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Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras, the deadliest country in the world to be an environmental defender

Irish News deputy digital editor Maeve Connolly travelled to Honduras with Trócaire in March to learn about the dangers facing environmental and human rights defenders in the Central American country. In the first part of a special report, she spoke to some of the inspirational women standing up for justice and human rights

Berta Cáceres sits on the bank of the Gualcarque River in the Río Blanco region of western Honduras where she, COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and the people of Río Blanco, protested against the construction on the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. Picture from the Goldman Environmental Prize

Bruno the dog and Miguel the cat sprawl in the sunshine while a little boy clutching a small plastic toy potters about, making his own fun, as his grandmother gets on with her work at the Copinh headquarters on the outskirts of the Honduran city of La Esperanza.

It’s a rural setting and on the day we visit with Trócaire the air is warm. The headquarters are called Utopia and you could get carried away with whimsy… but there are security cameras plus a high fence around the perimeter. Global Witness describes Honduras as the “deadliest country in the world” to be an environmental defender.

In 2012 a UN special rapporteur warned that Honduran authorities were branding them “members of the resistance, guerrillas, terrorists, political opponents or criminals”.

According to Global Witness, 14 environmental activists were killed in Honduras in 2016. Among them was Berta Cáceres who had campaigned extensively against land grabs and exploitative projects such as the proposed Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on land sacred to the indigenous Lenca people.

Berta belonged to the Lenca community and was co-founder of The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Hondura (Copinh), which is a partner of Trócaire.

The dam was one of four planned for the Gualcarque river basin in the Río Blanco region. The river provides local communities with a source of food, drinking water and irrigation for farm land and damming it to leave a dry river bed would have life-changing consequences.

Critics accuse the Honduran government of selling off natural resources to the highest bidder.

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Under International Labour Organisation Convention 169, companies must obtain free, prior, informed consent from indigenous communities. Human rights organisations claim businesses ride roughshod over the convention.

In this case residents learned of the Agua Zarca project when machinery appeared.

Berta Cáceres in the Río Blanco region of western Honduras where she, Copinh (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and the people of Río Blanco halted construction on the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. Picture from Goldman Environmental Prize

The dam was a partnership between Honduran company Desa, which has strong links to the political class, and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer. It was to be funded by international investment.

Berta Cáceres and Copinh helped the Lenca people to campaign peacefully in the face of intimidation and violence from militarized private security firms, the police and army.

In April 2013 residents set up a roadblock preventing access to the construction site and held up work for months.

In July a soldier shot dead indigenous leader and Copinh member Tomas García and injured his teenage son at a peaceful protest.

The Chinese company withdrew from the project, followed by the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation. It seemed David had beaten Goliath.

But in May 2014 another local Copinh member, William Jacobo Rodríguez, was killed and five months later the body of his 15-year-old brother, Maycol, was found displaying signs of violence.

By 2015 Desa had moved construction to the other side of the river and the cycle of peaceful protest and counter intimidation intensified.

Berta Cáceres receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, a year before she was shot dead in her bedroom. Picture by Steve Fisch Photography

Berta continued to receive rape and death threats while supposedly under state protection. Still she worked on behalf of vulnerable people and that year was awarded the prestigious Goldman prize for environmental defenders.

She dedicated it to the “martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources”.

She too was to give her life. On the night of March 2 2016 Berta Cáceres was assassinated in her home. She was 44 years of age and the mother of four children.

 A mosaic memorial to Berta Cácers at Utopia. Picture by Maeve Connolly

After intense international scrutiny, seven men were convicted of murder. Two were senior employees of the Desa company. One was a manager, the other the former head of security and a US-trained former lieutenant in the Honduran army.

The judge linked the company to the murder, ruling it had been ordered by Desa executives because of costly delays caused by the protests led by Berta.

Three of the seven were also convicted of the attempted murder of Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro who was shot in the same attack but survived.

Berta’s family says there is no political will to pursue “the masterminds” who ordered and paid for her murder.

David Roberto Castillo, the president of Desa and a US-trained former military intelligence officer, has been indicted as an “intellectual author” of her murder.

He has also been indicted on multiple corruption charges linked to the Agua Zarca dam licence. He denies any wrongdoing and a trial has not begun.

Berta Cáceres is remembered at Utopia, the headquarters of Copinh. She co-founded the organisation at age 22 to protect and promote the rights of indigenous people in Honduras

Bertita Zúniga Cáceres (29) is her mother’s successor at Copinh while her 27-year-old sister Laura Zúniga Cáceres is a member.

They believe there was collusion between the state, army and business in Berta’s killing.

Laura says the trial revealed “part” of the state’s involvement but there is “another portion of truth” to be uncovered.

“That is the implication of the state, because there are active military members that were part of her murder.”

Three of the seven men convicted were, or had been, active members of the army at the time of the killing. All seven are appealing their conviction.

Shortly after her death The Guardian reported that Berta’s name was on a military hit list alongside dozens of other social and environmental activists.

Berta herself had believed she was on such a list.

