Ilisu (Turkey) . . . Three Gorges (China) . . . Glen Canyon (United States) . . . Itaipu (Brazil/Paraguay) . . . Sardar Sarovar (India). These are some of modern history's most controversial dam projects. Each one promised electrical power, flood control, water for irrigation, and more. But each one also threatened to destroy human communities, wildlife habitats, cultural artifacts, and more.
Add to the list Agua Zarca (Honduras), a planned series of four large dams on the Río Gualcarque. On Thursday the river lost one of its most determined defenders, Berta Cáceres. In a town called "Hope" (La Esperanza), Ms. Cáceres was assassinated by armed men who invaded her home as she slept.
Cáceres was the co-founder of an organization called the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh). A member of the Lenca ethnic group--the largest in Honduras--Cáceres led Copinh through years of protests against the plan to dam a river the Lenca deemed sacred. At times, Copinh filed legal challenges and lobbied the government to try to prevent the dams from being built. At other times, protesters physically blocked construction crews from gaining access to work sites. The efforts Cáceres made to try to stop the project gained international recognition last year when she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
Ms. Cáceres, who was 44 at the time of her death, had four children. She had been threatened with rape and death, she had been followed, and several of her supporters had been killed. No suspects had ever been arrested for the killings or for the threats. After a visit in December 2013, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted "a complete absence of the most basic measures to address reports of grave human rights violations in the region." As in Nigeria, Ecuador, Sudan, and Myanmar where oil interests colluded with corrupt governments to violate the rights of indigenous peoples, those supporting the Agua Zarca project in Honduras appear to have turned the government against its own people. Regardless of who actually killed Berta Cáceres, the Honduran government bears responsibility for its failure to protect her and for its failure to pursue justice in the cases of the other peaceful protesters who have been murdered.
For more on the work done by Cáceres and Copinh in an effort to stop the construction of dams on the Río Gualcarque, watch this brief video portrait from the page dedicated to Cáceres on the Goldman Environmental Prize website.