Hundreds of mourners accompanied the white casket carrying slain Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres Saturday, chanting, “The struggle goes on and on.”
Ms. Cáceres was internationally recognized for her work, which over the past decade focused on fighting the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam project on the Gualcarque River, a body of water considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca.
The police were quick to classify her murder last week as a botched robbery. But Cáceres’s family and supporters say they believe it was an assassination ordered by backers of the dam project.
Latin America is the world's most violent region for environmental activists, according to London-based NGO Global Witness. Honduras leads the pack, with 111 between 2002 and 2014. Impunity and corruption that puts it near the top of international rankings threaten those fighting to stop projects like the construction of mines, hydro-electric dams, and logging.
Honduras, for example, was ordered by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to provide protection for Cáceres. But police had recently stopped around-the clock surveillance. The Honduran security minister said that was at Cáceres’s request; her family denies that.
Yet, some observers point to another reason that activists face such violence: more people and networks are fighting to protect their rights in the first place.
“There is a stronger civil society [in Latin America], so when there are issues like a big dam project without consultation with the local community, it’s more likely that people will react,” says Billy Kyte, a senior campaigner for Global Witness. “People have better knowledge of their own rights, their right to protest, their right to freedom of expression, and choosing their own path forward.”
Now, observers say, the growing strength of civil society must be matched by far better protection for rights-based work in Latin America.
A shift in the 1970s
Civil society in Latin America started to flourish as authoritarian regimes began to crumble in the 1970s, led in large part by an emerging network of NGOs and activists, says Christopher Sabatini, associate professor at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs in New York. The NGOs were further expanded during the democratic transitions at the end of civil wars and guerrilla movements, from Peru to El Salvador, as a number of leftists moved their fight for human rights into the formally recognized realm of civil society, he says.
“Issues of human rights, indigenous rights, the environment – these were in the wheelhouse of revolutions,” says Mr. Sabatini. “It was an important and legitimate shift,” he says, though in countries that did see their civil societies strengthen and expand, hostilities that were shaped by conflict lingered.
“Many governments still associate these [social] issues with guerrillas,” Sabatini says. He recalls a recent project in Guatemala where a cement company involved told him the NGO leading protests didn’t care about the environment – they were just former guerrillas out to halt development. Meanwhile, the NGO workers had a similar complaint: the cement company was in the pocket of the government, having supported paramilitary violence during the civil war.
"Often governments and companies will play a narrative in the media that these [activists] are anti-development, that they are enemies of the state," adds Mr. Kyte.
“There are serious issues wrapped up in these legacies of war, and it can be a distraction” to activism in the present, Sabatini says.
The divisions between private business and social activists was visible in the case of Cáceres, who had been openly criticized by the Honduran government and business community as a thorn in the side of the country’s progress. In 2013, Aline Flores, the president of Honduras’s private business council, said the time Cáceres spent protesting, blockading, and leading marches was “making Honduras look bad internationally.”
“I think as generations shift – and we are already seeing this happen – these organizations [with roots in guerrilla movements] will start to see new leadership that doesn’t carry any of that baggage,” Sabatini says.
Aware of the threats
Just last year, Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism. She and her organization, the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, had successfully pressured one of the largest dam builders in the world to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam project in 2013, a huge feat in a country that had seen explosive growth in land earmarked by the government for dam projects since the 2009 coup. The project continued, however, under local leadership.
During her acceptance speech, Cáceres said that “giving our lives in various ways for the protection of rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet.”
Her surviving family – including four daughters – said they knew an assassination was possible.
"They were waiting for the chance to get to her," Silvio Carrillo, her nephew, told NPR. "They were just waiting and she knew it was gonna happen. We all knew but we didn't dissuade her because we believe in this, too."
But it shouldn’t have reached that point, said her daughter Olivia Cáceres, who has called for an independent, international investigation.
Movement toward better protection
“There are a number of efforts going on to protect human rights defenders, and they are growing,” says David Gordon, executive director for the Goldman Environmental Prize.
This includes international NGOs “accompanying” local activists in their work and thus signaling to local governments that their work is visible. There are organizations like Front Line Defenders, which awards “protection grants” to activists under threat and in need of financial assistance for better security or protection. Others have pursued creative endeavors to raise awareness of risks, like the release of graphic novels depicting environmental activists' daily lives and common threats. The creation and protection of independent media also helps with “changing the narrative” in many countries where activists are under threat, says Kyte.
There is plenty more work to be done, particularly at the government level, observers say. “We need to make sure precautions [granted by international commissions] are carried out by local governments on the ground,” says Mr. Gordon. And in the case of internationally backed projects like the dam Cáceres was fighting, foreign governments can play a key role.
“It’s kind of hopeful, the coalescing of the worldwide response in [Cáceres’s] favor and in pressuring the Honduran government,” says Andrés Conteris, a longtime friend.
“I believe that [her killers] thought that by killing her there might be some protests and then it would just go away and they can build their dam,” Mr. Conteris says. “I’m hopeful the opposite will happen. Resistance to this will build all the more.”