Politics of Poverty

Who ordered the murder of Berta Cáceres? And why?

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Austra Berta Flores, mother of slain environmentalist, Berta Cáceres stands reflected in framed photographs of her daughter. (Photo: Dany Barrientos)

A new report sheds light on the troubling practices of extractive companies and the Honduran government that occurred ahead of Berta Cáceres’ murder in an effort to bring those who ordered her assassination to justice.

“Berta denounced the Agua Zarca project promoted by the DESA Company on the Gualcarque River … for her actions in defense of the Lenca People and Territory, my daughter was persecuted, threatened and accused of crimes.  The harassment did not end until her assassination.”

— Austra Berta Flores

Just over a year ago Honduran indigenous and environmental leader Berta Cáceres was assassinated. Because she was internationally known, her murder brought unwanted attention to the Honduran government and to a country that continues to be the deadliest for human rights and environmental activists.  Although eight people have been accused of killing Berta and are in jail awaiting trial, the intellectual authors – the ones who gave the order and paid the bill – remain free.

In late March, the Cáceres family – represented by Olivia Zúniga Cáceres, Salvador Zúniga, Austra Berta Flores and her four children – published a report with Oxfam’s support called, “Facts and Circumstances Surrounding the Assassination of Berta Cáceres Flores:  In Search of the Intellectual Authors.”(Spanish) The report investigates how concessions to the extractive industries were granted in an attempt to understand who might have ordered her murder.  Austra Berta Flores, Cáceres’ mother, and Oxfam were motivated out of concern that those behind Berta’s assassination would not be investigated or charged with any crime – and justice would be denied. Failing to solve her case will leave all activists at risk.

Significantly, the report uncovered serious irregularities regarding the authenticity and legality of the concessions to the Agua Zarca hydro-electric project– the project Berta was standing up against at the time of her death. The project owned by Honduran private energy company Desarrollo Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA) did not consult with the affected indigenous and local communities, and other irregularities uncovered in the report suggest more serious.  Here are few of the report’s findings:

  1. Berta Cáceres formally and publically denounced the illegal issuance of at least 49 hydro-electric concessions in Lenca Territory, including DESA’s Agua Zarca project on the Gualcarque River. ILO Convention 169 requires that potentially affected communities be consulted before any concessions are granted or decisions made, but this did not occur.
  2. Honduras’ Natural Resources and Environment Ministry defied the country’s constitution by extending the Agua Zarca concession by 20 years and massively increasing the electrical generation allowed, without the approval of the National Congress.
  3. The environmental license, an essential prerequisite for the approval of the Agua Zarca project, was issued after the contracts were approved by the National Congress and publicized in the official Gazette.
  4. Based on current laws, the Government of Honduras should declare a concession license null and void if legal procedures were not followed such as obtaining congressional approval for changes in the license, issuing the environmental license prior to granting a concession and failure to conduct free, prior and informed consent. All of which were violated in the Agua Zarca case.

These findings shed important light on the way energy and extractive companies do business in countries like Honduras, and why Oxfam is fighting this here and everywhere. Ms. Flores, Oxfam and coalition members – Land Rights Now and Defensoras de la Madre Tierra – hand delivered the report to Honduras’ Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla and to the offices of the Organization of American States’ Mechanism against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras. The coalition also held a press conference which generated an immediate reaction from the private sector association and the DESA Company, claiming that the association and the company had followed all the procedures according to the law.

The report strongly challenges their claims. What is needed now is for official investigators to verify the report’s findings, take the appropriate action, and determine if it is linked to Berta’s assassination. Berta’s mother will continue to lobby Honduran legislators to cancel the license to DESA and preserve the Rio Gualcarque for the Lenca People, and Oxfam will support her and her family all the way.  Berta’s murder cannot and must not become an historical footnote.

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