But we ask, “Who are the people that make these proposals? We are the people who live in those areas, and we should have a right to decide what kind of projects are built on our lands.”
– Berta Cáceres, writing in 1999
The assassination of Berta Cáceres in the pre-dawn hours of March 3 came as a shock to Honduras and to Latin America watchers around the world. Berta, a vibrant woman with a glowing smile, was still young — and seemed too full of life, too driven and too determined, to be cut down.
But Berta’s assassination one day before her 45th birthday, and just five days before International Women’s Day, should have been expected. Berta had received numerous death threats in recent years, as she had explained to the many media outlets that interviewed her after she received the Goldman Environmental Prize last year. She had also been subject to a campaign of harassment and persecution by the Honduran authorities, including sedition and other bogus charges leveled at her in 2013 (subsequently dropped). Not yet the recipient of such a prestigious international award, she received little international attention for her plight then.
Berta was a threat to powerful forces in Honduras, and so they threatened her. Beginning in 2013, Berta and the organization she had co-founded in the 1990s, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH) began a campaign of road blockades and other peaceful resistance to planned hydropower projects on the Gualcarque River. The project is still being pursued by Desarrollos Energeticos, SA (DESA) with foreign funding through the Central American Bank for Economic Integration and contracting from Voith-Hydro (Siemens), although the Dutch FMO development bank and FinnFund have cut ties to the project in the wake of the assassinations of Berta and another COPINH member, Nelson Garcia (who was murdered the night of March 15). The Agua Zarca dam would threaten access to water for the indigenous Lenca communities who live in the area — as well as the sacred river itself. The communities say they were not consulted about the project, in violation of international law — but the companies began to advance with it anyway.
As Berta’s quote above suggests, none of this was entirely new to her or to COPINH. From the beginning, the organization had organized successfully against various resource-extractive projects that posed a danger to the land and to traditional ways of life. DESA and the other companies were not the first to plan projects in Lenca communities like Rio Blanco without first consulting the people living there.
This is why Berta wrote in 1999 of COPINH’s struggle to show Honduras and the world that “indigenous people do exist,” as they confronted “others who only see indigenous peoples as archeological remains.”
Writing at the time of the first encuentro of what would later become the Convergencia de Movimientos de los Pueblos de las Américas (Convergence of People’s Movements of the Americas, COMPA) — when COPINH was just six years old — Berta referred repeatedly to the pressures COPINH had to exert on the government of Honduras to recognize the importance of women, of the environment, and of indigenous people and their autonomy. Pushing back against environmentally destructive development projects financed by international capital was challenging, considering the context. Honduras was a reliable ally of the U.S. government, having served as “the base for the counterrevolution in Nicaragua,” as Berta wrote.
With the government of President Manuel Zelaya, beginning in 2006, social movements and popular organizations like COPINH were able to gain some ground. Zelaya worked to help restore land to campesinoswho had been defrauded of it in previous decades, for example. But the Honduran elites weren’t prepared to relinquish their traditional control over the national agenda. In June 2009, Zelaya was overthrown in a coup, forced onto a plane at gunpoint during the night, still in his pajamas, and flown to Costa Rica (after stopping at the U.S. military base at Soto Cano, Honduras for refueling).
This was a coup backed by the Obama administration, which helped it succeed, working to prevent the democratically elected Zelaya from returning to the presidency until new elections were held in November. The elections, Hillary Clinton wrote in her memoir of this time as secretary of state, “would render the question of Zelaya moot.” (Belén Fernández, contributor to the forthcoming Verso book False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, has discovered that this passage has been removed from the paperback edition of Clinton’s book.)
Naturally, Berta resisted the coup, promptly becoming one of the most well-known faces of the resistance movement. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered protection for her the day after the coup.
The coup regime, and the government that emerged from the November 2009 elections (which, contrary to Clinton’s assertion in her book, were hardly “free and fair,” and the OAS and EU refused to even send observers) rolled back many of the gains of the Zelaya years. Poverty, economic inequality and unemployment increased, while underemployment went way up, with an increase in the number of workers receiving less than the minimum wage. Under Zelaya and his director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, Dario Araque, efforts had been made to recognize the “existence” of actual, living indigenous people — and not just the Maya people promoted as archeological mascots for a foreign tourism market. But, this quickly began to be reversed under the coup regime.
There has been political continuity since, with National Party governments elected in 2009 and 2013 (both times in elections that critics and observers cited as problematic). What Berta wrote in 1999 reads like it could have been written in 2016. The struggles she articulates, the lengths to be traversed in order to achieve equality for women, for autonomy and respect for Honduras’ indigenous population, for concern and protection of the environment, seem almost as daunting now as they were back then.
But Berta, COPINH and other groups and movements working for these goals have accomplished much, and this is why they have been targeted, with the complicity (at the very least) of the state. “We have expelled 36 big lumber companies from our area and most of them were foreign, even from the United States,” Berta wrote of COPINH’s accomplishments in 1999. She also noted: “We’ve been able to get the government to build several health centers and schools, with jobs for doctors and teachers; and to build highways and bridges.” She cited “several agreements” signed by the Honduran president and international organizations “to recognize indigenous rights.”
Since the 2009 coup, the Honduran government has found this form of people power unacceptable, with human rights activists and opponentsof the coup often targeted for attack. COPINH activists had been killed before: Berta’s colleague Tomás Garcia was shot and killed by a Honduran soldier in 2013 as he peacefully demonstrated; 15-year-old Maycol Rodriguez disappeared and was later found dead, in 2014. But, with Berta, this political repression may have reached a new level. She was the most prominent social movement activist to be cut down in Honduras since the coup.
Despite an international outcry and an unusual level of international media scrutiny, the Honduran authorities have so far treated the assassination of Cáceres like so many other targeted killings of political activists. They are using it as an opportunity to further persecute Berta’s colleagues, including of course members of COPINH, but also her long-time friend and close colleague Gustavo Castro Soto. Castro is based in Chiapas, Mexico, where he works with Otros Mundos (related to the U.S.-based Other Worlds) and Friends of the Earth Mexico. The sole witness to Berta’s murder, he himself was shot when the assassins entered Berta’s home, and left for dead. The Honduran authorities have prevented Castro from leaving Honduras — despite the efforts of the Mexican ambassador to get him on a plane — and Castro has said his life is in “extreme danger.”
In response, Berta’s family, COPINH, and scores of other organizations in Honduras as well as those allied in solidarity have called for independent participation in the investigation into the assassination — specifically through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They demand Castro’s immediate release and safe return to Mexico, and that the dam and other projects being foisted onto Lenca communities against their will be halted.
The U.S. government has been relatively quiet about Berta’s murder, considering her profile and the extent of attention it has received. The State Department signaled initially only that it would support the investigation by the Honduran authorities — still pretending that Honduras’ justice system works and that corruption and impunity do not pervade institutions at all levels. Members of Congress are working to push the State Department in a better direction, with public letters echoing the demands of Berta’s family, COPINH and the other NGOs — including, notably, Senator Patrick Leahy’s call for the Agua Zarca dam project to be halted. International campaigns have been launched against the hydropower development’s backers — including most recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has supported the project through partnerships.
This would be the best way to honor Berta and to raise the cost of any future such assassinations of environmentalists and rights activists: Ensure that the project that she ultimately gave her life fighting is stopped.
This article originally appeared on Verso Books site.