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We Won't Stop Demanding Justice For Slain Activist Berta Caceres

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by Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International

A brave woman was taken from us a year ago. Berta Caceres was shot and killed in the middle of the night by assassins for opposing an illegitimate hydroelectric project which threatened her people's way of life and violated international human rights law. Her family, her fellow indigenous rights activists at COPINH, and the international community is still watching and waiting for justice to be done.

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Blogger Winnie Byanyima visits the family home of Berta Caceres. (Photo: Oxfam Canada)

Berta's murder drew international attention and condemnation. Facing mounting criticism and outrage, Honduran authorities were left with no choice but to act. In the last 12 months, they've made several arrests, including of the alleged gunmen and other individuals linked to DESA, the construction company behind the Agua Zarca project.

But her family and her colleagues know that the trail does not end there. We at Oxfam continue to stand by them and demand that those behind her murder be found and brought to justice.

The international human rights watchdog, Global Witness, recently published an investigation into Berta's murder, where they revealed deep links between DESA, the Honduran military and others. Berta and her allies were taking on powerful, rich, and well-connected interests by opposing the Agua Zarca project.

This kind of activism is dangerous and, as we saw with Berta, can be fatal. Just in Honduras, at least 109 land defenders were killed between 2010 and 2015. For women, the risks skyrocket. Patriarchal cultural norms still rule over large swaths of Latin America, and women who defy them are ostracized and face very real threats of violence.

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Environmental activists gather in honour of prominent indigenous activist Berta Caceres, who was killed in rural Honduras March 3, on April 5, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The rate of violence against women and girls in Honduras is intolerably high. A report published by the country's major newspapers, La Prensa, showed that in the last decade, over 4,500 women have been killed, and over 85 per cent of these crimes went unpunished. In 2014, the prominent activist Margarita Murillo was shot and killed. Her murder remains unsolved.

I visited Berta's family in La Esperanza last year and was left humbled and amazed by their courage. Berta was never deterred by the death threats she received. Likewise, her family refuses to live in fear and carries on her work to improve their country and the world.

They've seen first-hand how extractive industries, big agribusinesses and tourism companies are richly rewarded for their destructive policies; how money corrupts politicians and institutions, and how all this leads to rampant economic inequality and gross human rights abuses.

Inequality is inextricably linked with distribution of land and natural resources. Latin America and the Caribbean is the most unequal region in the world; it's no surprise that just one per cent of "super farms" here have as much farmland as the other 99 per cent.

With enough pressure, things can change.

It's good news, then, that the plights and rights of indigenous people, Afro-descendants and other communities are in the general public's consciousness now more than ever.

Pope Francis, a powerful ally in our fight against inequality and poverty, recently met in Rome with indigenous leaders from around the world and in no uncertain terms said that communities have a right to decide what gets built and what doesn't on their lands. Governments should take heed.

In the United States, the Dakota Access Pipeline brought together thousands of activists who braved the freezing cold and stood in solidarity with Native American tribes opposing the project.

Finally, hundreds of civil society groups, academics and other international organizations, including Oxfam, have joined the Land Rights Now campaign to push governments to legally protect these rights.

With enough pressure, things can change; the Agua Zarca project is currently suspended after Oxfam and others lobbied the financiers to back off the project.

Berta was murdered the day before her 45 birthday. She spent a great part of her life defending the rights of her people. Her cause is our cause. A year later, we honour her, and again demand justice for her, her family and her people.

Oxfam believes that discrimination against women from heinous forms of violence to unequal access to land or public services constitute the most widespread and systemic forms of human rights violations around the world. Women's rights are at the heart of everything we do.

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