Bertha Zúniga never thought she would grow up to help lead a movement that fights for the rights of the Lenca, the biggest indigenous group in Honduras. But the March 2016 assassination of her mother, the renowned activist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, inevitably changed the course of Zúniga’s life.
A year before her murder, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Prize—known as “the Green Nobel”—for her work with the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The organization campaigned against the construction of Agua Zarca, an hydroelectric dam that would divert the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. The project threatened to destroy natural habitats, affect access to water, and potentially displace local Lenca people.
“The Lenca’s use of the river is based on satisfying daily needs that have to do with agriculture, fishing, the use of water for domestic and recreational activities,” Zúniga, 28, says, over the line from La Esperanza, the capital city of Intibucá, Honduras.
But the Gualcarque also holds deep cultural and spiritual value for the Lenca community. They believe that the river is inhabited by sacred spirits—Zúniga describes the indigenous group’s value system and their way of making sense of the world as “cosmovision.”
"We have used this as an argument,” she says, “and businessmen have discredited—even made fun of—the spiritual value of the river.”
Her mother’s dogged campaign against the dam triggered a wave of repression. Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company behind the dam construction, even allegedly attempted to bribe Cáceres to stay silent. COPINH campaigners faced continuous harassment and death threats; Zúniga says that four community members were killed and four others nearly died in violent reprisals.
According to Global Witness, at least 123 people taking a stand against dams, mines, logging, and agribusiness were killed between 2010 and 2016 in Honduras. That makes the country the deadliest place in the world for environmental activism.
Zúniga was completing a Master’s degree in Mexico City when she moved back home after her mother’s death. In November 2018, seven of eight suspects were convicted of the murder, including a former DESA security chief, two former US-trained military officers, and a DESA communities and environment manager.
The trial however, was plagued with irregularities. The decision was deemed "partial justice," as only the hitmen directly involved with the killing were sentenced. “We remain concerned that the intellectual authors and the financiers of the crime have still not been investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned,” UN experts said in a statement.
All three foreign investors—including Dutch bank FMO, Finnish finance company FinnFund, and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI)—have withdrawn from the project, putting the construction project on indefinite hold.
However, DESA owns the concession for 50 years, Zúniga says, meaning the company has the exclusive right to work the land until 2059. “They have not given up and apparently have no intention of abandoning the project altogether.”
DESA did not respond to a request for comment, but has denied any involvement in ordering Cáceres’ killing. It issued this statement in February when DESA CEO Roberto David Castillo was charged with masterminding Cáceres’ murder: “DESA bluntly rejects the accusation against honorable and innocent people, trying to link them with acts that have absolutely no relation to their actions.”
Growing up as the children of a high-profile activist, Zúniga and her siblings were aware of their mother’s battle from an early age. “It was a demand of hers that we weren’t indifferent to the reality of Honduras, so one way or another we were always involved,” she says.
COPINH was founded by Cáceres in 1993 out of an urgent need to recognize indigenous rights. Over time, its purpose has expanded to fight “a system of multiple oppressions that have different facets,” including sexism and racism, Zúniga says. “If they are not fought integrally, there will be no real freedom for the communities,” she adds.
In May 2017, she assumed the role of COPINH coordinator, acting as a spokesperson and travelling abroad for meetings and conferences. Though she plays a key role in the organization, Zúniga emphasizes its collective nature by using nosotras (the feminine pronoun “we” in Spanish) to talk about her work, which she insists, has more to do with “multiplying [her mother]’s resistance” than being the “heiress” of Cáceres’ legacy.
Tensions around the river can be traced back to the country’s political collapse in 2009. After a coup ousted the democratically-elected president José Manuel Zelaya, Congress issued laws that awarded concessions to hundreds of mining and energy ventures across the country, including projects in Lenca territories. Companies and local governments failed to seek the consent of affected communities—even though this is a requirement by law.
As a result, the country produces more energy than it needs at the expense of the people, Zúniga says. “We have so many hydroelectric centrals [in Honduras], and yet most of the rural population has no access to energy and so they continue to cook with firewood and work it out without electric power.”
Many experts believe that the US, which has a long history of intervention in Honduras, is partly to blame for the climate of human rights abuses and impunity. It took Cáceres’s murder to spark debate in the US over the administration’s investment in the country, including in training security forces meant to protect the population. In June 2016, a former Honduran soldier toldGuardian journalist Nina Lakhani that the late activist’s name had been on the hit list of a US-trained military unit. The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 5474), which would suspend funding to Honduran security forces, was introduced by Democrat congressperson Hank Johnson in June of 2016, and again in March of 2017.
Dana Frank, a former history professor at University of California and the author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup, explained over email: “Most of the [US] military aid remains non-transparent, and continues to flow to security forces with deep links to drug trafficking and established, brutal records of human rights abuses.”
Corruption runs deep in Honduran politics. The brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was charged with drug trafficking in November, and members of his National Party have been accused of diverting almost $12 million in public funds.
“US ‘development’ aid has not been proven to actually improve economic circumstances, and can support the same elite economic interests that are destroying livelihoods,” Frank explains. President Donald Trump has been a proponent of cutting aid to Honduras—not to end abuse, corruption, and judicial impunity, but because Honduran authorities have failed to stop migrant caravans headed for the US.
Both Frank and Zúniga agree that cutting US aid would send a powerful message to the Honduran people. For the professor, it would mean the US stops legitimating a dictatorial political regime. Zúniga thinks it would provoke real change: “The government, which is very contested in this country, would lose its base and probably be removed from power if it wasn’t for the military protection that it enjoys.”
Until that happens, COPINH is fighting to imagine a new development model in which humans and nature are viewed as precious in their own right and not “understood as commodities to exploit,” Zúniga adds.
“We believe in building a national project where development is not that of international corporations,” she says, “where development is not centered on money—but rather on life, humanity, and environmental diversity.”