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Laura Zúniga Cáceres and sister Bertita Zúniga Cáceres flank their grandmother, Austra Berta Flores at her home in La Esperanza. Picture from Trócaire

Laura says they are aware of communication between Desa’s business partners and senior government figures but are being prevented from accessing the information. They say information has routinely been withheld from their legal team.

Bertita says the state “played a role in her murder because of all the persecution, harassment and legal prosecution that she faced while doing her work”.

The young women have worked without pause since their mother was taken from them and Bertita says they are weary but their mother taught them that “justice isn't achieved by just standing by” and so they are “ strengthening ourselves” to continue the fight for justice from a “corrupt” system.

Berta’s daughters have also been threatened. They drive an armoured pick-up truck awarded to them by the National Protection System for Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators and Justice Operators.

Bertita Zúniga Cáceres (29) is her mother’s successor at Copinh while her 27-year-old sister Laura Zúniga Cáceres is an artist and Copinh member. Picture from Trócaire

The sisters say international support and advocacy has been crucial.

Initially police said Berta’s murder was a robbery, then a domestic killing, and finally a fall-out among Copinh members.

Copinh and Berta’s family commissioned a team of independent legal experts to carry out an analysis of the initial police investigation. The International Advisory Group of Expert Persons (GAIPE) prepared a 96-page report, with some of the findings upheld in court.

GAIPE found the murder “was not an isolated incident”, had been months in the planning and involved company executives plus agents of the state. There had also been an aborted murder attempt one month beforehand.

“Existing evidence conclusively demonstrates the participation of numerous state agents and Desa high-level executives and employees in the planning, execution and cover-up of the murder of Berta Isabel Cáceres, as well as in the attempted murder of Gustavo Castro Soto, however, the Public Ministry has not indicted these individuals,” the report said.

The investigators found that the Secretariat of Security of Honduras had “failed to protect” Berta and instead been “influenced by its relations with Desa’s partners and executives” to protect Aqua Zarca facilities.

Following the murder international pressure was also brought to bear on institutions funding the dam.

The Dutch development bank (FMO) and the Finnish development bank (FinnFund) pulled out but Laura says the Central American Bank of Economic Development (BCIE) hasn’t withdrawn completely, but is “being pressured to do so”, not by Central American governments, “but because of advocating work that we've done in Spain, which is one of their main extra-regional partners”.

Berta’s daughters are challenging the state and in Honduras that is a dangerous stance.

But they are their mother’s daughters and will continue her fight for a new Honduras and for the human rights of indigenous people.

“People need to understand that justice for Berta Cáceres is achieved also when we stop violence in indigenous communities, not just in Honduras but also in Latin America,” Bertita says.

'We were not just mother and daughter, we were comrades, we were everything you could be with someone when there is love in between'

MEETING the 87-year-old mother of Berta Cáceres after meeting her two daughters completes the picture - three generations of women with an incorruptible moral compass.

There is a police guard outside the home in La Esperanza of Austra Berta Flores, for what it’s worth. Her daughter was supposedly under state protection when she was gunned down in her bedroom.

Austra describes a sporty child who worked hard and graduated as a teacher but never taught, instead dedicating her life to protecting the rights of indigenous people.

Austra too was a social activist, as well as a politician and midwife who cared for indigenous women as they gave birth at home. Her daughter often accompanied her and grew up knowing “the poverty, the misery” of indigenous communities.

“When she was very little she would come with me to hold a candle to light up the room as there was no electricity or she would heat up the water to bathe the new-born babies,” her mother remembers.

Berta was 22 when she co-founded Copinh.

“I think one of the wisest things my daughter did was to organise Copinh. It was incredible to see equal participation of men and women in meetings and equal participation in roles.”

She added: “She would arrive here at 11 at night, she would waken up at six and grab a backpack and leave for communities far away.”

Austra Berta Flores sits beside a shrine to her murdered daughter Berta Cáceres at her home. The circular Goldman Environmental Prize can be seen on the table in the background. Picture from Trócaire

Austra served as mayor of La Esperanza for three terms and her impetus was “the need to make women more visible, to be considered, not just as someone who would stay at home and cook for children,” but as decision makers.

In the nineties she campaigned inside the halls of power for the country to adopt conventions protecting indigenous people from powerful businesses while her daughter campaigned on the streets.

Honduras has a culture of machismo and one woman is killed every day, according to The Violence Observatory of the National Autonomous University of Honduras. Prosecutions are rare.

Sitting beside a shrine to her daughter, Austra said she wanted Irish News readers to know that her murder was evidence of “the level of impunity” in her country and she asked that people “advocate not just for justice for my daughter” but for women around the world.

She is fearful for her grandaughters and knows that international recognition does not offer protection.

The year before her murder Berta won the Goldman environmental prize.

“I thought that because she received this award it would somehow protect her because she was fearful of her life already,” Austra says.

“The absence of Berta for me, as a mother, there isn’t a word I can use to explain what that is like.”

Austra says her daughter “cannot be replaced” but “her work goes on”.

“We were not just mother and daughter, we were comrades, we were everything you could be with someone when there is love in between.

“Her life was amazing.”

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Austra Berta Flores holds a photograph of her murdered daughter, Berta Cáceres. Picture from Trócaire

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