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.