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Berta Cáceres was murdered in March, 2016, for fighting against the establishment of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River, a sacred place for the Lenca indigenous community she belonged to. Today, her murder is still unpunished and her community is living under serious threats which have been worsening in the past weeks. But this week they demanded the authorities to protect the Lenca people of Rio Blanco and proceed against those who threaten it.
The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) issued on Wednesday 21 a press release to express to the national and international community their "deep concern for the defenseless situation of the Lenca people of Rio Blanco with the presence of armed men and constant threats. We urge the authorities to take immediate action to safeguard the physical integrity and life of the members of COPINH in Rio Blanco, who continue defending their ancestral territories against the invasion of people linked to DESA company" (Desarrollos Energéticos SA is the company behind the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project).
A few hours before COPINH issued the statement, Real World Radio interviewed Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of Berta and the new general coordinator of COPINH. She was elected at the end of May in a meeting where the organization confirmed the struggle in defense of the territories and their political project. This same assembly appointed Berta Cáceres as permanent general coordinator and promised not to rest until finding justice and capture the intellectual perpetrators of her murder.
Bertita stated that COPINH is struggling against 49 extractive projects in Lenca territories. She reminded that in addition to her mother, there are several people who have been murdered for defending rivers. Despite the global repercussion of Berta´s homicide, conflicts in the area have not ceased and transnational companies promoting hydroelectric and wind projects are defended by police and military officers, in addition to their own private security forces. "Now we have the Rio Blanco, Intibucá community, which is known for its struggle against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, with conflicts with landowners of the area who sold lands to DESA company and who have weapons and threaten to shoot anyone. This is a situation where it wouldn´t be surprising if another member of our organization is murdered again", said Bertita. She added that with the precautionary measures established by the Inter American Court of Human Rights, the Security Secretariat offered them protection by the police, but the communities are not accepting it "due to the role of armed forces and armed agents. We know that many times a police officer, instead of protecting us, represents a risk for us", she said.
On June 7th there was a preliminary hearing on the Berta Cáceres case. The evidence held by the prosecutors is not enough, "especially for the intermediaries between the actual perpetrators and the intellectual culprits", said Zúñiga. So far there are eight people held on pre-trial detention: five of them are actual perpetrators -hitmen- and three are intermediaries. "The alleged hitmen have a more solid process", except for one of them for whom prosecutors also lack evidence to retain him, she added. She also highlighted that the three people accused of being intermediaries are Sergio Rodríguez, technical and environmental manager of DESA (Desarrollos Energéticos SA, behind the Agua Zarca project), Douglas Bustillo, former Chief of Security of DESA, who was fired six months before the murder and who threatened Berta many times, and Mariano Díaz Chávez, agent of the Armed Forces, and Military Police officer (allegedly, Rodríguez and Bustillo contacted him so that he coordinated the group of hitmen). Bertita regretted that "in the case of Sergio and Mariano, the process is quite weak".
"There is a strategy to prolong the detention of these people to make the international community -which is pressuring authorities the most- believe that the Honduran government is acting to achieve justice. But this is false, since the evidence is not enough, the process is filled with irregularities and everything points to him possibly being released at some point", she said with reference to Rodríguez. "If he is released then impunity as far of the intellectual perpetrators and the total impunity in this case in general would be ensured", she added.
The communities are demanding global justice, which means an end to the building of the Agua Zarca project. For this reason, on March 1st, COPINH filed an unconstitutionality appeal before the Supreme Court of Justice of Honduras. But the appeal was not accepted. "This means that they do not intend to touch the hydroelectric project and that these detentions are just a front", she regretted.
On June 4, The Guardian published that Dutch bank FMO and Finnish financial institution Finnfund, as well as the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) had announced that they would stop financing the Agua Zarca project. Nothing of this has taken place so far, This has outraged COPINH, who have been hearing these announcements for over a year, without them becoming a reality. Also, Zúñiga said that the FMO is talking about a "responsible exit" and proposed a dialogue for communities to express if they want to have this hydroelectric project or not, which is clearly rejected. "We´ve completely rejected the role of banks because they don´t have the power to conduct a reconciliation process, as they call it, with the communities, since they are clear protagonists of the conflict".
The Rio Blanco community "does not want a dialogue process promoted by the banks. The reconciliation of communities will take place when the hydroelectric project that brought fear and conflicts leaves forever, but also when there is a justice process, a truth process to clear up the role of every one of the actors involved in the conflict, their responsibility and punishment for the crimes and negligence for having participated in the project", said Bertita.
The life project promoted by COPINH is related with the worldview of the Lenca people, said the general coordinator. The aim is to be in harmony with all nature resources. She insisted on the need to safeguard the identity of the Lenca people and their resistance fight, to produce food with sovereignty, free from GMOs and the agroindustry, to "build a life free from the entire domination system of capitalism, patriarchy, racism". With Berta´s murder, the community started analyzing energy production and proposed to "build a sovereign energy model, free from transnational corporations", said Bertita.
The proposal is comprehensive and covers capacity building, alternative communication with community health that saves ancestral medicines and memories. Also, the people aim to strengthen the spirituality "that has strengthened us when we were most fragile", said Bertita, trusting that spiritual guides will join them in this long process of struggle.
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