Four years ago this week, gunmen entered the home of Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza, Honduras, and shot and killed the 44-year-old environmental activist and champion of indigenous rights. Cáceres had fought vigorously for years against Agua Zarca, a major hydroelectric project in her country; in 2015 she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her success in organizing Honduras’s indigenous Lenca community—of which she was a member—against construction of the giant dam on the Gualcarque River. This river is spiritually and culturally significant to the Lenca, as well as an essential source of their water, medicine, and food. As Agua Zarca’s international backers began to pull out of the project, death threats against Cáceres arose and intensified, and eventually a team of paid assassins carried them out. (In November 2018, a Honduran court ruled that executives of DESA, the Honduran company behind the dam, had ordered the murder.)
Unfortunately, like so many other areas around the globe, Honduras is a dangerous place for activists fighting for the environment and indigenous rights. Three years before Cáceres’s murder, soldiers shot and killed Lenca leader Tomás García while he was peacefully protesting construction of the very same dam. And less than two weeks after her death, Nelson García, a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras—the organization Cáceres had led for 22 years—was murdered by unidentified gunmen. Earlier that morning, García had spent time with the Río Chiquito community, which had just been violently displaced by Honduran security forces. More than 100 police officers and soldiers evicted dozens of families and individuals in the Lenca community, destroying their homes and crops in the process. Over the past 10 years, more than 120 activists in the country have been killed while defending the rights of its indigeneous peoples, including their rights to land and clean water.
But as extreme as the situation is in Honduras, such violence is a worldwide phenomenon. According to Global Witness, a U.K.–based watchdog group, in 2018 an average of more than three people each week lost their lives while defending their communities and natural resources from exploitation or degradation. Of the six countries across the globe with the worst records of violence against activists, four are in Latin America: Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, and Mexico. Worldwide, in 2018, one-third of these murders reflected conflicts between activists and mining or extractive industries like logging, but disputes involving agribusinesses and hydroelectric projects also accounted for a large number of deaths.
In March 2018, some nations began to take action to stop this disturbing state of affairs. After several years of negotiation, 24 Caribbean and Latin American governments came together to approve the Escazú Agreement. This multilateral pact aims to strengthen the enforcement of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, drafted during the 1992 United Nations Rio Earth Summit. Paraphrased, Principle 10 stipulates that public participation is crucial to developing and implementing environmental policies at national and local levels, and that governments bear the responsibility for providing accurate information and encouraging public awareness and engagement on these issues. It furthermore states that “[e]ffective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”
Among other things, a ratified and operative Escazú Agreement would require signatory nations to provide special protections for human rights defenders, “guarantee[ing] a safe and enabling environment for persons, groups, and organizations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters, so that they are able to act free from threat, restriction, and insecurity.” The signatories must also take “appropriate, effective, and timely measures to prevent, investigate, and punish attacks, threats, or intimidations that human rights defenders in environmental matters may suffer.”
Alas, while two dozen nations may have approved the language of the original Escazú Agreement, a number of its original supporters appear to have gotten cold feet on the way to ratifying it. For the agreement to go into effect, 11 of the combined regions’ 33 countries must ratify Escazú. As of now, only eight have done so: Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Uruguay. Worrisomely, among the holdouts are Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico— the aforementioned nations deemed most hostile to activists who are operating at the intersection of human rights and the environment.
As for Honduras—well, its far-right, coup-installed, and scandal-ridden government hasn’t even decided yet if it’s comfortable signing on to the agreement, much less ratifying it in its own legislative body. Meanwhile, Agua Zarca, for all intents and purposes, is dead; public pressure on its international funders ultimately compelled them to withdraw from the project. But Berta Cáceres, Tomás García, and Nelson García shouldn’t have had to die to stop it. Soon, one hopes, activists inspired by their example will not only feel free to stand up for their rights and resources without fear of violent reprisal, but actually be free to do so, as a matter of international law. On the anniversary of Cáceres’ death, one of the best ways we can honor her life is to insist that this freedom be realized.
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