By: Kimberly Case
July 13, 2016
Of all the stories heard at the Human Rights Defender’s Forum, there were none quite as shocking as Laura Zuniga’s. The tone in her voice, the power in her words, and the fire in her eyes revealed her sole reason for making the journey to the forum: her mamá.
Laura’s mother, Berta Cáceres, had been assassinated only three months before the forum when armed intruders entered in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras.
Berta, an environmental activist, indigenous leader of her people, and co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), had survived through years of death threats against her life.
Trouble began in 2010, when the Honduran Congress passed a law that awarded contracts to a group of private companies to build dozens of hydroelectric dams throughout the country. Four of the approved dams were along the Gualcarque River on territory inhabited by the indigenous Lenca people. In the following years, Berta dedicated her fight to preventing the companies from accessing the land, leading COPINH and the local community in a year-long protest in 2013.
The fight turned violent in July 2013 when the Honduran military opened fire on the protesters, killing a member of COPINH. Although Berta knew that her life was in danger, she pressed on to win the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her grassroots campaign.
When Berta was murdered in March 2016, fingers pointed at the Honduran government. The government had failed to take safety measures to protect COPINH activists, which the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights had urged Honduran leaders to do. Honduras, with twelve environmental activists killed in 2014 alone, was listed as the most dangerous country for activists protecting forests and rivers relative to its size.
Berta’s daughter, Laura Zuniga, continued to fight for justice at the 2016 Human Rights Defenders Forum. After traveling to Washington D.C. to heighten pressure on U.S. officials to push for a third-party investigation into the Honduran government’s involvement in her mother’s murder, Laura earned the opportunity to share her story with President Carter in hopes that her mother’s death would create positive change in her country.
Despite being the youngest member of the forum, Laura succeeded in impacting those who listened to her story. She stirred passion in the hearts of those who listened as she unapologetically demanded justice for her family and her land, setting the tone for the rest of the defenders to bring forth their own grievances and passions.
The tone in Laura’s voice, the power in her words, and the fire in her eyes made her story compelling, but the strongest element of Laura’s fight was the love that only a daughter can have for her mother. After years of Berta fighting for her children to have right to their homeland, it was finally their turn to fight for her.