UUSC Expresses Solidarity with CEECCNA Partners Facing Authoritarian Crackdown

Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.

← News & Stories

The World’s Most Dangerous Country for Environmental Defenders

Eight years after Berta Cáceres’s murder, nature defenders are still at risk in Honduras.

By Josh Leach on April 23, 2024

Last month marked eight years since the assassination of Honduran environmental defender Berta Cáceres. Since that time, advocates and family members have made progress in securing justice and accountability for her killing. But Honduras remains an especially deadly country for people seeking to protect their land from powerful extractive interests. 

Recent developments in the effort to bring Cáceres’s killers to justice are therefore welcome—but they should serve to remind us of the risks these defenders still face. They illustrate the work that is still needed to halt ecological destruction and ensure justice for the many other Honduran activists whose lives are lost in the effort to protect the planet.  

The Long Search for Justice

Before her assassination in 2016, Berta Cáceres was an internationally-acclaimed leader in environmental causes in Honduras. She worked with Indigenous communities around the country to push back against development projects threatening their homes and livelihoods. Many of these projects were initiated without community consultation, and with the support of vested interests who gained power in Honduras after a 2009 coup.  

When Cáceres worked to support the Indigenous Lenca people in their efforts to oppose one of these coup-enabled projects—specifically, a hydroelectric dam that imperiled their community’s water supply—she drew the ire of the company backing its construction, Desarrollos Energéticos (Desa). Soon thereafter, armed gunmen murdered Cáceres in her home. 

Since the assassination, evidence has only accumulated that Desa company officials were involved in the killing. Two of the people convicted of Cáceres’s murder in 2018 were Desa employees. Similarly, in 2022, Desa’s former president, Roberto David Castillo, was also found guilty of helping to orchestrate the murder. 

Now, two years later, recent developments in the case point to the involvement of still another high-level Desa official in planning and executing the murder. Independent investigators have found evidence tying the company’s former chief financial officer, Daniel Atala Midence—a member of one of Honduras’s most powerful families—to the plot to assassinate Cáceres. 

Specifically, this former official is suspected of siphoning off development funds from European financial institutions to hire the hit squad that killed Cáceres. These allegations led Honduran authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest at the end of last year. Since then, Atala Midence has apparently been on the run from the law, vanishing from the country. 

An Unfinished Legacy

Despite these steps toward accountability for Cáceres’s murder, other environmental defenders remain in peril in Honduras. Berta Cáceres’s daughter, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, has continued her mother’s legacy of environmental leadership—but often at great personal risk. Likewise, UUSC’s partners continue to face threats for their efforts to oppose extractive projects in Honduras

All told, the accountability for some of Cáceres’s murderers has not made Honduras safe for people defending nature. The country remains the world’s most deadly place for environmental activists. Among community leaders working to oppose an iron oxide mine near the Guapinol river, for instance—whom UUSC has long supported—three people were killed in 2023 alone

Our Honduran partners have been sounding the alarm for years that environmental defenders are at risk. And when U.S.-based and Western corporations help bankroll the very projects these defenders are resisting, they often become complicit in the violence directed against them. This U.S. involvement makes it all the more hypocritical when the government simultaneously tries to block and expel Central American asylum-seekers who have fled these same dangers. 

Calling Out Hypocrisy

As UUSC and our partners have said many times before, the U.S. government must end its complicity in these abuses. This means exerting U.S. influence with the Honduran government to secure meaningful justice mechanisms and combat corruption, while holding U.S.-based companies accountable for their involvement in the projects that are violating the rights of so many Indigenous communities and environmental defenders in Honduras. 

Otherwise, even if the individual perpetrators of the Cáceres murder may eventually be brought to justice, the systemic wrongs she worked to confront will remain unaddressed. To truly honor her legacy, Honduras must become a safe place for the people and communities working to defend our planet. 

To support our partners in this effort and learn more about the unfolding struggle for justice in Honduras, join UUSC’s email list for periodic updates

Image Credit: Shutterstock – Zmotion

Read This Next