A leading human and environmental rights campaigner was murdered in her home in the western town of La Esperanza last night after gunmen broke in at around 1am, in what is being interpreted as an attempt to silence her.
Berta Cáceres, 45, who last year won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work upholding the land rights of indigenous communities in Honduras, had been regularly targeted and threatened by groups hostile to her campaigning.
She attracted international recognition for supporting Lenca communities whose supplies of water, food and medicines have been threatened by local dam projects.
Police initially told the media that her murder was the result of a violent robbery, but family and colleagues strongly insist it was politically motivated.
"It is highly probable that her assassination is linked with her work in protecting the human rights of the Lenca indigenous peoples to their lands and territories," the UN’s representative for indigenous people told the BBC.
Cáceres had been campaigning against one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects: the Agua Zarca multi-dam site in the Gualcarque river basin. Her decade-long campaign delayed the project and resulted in the withdrawal of Chinese company Sinohyrdo as well as finance from the World Bank.
While under international law, indigenous groups must be consulted on projects that affect their lands, the Lenca say they were not consulted about the dam they maintain would jeopardize their water supply and livelihood.
Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has seen unprecedented growth in environmental megaprojects, with 30 per cent of the country earmarked for mining opportunities. This has increased demand for hydroelectric energy to service the mines.
“Her death has sent shockwaves within Honduras, Central America and internationally,” said Thomas Walsh, CAFOD Country Representative for Honduras. “Courageous people like Berta strengthen our faith in humanity and are an inspiration to continue the human rights struggle pacifically.”
Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a human rights activist. According to Global Witness, 101 campaigners were killed there between 2010 and 2014.
President Juan Orlando Hernandez condemned the killing and promised a thorough investigation. "This act causes mourning for all of us," he said via Twitter.
The president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation paid tribute to Cáceres, remembering her as a “fearless environmental hero”. He said she understood the risks that came with her work, “but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction”.
The foundation is working with Global Witness and other partners to demand that the Honduran Government conduct a full investigation into the killing and take immediate measures to ensure the safety of the Cáceres family, and grant protection for activists in Honduras.
Pope Francis has frequently spoken out about the rights of indigenous communities. On his recent trip to Mexico he paid tribute to the indigenous people who have been “exploited and excluded”, and in his recent encyclical drew specific attention to the issue of land rights.
“For them,” he said “land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.”
Caceres leaves behind four children. Her brother was also wounded in the attack according to the Honduran newspaper, El Heraldo.