Winning an international environmental award highlighted Berta Cáceres’ efforts to block a dam in her people’s homeland in Honduras, but it has not stopped the death threats. “There have been many—they have intensified since December,” said Cáceres, a Lenca leader and co-founder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).
Cáceres won the Goldman Prize on April 20 for her leadership in the fight against the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River. Each year a grassroots environmental leader on each continent is honored with the $175,000 award.
With the honor, however, comes the sobering knowledge that Honduras leads the world in the per-capita rate of murders of environmentalists, a growing problem worldwide, according to a new report by the non-profit group Global Witness.
The Lenca community of Río Blanco first learned about plans for the dam in 2006, when construction equipment arrived, Cáceres said. No prior consultation of the affected communities had been held, even though Honduras has signed International Labor Organization Convention 169, which calls for such a process.
The community voted to oppose the dam, but four years later the government included it in a package of energy projects. COPINH and the community sought international support to pressure the Honduran government and funders of the project, particularly the International Finance Corporation, the private finance branch of the World Bank, to withdraw support.
The Agua Zarca dam was finally suspended, but Cáceres said there are new plans for a dam slightly upriver from the original site.
Her organization has also filed complaints about nearly 50 other energy projects that would affect Lenca territory, and there are plans for several hundred hydroelectricity dams, as well as mines, that would affect other Indigenous Peoples, she said.
Large infrastructure projects like mines and the dams that would provide energy for them violate communities’ rights to territory, self-determination and food security, and threaten places that are important for their culture and spirituality, she said.
Protesters have faced police and soldiers, as well as private security forces and death squads, she said.
“There is a policy in Honduras that aims to exterminate Indigenous Peoples, not just the Lenca people,” said Cáceres, who began developing skills for organization and resistance as a child.
Her mother, who is now 83, was a midwife, which “put her in close contact with indigenous women in rural areas. She shared their lives” and learned about their problems, Cáceres said. Her mother, who also worked with human rights organizations and served as mayor, taught the young Cáceres the importance of organization and pushed her to overcome her fear of speaking in public. “I learned a lot, but also had to unlearn things,” she said. “We have had to unlearn the oppressive message that as indigenous people we must just put up with things.”
For environmentalists, speaking out has a cost. In 2014, at least 116 people worldwide were killed defending their land or the environment, according to the non-profit group Global Witness.
Brazil led the list, with 29 deaths, followed by Colombia with 25 and the Philippines with 15. Twelve people died in tiny Honduras, which had the highest per-capita rate of murders of activists. Worldwide, 40 percent of the victims were indigenous, and a growing number of cases involved dams and water. Fourteen deaths involving protests against dams were reported last year, all but one in Central or South America.
There are even more cases of violence against people who are defending their land. In March, one of Cáceres’ colleagues was detained and tortured by people who were looking for Cáceres. But she said her people would not give up the fight.
“We have been unlearning fear and learning to believe in ourselves,” she said, “to speak out with our own voice.”