Celebrating Berta Cáceres and Ending Violence Against Indigenous Land Activists

Berta Caceres stands at the COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) offices in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras where she, COPINH have organized a two year campaign to halt construction on the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project, that poses grave threats to Rio Blanco regional environment, river and indigenous Lenca people.

Four days before International Women’s Day, we lost a feminist icon. Berta Cáceres, a powerful organizer for indigenous rights and democracy, was assassinated on March 3. Fellow activist Nelson García was murdered on March 15 after Honduran security forces violent evicted an indigenous Lenca community.

Cáceres was raised by a mother who was a midwife and governor and Berta, as a young woman, started the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Cáceres led campaigns on a variety of issues but is particularly celebrated for mobilizing the Lenca people against the Agua Zarca dam which threatened their access to medicine, food and water. The roadblock they built lasted a year. Through legal and community action they convinced the International Monetary Fund and the Chinese company Sinohydro to withdraw from the project.  The Honduran company DESA reinitiated the dam project on the Gualcarque River, which continues to be actively fought.

Often clad simply in a cotton shirt, jeans and sneakers, and living modestly, Cáceres embodied an empowering model of environmentalism and social justice.

In 2015, Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman prize for South and Central America, comparable to a Nobel Prize for the environment. When accepting the award, she said, “The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet.”

Coordinator for Friends of the Earth Mexico Gustavo Castro Soto was with Cáceres during the March 3 attack. He was injured and Cáceres died in his arms. He was later detained, held in inhumane conditions and questioned. After being released, he was escorted to the airport by the Mexican Ambassador, but has been prevented from leaving the country. Honduran authorities have issued orders to keep him in the country for thirty days.

These events occurs within the context of Honduran leadership which has stepped up repressive violence after the 2009 coup’d etat, an act condoned by the US.  After the democratically elected President Mel Zalaya ordered a non-binding straw poll to consider revising the constitution, he was opposed by the military and judicial system which escalated to his removal by the Honduran military and his flight to Costa Rica. Several coup leaders trained at the US Army School of the Americas (since renamed), a breeding ground for numerous death squads and dictators in Latin American countries in the 1980’s. The United Nations and Organization for American States called Zelaya’s unseating a coup. But the United States, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sought “stability” pushing for “free and fair” elections.  In her book, “Hard Choices,” she said the elections would “render the question of Zelaya moot.”

The brutality brought to Cáceres and Castro has become shockingly common in Honduras. Other members of COPINH have been attacked and killed. Overall, Honduras has been ranked the most dangerous country for environmental defenders and advocates, as the country has pursued the mass privatization of rivers and cities.

In the last few years, child refugees have jumped 40-fold also and 110 environmental activists and land defenders have been killed. Terror has reigned for citizens, while multinational corporations and financiers have been protected.

Cáceres’ and García’s deaths must be met with justice. There should be independent investigations into their deaths with full accountability for the perpetrators, as has been called for by civil society; the safe return of Castro; and an end to criminalization of the activities of COPINH, and other environmental and indigenous organizations. But so too must the United States deeply question our long history of Latin American regime change and support for brutal governments, even while ending to security aid to Honduras.

Cáceres, a vocal critic of the coup, spoke of a way forward: “We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction,” she said. “Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life.”

Berta Cáceres, presente!


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Veena Trehan writes on policy and the responsibilities of politicians and institutions. She has written for Reuters, Bloomberg News and NPR. Trehan is an active citizen with a passion for issues including inequality and human rights, environmental justice, and the safety of women on college campuses. Before her career in journalism, she worked in government consulting and information technology. Trehan studied Electrical Engineering at MIT and did a Master’s in Journalism on a Reuters Fellowship.