A month after Honduran indigenous rights and environmental activist Berta Caceres was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, the crime is no nearer being solved. But the movement that was sparked by Berta’s death is growing.
Caceres and her organization, COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations), have been fighting against hydroelectric dam and mining projects that would displace the indigenous Lenca people of Southwestern Honduras. Since the overthrow of progressive President Manuel Zelaya in June of 2009, violence has been directed against Honduran environmental defenders. In Berta’s case, she had received many death threats for thwarting the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on the Rio Blanco. Others in her organization have also been subjected to violence by Honduran security personnel and vigilantes in the service of the DESA company which is the main corporation involved. So it was logical that when Berta was killed, suspicion fell on these powerful sectors.
However, it would appear that Honduran government investigators are not pursuing these leads. Instead, they are trying to suggest that Berta’s murder was either a crime of passion, or the result of a factional split within COPINH.
But now it transpires that the government’s lead prosecutor in the case, Jose Arturo Duarte, did legal work in proceedings against COPINH for the main private company involved in building the Agua Zarca dam, DESA (Desarrollos Energeticos Sociedad Anonima). Duarte, who was appointed to his current position this February, i.e. just before Caceres’ murder, may have held stock in DESA also. This glaring conflict of interest may point to a cover-up in the works. The family has complained that the Honduran government has not responded to their requests for information about the progress of the investigation.
Confronted with this information by Berta’s family, Duarte announced he was recusing himself from the case.
There are a few pieces of good news. After detaining and holding him for questioning, the Honduran government finally allowed the only witness to Ms. Caceres’ murder, the Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro Soto, to return to Mexico; his semi-detention had led to fears for his physical safety. Also, financing for the Agua Zarca dam project continues to shrivel up. The Central American Bank for Economic Integration is suspending financing of the project, following similar actions by Finnish and Dutch Bankers and the World Bank. This represents the suspension of more than $9 million dollars from the Central American Bank. The Bank’s representatives emphasized that their action came out of extreme concern for the project’s lack of sensitivity to the needs of indigenous people in the area.
And there could be more funding cut-offs to come for the Agua Zarca dam. Responding to the death of Berta Caceres and of another member of COPINH shortly thereafter, as well as to the generally violent panorama, an international group of activists has been working to get European banks to suspend about $30 million more of funding for the project. The International Mission for Justice for Berta Caceres includes representatives of Spain’s PODEMOS political party, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from Argentina, the Workers’ Union (Union de Trabajadores) from Mexico, the AFL-CIO from the United States, the Guatemalan branch of “Friends of the Earth”, and others.
Pointing out the high level of violence in Honduras against defenders of human rights and especially against environmental activists, the Mission endorsed the main demands of Berta Caceres’ family and of COPINH, including the suspension of the Agua Zarca dam and other similar projects, as well as an independent, internationally directed investigation of the murder, as the Honduran authorities can not be trusted. Further, the Mission demands that Convention 169 of the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) which specifically recognizes the rights of indigenous communities to safety and security in their landholding, be applied in Honduras. The Mission asks that the European Union stop providing funds for Honduran prosecutorial and judicial institutions. It asks the United States to stop providing such aid under the “Alliance for Prosperity” agreement which the Obama administration has announced for the “Northern Triangle” countries of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
On Friday, Berta Caceres’ family issued a statement deploring the lack of progress in solving the case after the passing of a whole month. Besides repeating the demand for an independent, international investigation, the statement condemned the attitude of the U.S. State Department, which appears to express satisfaction with the work being done on the matter by Honduran officials.
The family statement points out that 60 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 11 U.S. senators are backing their demand for an independent investigation of the murder. Attached to the statement is a list of more than 250 organizations that are backing the family’s demands. This list includes labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO, Communication Workers of America, United Auto Workers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Labor Council on Latin American Advancement, 1199SEIU Hospital Workers, International Trade Union Federation and SEIU Florida Public Services Union. Churches signing on include United Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, Jesuits, American Friends Service Committee, Unitarian-Universalists, United Church of Christ and others. Environmental defense groups include Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which had awarded Berta Caceres a prestigious prize last year.
Image: Justice for Berta.