When the people of Rio Blanco first saw workers bringing heavy construction machinery into their village along the sacred Gualcarque River in Honduras 15 years ago, they went to Berta Isabel Cáceres for help.
Cáceres, an activist representing the Lenca tribe who co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), would go on for a decade leading a campaign to stop the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint venture between a Chinese dam developer, the largest in the world, and a Honduran company, Desarrollos Energeticos SA (Desa).
She filed complaints with the government, and with the project’s international funders, arguing that the dam would destroy the Lenca’s way of life. For more than a year, she also organized a Lenca blockade of roads leading to the construction site. Faced with such Indigenous opposition, the Chinese pulled out of the project.
For her work in the face of constant attacks from paramilitary security contractors and Honduran military forces supporting the project, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. In a grim foretelling of her own fate, Cáceres dedicated the award to “the martyrs” who had given their lives to protect Honduras’ rivers, lands and mineral resources.
She had said many times that she feared for her own life, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had called on Honduras to ensure her safety. But she knew such “precautionary measures” could only do so much. “When they want to kill me, they will do it,” she had said.
The moment came just after midnight on March 3, 2016, when two gunmen entered her home outside La Esperanza, and shot her four times. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández called her murder a “crime against Honduras,” and it shocked the global community.
But the murders of environmental activists have continued in Cáceres’ homeland and globally.
Two other Lenca activists, Carlos Cerros and Felix Vasquez, were gunned down by hitmen in Honduras in just the last year, killed alongside over a dozen other land and environmental activists in the country, making Honduras one of the most dangerous places in the world to protest, according to the London-based nonprofit Global Witness.
The group tracks the growing tally of violent crimes against environmental activists worldwide and found that more than 200 environmental rights activists were murdered around the world in 2019 alone. That number is expected to be even higher in 2020, according to human rights activists.
Last month, Roberto David Castillo, a Desa execuctive, was found guilty of Cáceres’ murder by a Honduran court in Tegucigalpa. A judge found that Castillo was one of the corporate masterminds behind the assassination. Evidence revealed that a campaign had been orchestrated at the highest levels of Desa leadership to discredit the activist and ultimately plan and pay for her assassination. Castillo is awaiting sentencing and is expected to appeal his conviction.
“Today is a day of victory in a long process,” said Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, Berta Cáceres’ youngest daughter and her only family member permitted to attend the tense trial due to Covid-19 restrictions, said outside the courtroom. “This is one more step on that long path to justice. We will keep contributing to this process so that [such crimes] are not repeated, but also so that the judicial process can lead to healing.”
The guilty verdict came after years of investigations by local authorities and international groups, including the 2018 conviction of seven men who carried out the attack. The seven are appealing their convictions. The Castillo verdict marked a rare victory for the global environmental justice movement against a corporate “intellectual author” in the murder of an activist, COPINH said in a statement.
Nina Lahkani, a journalist and author of the 2020 book, “Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet,” said Castillo’s conviction was “unprecedented.”
“He is the most senior person so far to have been tried and convicted for murder and really, hugely significant in the country where impunity is the rule,” Lahkani said.
The trial against Castillo and his guilty verdict were only possible because of the notoriety of Cáceres and the relentless pursuit of the truth by her family and the International Advisory Group of Experts team, or GAIPE, that they privately hired to investigate the murder, said Scott Badenoch, a visiting attorney at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington.
“We need to recognize that this is incredibly common—people are lost all over the planet, all the time because they spoke out,” Badenoch said.
Roxanna Altholz, co-author of the GAIPE report and co-director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic in California, agreed that violence against environmentalists is an alarming and growing threat. She said the Cáceres murder showed the larger power dynamics at play behind global environmental justice conflicts. “It wasn’t about a criminal prosecution,” she said. “It’s really about dismantling the system.”
“A person didn’t pull the trigger,” she added, noting that Desa still held the land rights, awarded by the national government, to exploit the native resources around the Gualcarque river, which Cáceres had fiercely protested against. “A system pulled the trigger that ended Berta’s life.”
Huge extractive companies find legal loopholes to operate beyond national and even international laws to exploit the natural and human resources in countries with high rates of corruption and legal impunity for wrongdoers, Badenoch said. “They call themselves multinational, but they might as well call themselves extrajudicial—they are bigger than any one country’s laws,” he said. “The only thing that could be big enough to hold them accountable is an international institution that currently does not exist.”
Legal Avenues in the US and Internationally, As Well as Honduras
Indigenous groups and a human rights organization in Brazil have asked the International Criminal Court in the Hague to open an investigation into whether President Jair Bolsonaro and other top Brazilian officials have committed crimes against humanity through a “state policy” that threatens Indigenous tribes by plundering the wealth of the Amazon. That policy, the complaints allege, has led to the murders of numerous environmental activists in Brazil.
For now, the court’s jurisdiction is limited to genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. But Bolsonaro’s rampant deforestation of the Amazon and the threat posed by climate change have prompted world leaders like Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron to support a campaign for a new international crime called “ecocide” that would outlaw widespread environmental destruction.
Supporters cite Bolsonaro’s actions in the Amazon as a prime example of ecocide happening in real-time. Environmental justice advocates in Honduras said the destruction of Cáceres’ Lenca territory is also a case of real-time ecocide.
Earlier this year, a panel of lawyers proposed a new legal definition of ecocide in hopes that the International Criminal Court’s members will add the crime to the Court’s mandate and provide a clear path to ending the impunity of “extrajudicial,” multinational actors.
The inclusion of ecocide as the fifth crime against peace is far from certain. And if it is included, the prosecution of ecocidal crimes will face similar enforcement challenges as the Court’s other four crimes, according to Badenoch, who added that the process depends on sovereign countries to assist with detaining suspects.
But as the Cáceres case illustrates, there are already some effective legal avenues at the national level that, with the support of the global community, can result in breakthrough cases of justice.
In March, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, reintroduced the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act that would limit U.S. funding to Honduras until all of Cáceres’ murderers were brought to justice and the country makes significant improvements combating corruption and impunity in its judicial and administrative systems. The bill has 58 Democratic co-sponsors.
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Johnson said that he was shocked by Cáceres’ murder, which occurred less than a year after he had met her in Washington to discuss her work and the growing campaign of violence against activists in Honduras. Johnson originally introduced the bill in 2016 just months after her death. He said there has been some renewed interest in the legislation since the Castillo verdict, including the addition of four more co-sponsors, but passage is not expected soon.
“I’d like to see the United States take a more forceful stand around the world when it comes to human rights violations,” he said about the bill, acknowledging the need for legislation that could have an impact beyond just the one country.
Castillo’s sentencing was scheduled for earlier this month in Honduras, but the presiding judges have already said they expect deliberations to take longer than usual because of the “complex” nature of the case. In an unexpected announcement during the trial, the Honduran prosecutor’s office said that there was already an additional ongoing investigation into another former Desa executive.
Environmental justice advocates said that they hope that judicial rulings like these help people understand the dangers faced by environmental defenders of tribal lands around the world.
“They are the planet. Their whole lives, they live off the land, they live off the natural resources, they live off the water. This isn’t a battle for the environment,” Lakhani said. “It’s a battle for people, it’s a battle for communities. It’s a battle for the right to exist.”