The world has lost a remarkable woman leader. Berta Cáceres, a 44-year-old Honduran Lenca woman & indigenous & environmental rights activist was murdered last Wednesday when several gunman broke down the door where she was staying & shot her dead while she was sleeping. We should take more than a moment to honor her considerable contributions & courageous defiance of powerful multinational interests in defense of indigenous rights & environmental integrity.
After the 2009 US-backed coup in Honduras, the government confiscated 30 percent of the country for mining projects, approving hundreds of dams & privatizing indigenous lands & natural resources without the consent of the communities. Hundreds of journalists, trade unionists, human rights & environmental activists who opposed this have been assassinated. Since the coup, more than 100 environmental activists have been gunned down by police or assassins associated with the regime or corporations involved in the dams.
Police are investigating the murder of Cáceres as a botched robbery but she has been living under siege since she became a student activist in the early 90s. She lived with constant death threats for fearless crusades against the expropriation & destruction of indigenous lands. She is best known & honored as the co-founder of the Council of Popular & Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a social & political organization. COPINH organized the Lenca community in a ten year battle against the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project between a Honduran company & Sinohydro, a Chinese company & the largest hydro-dam developer in the world. The World Bank, a Dutch bank, & Finnish & German companies were also involved. Cáceres was going up against the most powerful neoliberal forces in the world.
The dam project involving the building of four giant dams was to provide energy for mining operations which would destroy the environment & would also have cut off the water supply of the Gualcarque River, a waterway the Lenca people depend on for their livelihood, use for food & medicinal plants, & which they consider sacred because it is inhabited by female spirits. For over a year, COPINH maintained blockades of protesters to prevent access to the site. The government deployed troops to remove them & in 2013 a leader of the organization was shot dead by soldiers.
The protests caused Sinohydro to eventually withdraw from the project citing community opposition. But the Honduran company involved continued with the dam project & rallied Honduran business interests to their cause against Cáceres. At one point, criminal charges were filed against her for carrying an unlicensed weapon (which she said had been planted on her by soldiers at a roadblock) & then she was charged for incitement.
The Honduran company resumed construction on the dam last fall, moving to the other side of the river to avoid the blockades set up by COPINH activists.
One can imagine the fury of the financial interests at the defiance & effectiveness of this remarkable activist. In accepting a prestigious honorific last year for her environmental work, she said, “They follow me & threaten to kidnap & kill me. They threaten my family. This is what we have to face.” Two of her children had to leave Honduras in fear for their lives.
Her 84-year-old mother Berta Flores, was a midwife & social activist who took in & cared for refugees from the El Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s. The El Salvadoran regime used death squads, disappearances, mass murders, child soldiers in a conflict bankrolled by the Carter & Reagan regimes in the US. Berta inspired her daughter Bertita (an affectionate nickname in Spanish) to also stand up for the oppressed. Since Bertita was murdered just one week after being threatened for opposing the hydroelectric project, her mother says there is no doubt she was murdered because of that campaign & she holds the government, military, & multinational enterprises responsible.
We cannot say strongly enough how much we honor the life & work of
Bertita Cáceres. Her assassination has ignited student protests in Honduras & will weaken but not stop the work she began. It also exposes neoliberalism as the modern form of colonialism & the barbaric phase of capitalism.
Photo is Berta Cáceres. May she Rest in Peace.
(Photo from the Guardian)