By Marivir R. Montebon
Let us wake up. Let us wake up, humankind. We are out of time. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way.” – Berta Caceres
New York City – The body of slain human rights leader and environment activist Berta Caceres of Honduras is laid to rest today, Sunday, in her hometown in La Esperanza, Honduras.
But the uproar for an investigation into her death is mounting worldwide, with at least two Filipina leaders working for indigenous peoples adding their voices.
Caceres, 43, is a leader of the Lenca indigenous tribe, who was murdered in her own home in the morning of March 3 by two unidentified assailants. Reports have it that the motive was robbery. But none of her family members and the indigenous people would believe that. Caceras was likely killed because of her activism in defending the Gualcarque River from the implementation of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. She opposed the project, along with the indigenous peoples of Rio Blanco, who will be displaced by the dam. She had been receiving death threats since her active involvement in the campaign against the mighty Honduran company DESA (Dessarollos Energeticos SA) and the Sinohydro Corporation, the world’s largest hydropower construction company, which was contracted to build the dam.
UN Rapporteur for the Protection of Rights of Indigenous Peoples Vicky Tauli Corpuz said, “It is with great sadness and horror for me to receive the news of her assassination. I deplore this impunity against defenders of human rights, including indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s right and the right to environment.
The murder of Caceres brings to mind similar conditions of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. Tauli herself is of indigenous origin in the Cordilleras who actively opposed the Chico River Dam project of Pres. Marcos that dislocated thousands of indigenous peoples in the 1980s.
“I strongly urge the government of Honduras to bring the perpetrators to justice and protect the Lenca community protesting against this project as well as the relatives and friends of Burma, not to be further subjected to continuing threats and actual harm,” Tauli said on her Facebook page.
Caceres is survived by her four children and her mother, namesake Berta, who is a social worker and protector of displaced indigenous peoples in their locality. Caceres co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, a group that fought against dams and mining projects. Local people turn to this group for help.
Tauli met Caceres in Honduras during her official country mission in November 2015. “Berta facilitated my meeting with the Lenca people of Rio Blanco in North Initbuca. I was able to hear the stories of the ones who will be affected by the construction of the Agua Zarco hydroelectric dam and how they have been constantly threatened because of their protest against this project.”
One of the Lenca leaders, Tomas Garcia, was killed in a protest rally in 2013.
Tauli said that Caceres had confided to her that she had been receiving death threats even after she won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
The Goldman Environmental Prize, based in California, is the world’s largest award giving body for grassroots environment activists. Her death has earned condemnation worldwide, including the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and international filmmaker Naomi Klein.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was quick to say that his government will punish the killers, even as it is being seen as responsible for the oppressive situation of the natives.
An Al Jazeera report said that in September 2010, the post-coup nationalist government of Honduras, led by Pres. Hernandez, awarded 47 hydroelectric dam concessions in just one law, without consulting the indigenous and campesino communities which rely on the rivers for food and water.
“The state of Honduras has been directly attacked by the death of Berta Cáceres. This is a crime against Honduras, a blow to the Honduran people. It will not go unpunished,” said Hernandez.
Easter Canoy, executive director of the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs (KIN) based in Bukidnon province in southern Philippines shares her thoughts.
“I am saddened to learn about the murder of our sister in Berta Caceres of Honduras—an activist known for her advocacy on the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights of nature—our Mother Earth, to be respected and be recognized as vital source that will sustain humanity and all of creations. Her death, despite her loving reminder telling us that rivers—are living systems, when it is harmed, our heart bleeds. But no, not all of us are that sensitive anymore.”
Canoy, an anthropology graduate at the University of San Carlos in Cebu, underscored the need for respect of the Earth. “Who cries for these dead rivers and the decimation of families of ecosystems—the many lives it hold? Many of us still don’t realize the disasters waiting to happen. Minute by minute we desecrate sacred natural resources to fulfill our endless greed and needs. Let’s all shield it from harm caused by greed and ignorance of our deep connection as a whole living system.”
Canoy said that Berta’s death in Honduras reminds us of the role of governments to safeguard its citizens.
(With reports from Al Jazeera and CNN and photos from Google. Featured photo shows UN Rapporteur Vicky Tauli, right, walking with Berta Caceres, left, and other leaders in a visit at the Gualcarque River.)