The Defenders

Bertha Isabel Zúñiga Cáceres

“My mother became a woman of resistance, of struggle, so that our deep connection with nature is not destroyed; so that the life of our peoples — the Lenca Indigenous People of Honduras — is respected. Her killers tried to silence her with bullets, but she is a seed, a seed that is reborn in all men and women. She is a seed that will be reborn in the people that follow her path of resistance.”

Bertha Isabel Zúñiga Cáceres was born in Honduras in 1990 to Berta Cáceres Flores, one of Honduras’s most high-profile environmental activists. When she was 3 years old, her mother founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), an organization committed to defending the land rights of the Lenca, the country’s largest indigenous group, from exploitation by mining, dam-building and logging interests. The organization also advocates against racism, sexual discrimination and the victimization of women. This is a difficult fight, because extractive industry companies and energy firms hold concessions on more than 30% of Honduras’s land.

From an early age, Zúñiga Cáceres went to marches and protests with her mother. She also read about racism and spent time in the Indigenous communities where her mother was working. She learned young that speaking out against those in power in Honduras can be very dangerous. Her mother and her colleagues frequently received death threats. On March 2nd, 2016, Zúñiga Cáceres’s mother was murdered for her activism in opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.

Upon her mother’s death, Zúñiga Cáceres suspended her graduate studies and began to focus on two critical goals: finding and bringing to justice her mother’s murderers and carrying on her mother’s fight for environmental and social justice. In 2017, she assumed leadership of COPINH. She called for a full, independent investigation of her mother’s assassination and began lobbying for U.S. legislation that would suspend all military aid to Honduras until the country demonstrates that it has taken action on the unlawful killing of human rights activists. She also travelled throughout Europe demanding that governments cease funding DESA (Desarrollos Energéticos S.A.), the Honduran company behind the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.

Eight people have been arrested in relation to the killing of Bertha Cáceres Flores, two with links to DESA and three with ties to the Honduran military. A recent independent investigation by five international human rights experts revealed evidence that both state agents and the hydroelectric company’s executives and employees had taken part in planning, executing and covering up the murder. However, in Honduras almost no one gets punished for any murder, and the Honduran government has made it clear that it is unlikely to pursue further justice for Cáceres Flores.

Just weeks after Zúñiga Cáceres assumed leadership of COPINH, she and two colleagues survived an attack by four men wielding rocks and machetes who tried to force their vehicle off a cliff. In spite of the danger, she is committed to continuing to fight for Indigenous Lenca and environmental justice in her homeland. She is currently campaigning against projects backed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), under which blatant human rights violations are being perpetrated with impunity. She is also backing proposals for foreign investment funds that respect the environment and human rights.

WHY DOES REVEALING THE TRUTH MATTER?

Global Witness calls Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. Since 2009, at least 124 environmental and land activists have been murdered there. Yet, activism is critical to protect natural resources that are both sacred to Lenca communities and vital to their survival.

The Lenca are the largest indigenous group in Honduras with around 116,000 people and 2,000 villages. They have lost their native language over centuries of Spanish domination and are currently fighting to preserve their culture and identity. The Lenca culture is deeply rooted in the land where they live. Many rivers, mountains and hills are considered sacred and holy places. The continued violence and disregard for Lenca culture and ancestral land rights threatens their ability to survive in Honduras.

Honduras is a relatively small Latin American country that is largely dependent on foreign support. Zúñiga Cáceres and other activists contend that the Honduran government’s priority is protecting the interests of private business, governments and public officials, not on safeguarding the basic rights of indigenous communities. COPINH and other groups are pressuring the Honduran government to enforce existing laws while simultaneously urging other governments to invest only in projects that protect environmental and Indigenous rights.

WANT TO JOIN THE FIGHT FOR TRUTH?

  • Read about Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres and her work in this interview.
  • Read about the status of human rights in Honduras here.
  • Read about the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras and how you can support their efforts here.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

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Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.