The murder of Honduran environmental campaigner Berta Cáceres in her home on March 3 is not only an appalling loss of loss of human life and a courageous individual, but also a disturbing reminder of the growing risks faced by activists and journalists in Central America.
Cáceres, the co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, was shot dead by gunmen who entered her home in La Esperanza in the early hours of the morning. She was meant to be under the protection of the Honduran government at the time, but the authorities haven't yet explained why the campaigner wasn't being guarded at the time of the attack.
A week before her death, Cáceres received threats of murder and rape for opposing a contentious hydroelectric project in Honduras on the Gualcarque River.
Cáceres, 42, began her career championing the defence of ancestral lands and indigenous populations against illegal logging and plantation owners.
Later in her career, she focused on a project to construct four dams on the Gualcarque River, the home of the Lenca people. Her campaigning eventually resulted in Chinese company Sinohydro and the International Finance Corporation withdrawing from the project, for which Cáceres was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
According to Global Witness, an NGO that specialises in the impacts of natural resource exploitation, Honduras' murder statistics underline the dangers for environmentalists who inevitably upset powerful, vested interests.
“Honduras is the most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental activist for the last five years, with 101 deaths between 2010 and 2014," read a statement on the Global Witness website.
“The loss of this extraordinary indigenous feminist activist, environmental defender, and community leader takes our breath away and fills us with indignation,” said Lisa VeneKlasen, coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH).
“This crime demands the full resources and attention of not only the Honduran government but the international community, in particularly, the US government, given their presence and influence in the country," she added.
The rise in violent attacks on environmentalists is linked to the exploitation of valuable natural resources by international corporations and domestic players in countries that are both poor and highly corrupt.
“Illegal logging is rife and results not only in loss of much-needed revenue, but also environmental damage and social unrest,” said Global Witness .
A third of Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, is covered in forest. Political repression and insecurity have increased sharply since a coup d’état in 2009. In its wake, state institutions have been weakened, while protection for indigenous groups has been eroded.
“The Honduran government continues to allow and remains complicit in the human rights violations of the Lenca community of Rio Blanco and North Intibucá by supporting the second attempt of DESA to build the hydroelectric project ‘Agua Zarco’ on the Rio Gualcarque,” said a statement from JASS Associates, a Washington-based human rights organisation.
China is currently the world’s biggest dam builder. Sinohydro is the Chinese government’s most important contractor for domestic hydropower projects and the face of Chinese dam building overseas, with over 122 international projects. Sinohydro has invested in dams like Kamchay (Cambodia) and the Nam Ou cascade (Laos), and supplied equipment to projects like Merowe (Sudan) and Coca Codo Sinclair (Ecuador).
For more information on the controversial Agua Zarca project see this article on Diálogo Chino.