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Bertha Cáceres: 'My mother’s is not the first assassination. I don’t want another'

The daughter of Berta Cáceres, the Honduran human rights defender who was murdered this month, has spoken out about the country’s volatility and called on Europe and the US to stop investing in the controversial Agua Zarca dam.

Despite the death threats, Bertha Cáceres never thought her mother, the Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, would be murdered.

“I had never imagined someone with national and international recognition, and that had won the award, that this would happen.”

But on 2 March, Berta, last year’s winner of the prestigious Goldman environmental prize for her work protesting against the construction of a hydroelectric dam, was shot dead at her home in La Esperanza. It was two days before her 45th birthday.

The co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh), Berta had been a thorn in the side of her government and big corporations for years. She had taken on illegal loggers and plantation owners who had threatened her community.

Most recently, she had led a high-profile campaign against building the Agua Zarca dam in the Gualcarque river basin, in Rio Blanco, which was being constructed by local firm Desa and backed by international finance companies. The project, on ancestral land, threatens to cut a major water source for the Lenca indigenous people who live along its banks.

Berta achieved some success when construction of the dam was halted in 2013 and the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation, pulled out of the venture along with the dam’s builder, the Chinese firm Sinohydro, because of unrest among local groups who had rejected the project on their land. But work resumed at the end of last year.

In recent years, Berta had received an increasing number of threats of sexual violence and murder, and she was forced into hiding. “She told us she was protected by the spirits of the Nahual,” the Mayan guardians of life, said Bertha, 25. From a young age, her mother had spoken to her and her three siblings about the threats.

“This struggle was her life project and she faced threats of all kinds that she made us aware of. In 2013, with the construction of the dam, threats increased and then the construction was suspended due to protests. When it was reinstated the threats increased again.”

Bertha Cáceres, daughter of murdered Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres.

Bertha, and members of Copinh, want a special commission to investigate her mother’s death so that the killers can be brought to justice.

She is critical of the government’s handling of the investigation, which she says is being carried out in secret. The family has not even been told the official date of Berta’s death. Most reports say she was shot on 3 March, but Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican activist who was injured in the shooting and is the only eye witness, said she was killed late on 2 March.

Bertha believes that high-ranking members of the Honduran military and state have investments in the dam.

This week, Bertha, who is studying for a masters degree in Latin American studies in Mexico, is in New York to speak at side events during the annual Commission on the Status of Women. She wants to gather support for an independent investigation into Berta’s death and raise the profile of the campaign for justice.

“I had not planned at all [to come to CSW]. I was living in a completely different situation, studying,” she says. But her mother’s murder “turned everything around and now I’m taking advantage of every possible space to talk about my mother … I will talk about the situation in Honduras. This is not the first assassination, but one of a series of assassinations of human rights defenders … I don’t want another human rights defender to be assassinated”.

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries to be an environmental activist. Between 2010 and 2014, 101 activists were killed.

As we spoke, a call came through from Copinh’s lawyer to say another member of the organisation had been shot dead and another man taken during forced evictions in the region by the police. The dead man was identified as Nelson García, 38, who was shot by unidentified gunmen after a violent eviction by Honduran security forces in a Lenca indigenous community.

While in New York, Bertha will address the UN general assembly and meet representatives from the Dutch, Norwegian and US governments. The Dutch development bank FMO is one of the investors in the dam. She wants to convince the Dutch and Norwegian governments to apply pressure on European investors to withdraw from the project, and for the US government to reconsider its heavy investment in the country. The US is spending millions of dollars supporting security in Honduras to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

On Wednesday, FMO said it was suspending all its activities in Honduras in light of the murders of Cáceres and Garcia.

It said: “The right of speech for those who speak up for their rights and the livelihoods of people are of very high value to FMO … FMO decided to suspend all activities in Honduras, effective immediately. This means that we will not engage in new projects or commitments and that no disbursements will be made, including the Agua Zarca project.”

On Thursday, indigenous groups in Honduras will march through its cities demanding justice for Berta. At the same time in New York, a rally will be held outside the Honduran mission to the UN.

“I remember my mother as a person with a big vision and a person of action,” Bertha said. “She taught me not to be afraid, to have courage. She encouraged us to break barriers, to act on our desires. She taught us to have a love of life and she had a big spirit … it feels like she is still with us and is helping us face this awful situation.”

This article was amended on 16 March 2016 to add FMO’s suspension of its activities in Honduras.
This content is republished as part of our content partnership with the Guardian and Mama Cash.