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March 4, 2016

Yesterday morning, Lenca indigenous community land rights activist, human and environmental rights defender, Berta Caceres, was assassinated by gunmen in the town of La Esperanza in Honduras.

Over the past two weeks, Berta had been involved in leading a protest by Lenca indigenous people against a hydroelectric dam in the community of Rio Blanco, and she reportedly received threats and faced harassment during the protests.

Berta was a veteran of many such protests and had faced death threats before. She was a founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras in 1993 and was one of the leaders of the resistance against the military coup in 2009, which received tacit support from the United States Government. Berta also fought against the palm oil plantations that are swallowing up community lands.

Since 2009, the human rights situation in Honduras has worsened, with the country having the highest rate of murders of human and environmental rights defenders of any country in the world.

In April 2015 Berta Caceres was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. I was invited to attend the award ceremony that was held in Washington DC and had the opportunity to meet her and many of her family members.

In her acceptance speech she said:

They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten my family. That is what we face.

Yesterday she was murdered. Our hearts go out to her family. The killers will not have the final say. Voices all over the world are crying out. We must all carry forward her struggle to protect the land rights of indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities, in order to protect the right to food, the environment and the climate.

The struggle to protect the resources of communities against the depredations of agribusiness, energy and extractive industries knows no borders. ActionAid is working in neighboring Guatemala to support communities to protect their lands, where indigenous rights defender Rigoberto Lima was recently killed after bringing court case against a palm oil plantation.

The US government has long failed to give priority to human rights in the assistance it gives to other governments. In December, Congress approved $750 million dollars in funding for Central America, which is supposed to address the flow of poor and rural migrants to the United States. However, nothing is being done to make sure indigenous and small-scale farming communities have control of their lands. This needs to change.

And as Senator Patrick Leahy said in reaction to Berta’s murder, governments need to change the way business is done to make sure that all human rights are respected.