualcarque River, a sacred site of the indigenous Lenca people and an essential water source, against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. She founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and was the winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her advocacy.
She is survived by her three daughters, her son and her mother.
Fellow Honduran activists are united in sorrow and anger about her death, along with many in the international community, including those in the Jesuit world with whom she worked closely.
“Being a woman with the highest international recognition among the social and popular movements in Honduras, her assassination shows and lays bare the helplessness of people and organizations fighting for human rights and the defense of the natural resources and against the sale of our national sovereignty,” said Father Ismael Moreno Coto, SJ, a Honduran Jesuit and human rights activist known as Padre Melo.
Padre Melo directs Radio Progreso and E.R.I.C., which provide grassroots radio programming; training on human rights; community organizing; leadership formation committed to social change; and aid to migrant families.
“[Cáceres] was a friend, a sister, a companion of Radio Progreso and E.R.I.C., and we had a particular history of close friendship and common struggle,” said Padre Melo, who partners with the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN) and the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States to advocate for human rights-oriented policies in Honduras and throughout the violent Northern Triangle of Central America.
The Jesuits of Canada and the U.S. joined with ISN and hundreds of other faith and advocacy groups in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, calling for justice for Cáceres’ death.
“We urge a response from the State Department that is not business as usual but a profound change of direction towards improving the abysmal situation of human rights in Honduras,” the letter said.
The Society of Jesus in Central America’s Provincial Commission for the Social Apostolate (CPAS), which regularly consulted Cáceres during its social analysis meetings, also issued a statement.
“We have no doubt that the murder of Berta Cáceres was a result of the courageous path of her struggle in defense of our natural resources, land rights and communities,” said the CPAS, which is responsible for Jesuit communities and ministries in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama.
CPAS alleged that those responsible for her murder were “business groups in collusion with the national government, municipal governments and the repressive State institutions” leading projects that exploit indigenous territory.
“I want it to be absolutely clear. The government of Juan Orlando Hernández is responsible for the death of Berta Cáceres,” said Padre Melo.
Cáceres championed efforts to protect indigenous peoples in Honduras from large-scale development projects that are being advanced without consultation of indigenous communities and without concern for the environment. She confronted multinational companies based in China, the U.S. and Canada that attempt to exploit Honduran natural resources, particularly rivers and minerals.
Fellow activists and Jesuit partners urged accountability for the Honduran government by supporting an independent international investigation and for the U.S. to suspend all assistance and training to Honduran security forces so long as the murders of Berta Cáceres and other Honduran activists remain unpunished.
“The murder of Berta Cáceres sends a devastating message to all Hondurans trying to exercise their rights,” the letter to Secretary Kerry said. “The U.S. government must stand with those who are putting their lives on the line for the protection of human rights and the environment in Honduras.”
[Sources: Ignatian Solidarity Network — Central American Jesuits Social Commission Speaks out on Death of Berta Cáceres; Global Catholic Networks Decry Murder of Berta Cáceres; Pain and Rage for the Loss of Berta Cáceres]