Memory of Bertha Caceres and Other Martyrs Inspires Demands for Environmental Justice

By  |  27 / March / 2017

The anniversary March 2 of Honduran indigenous environmental and human rights activist Bertha Caceres’ violent death at the hands of assassins focused attention on the sad-but-true fact that the henchmen of the transnational kleptocracy are at the top of their game.

When Caceres took a lethal bullet in her home in 2016, she was coordinating the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), of which she was a founder. Her leadership in the fight to prevent the Agua Zarca Dam made her one of 123 Hondurans murdered since 2010 for standing up against corrupt usurpation of ancestral habitat both sacred and necessary for the survival of indigenous communities.

While eight fall-guys have been fingered to take the blame for offing her, no culprit has been brought to the fore. The international outcry over the injustice has resulted in a study naming Honduras the world’s deadliest country in which to be a water protector or a land defender.

The findings of the two-year study by Global Witness throw into relief the militarily backed lethal collusion between government and corporate stooges not only in forcing megaprojects on Honduras, but also in trampling indigenous resistance to extractive industries throughout the hemisphere.

Its recommendations for bringing U.S. policy pressure to bear beginning with Honduras are noteworthy, while likely to fall on deaf ears in the Administration of newly installed President Donald Trump, who is busy beating back domestic indigenous opposition to his pet U.S. petroleum pipeline projects, Dakota Access and Keystone XL.

“Our investigations reveal how Honduras’ political and business elites are using corrupt and criminal means to cash in on the country’s natural wealth, and are enlisting the support of state forces to murder and terrorize the communities who dare to stand in their way,” said Global Witness campaign leader Billy Kyte in releasing the study on Jan. 31.

The study notes impunity and lack of accountability. Chief among relevant examples is the case of Gladis Aurora López, vice-president of Honduras’ Congress, president of ruling National Party and wife of Arnold Gustavo Castro. She denies any involvement in deals with her husband, who controls the planned Los Encinos hydropower project in which the dismembered bodies of three indigenous opponents were found with evidence of torture.

“We were evicted by a squadron of around 15 police, accompanied by a group of civilians. They destroyed our crops, they burnt our food. They left us completely on the street – a community robbed of everything,” said Roberto Gomez, an indigenous activist who has vocally opposed Los Encinos.

As if that weren’t enough, says Kyte, “We have documented countless chilling attacks and threats, including the savage beating by soldiers of pregnant women, children held at gunpoint by police, arson attacks on villagers’ homes, and hired assassins who still wander free among their victims’ communities.”

The United States, meanwhile, continues to pump money into Honduran military and industry, despite concerns raised in the U.S. Congress about the Central American country’s dubious human rights record.

The U.S. embassy has been promoting ramped-up foreign participation in Honduras’ extractive industries, for instance, with U.S. mining giant Electrum planning a $1-billion investment.

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Main Recommendations from Global Witness Report: 

Honduran, foreign state, and business actors currently contribute to attacks against land and environmental activists. Concerted action is needed by all actors and the following recommendations must be prioritized:

  • The Honduran government must prioritize the protection of land and environmental defenders, properly resource the new protection system and implement emergency measures.
  • The Honduran government, police and judiciary must bring the perpetrators of crimes against these activists to justice, and end the corruption behind abusive business projects.
  • The Honduran government must work with civil society to strengthen and implement laws that guarantee the consent of indigenous communities before projects are given the green light.
  • The United States must review its aid and investment policy to Honduras in order to ensure activists are better protected, crimes against them are prosecuted and communities are consulted before business projects go ahead.
  • Foreign investors and international financial institutions should stop any planned investments in the industries causing the violence – mining, dams, logging, tourism and large-scale agricultural projects.

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Last year, tens of millions of U.S. aid dollars were directed to the Honduran police and military, both of which are heavily implicated in violence against land and environmental activists, Global Witness says.

“As Honduras’ biggest aid donor, the U.S. should help bring an end to the bloody crackdown on Honduras’ rural population,” Kyte said.

“Instead it is bankrolling Honduran state forces, which are behind some of the worst attacks. The incoming U.S. administration must urgently address this paradox, which is fueling, not reducing, insecurity across the country.”

That, however, is not about to happen unless activists continue to build on the movement for environmental justice inspired by Caceres and others like one of the latest victims, Mexico’s late indigenous leader Isidro Baldenegro, who like Caceres was an internationally recognized Goldman Environmental Prize recipient for grassroots organizing.

On March 2, the Global Day of International Direct Action helped keep the memory alive and light the way for continued activism. The event was initiated by Copinh and amplified by the media outlet Abya Ayala as part of the Intra-Continental Solidarity with all Water Defender Nations of Mother Earth.

Caceres’ memory must be invoked along with that of dozens of other martyrs for the defense of the sanctity of all living beings, as the cross-boundary struggle builds to reinstate indigenous primacy in the protection of land tenure rights, biological diversity, habitat, food and water security, and the balance of nature.

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