Six months after the murder of Berta Caceres, far from forgetting, people throughout the world demanded justice and vowed to continue her organizing work in defense of land and territory locally, regionally and internationally.
Berta’s work focused on the defense of the Gualcarque River against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric plant in indigenous Lenca territory. Her battle combined resistance with the active challenge of imagining and building alternatives. She also worked to link communities and peoples fighting to protect natural resources in Honduras, in Central America and around the world.
We often remember Berta as an environmentalist—winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize–, a feminist and a human rights defender. But she was also an internationalist, firm believer that even the smallest local effort to the save land and territory has international relevance. She constantly emphasized this in her organizing, and traveled throughout the world to global forums and to meet and exchange experiences with people in foreign countries without ever losing her roots.
From La Esperanza, Honduras, she guided the construction of networks between people across America. We met through these networks as together hundreds of us worked to weave a continent-wide analysis that covered the many realities of each country, but acknowledged the common threats. U.S. foreign policies of drug war militarization under the Merida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and Plan Colombia; the Patriot Act-style anti-terrorism laws that violated the right to protest; and free trade agreements were at the center of this global analysis. In this context, we faced increasing land and resource grabs and defenders of land and territory became targets for repression.
Berta’s assassination reflects the face of the international system she fought against. She opposed the Agua Zarca project to eventually build 17 dams on her beloved river and others in the area. A new legal framework adopted immediately following the 2009 military coup d’état in the country, which was ultimately supported by the U.S. government, facilitated the project and many others like it.
The General Water Act of 2009 allows the government to grant giant private-sector concessions to the country’s water resources. At various stages, the project has received funding from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, which granted a loan to the Honduran company Energy Developments SA de CV (DESA), and capital from a Chinese company, a German company and several European development financing funds. Berta’s tragic story reveals the dynamic that exists throughout the region–to dismantle protection of the commons, allowing the entry of corporations that plunder natural resources, foment conflict with indigenous and rural peoples defending their resources and ancestral ways of life, and criminalize defenders.
Gustavo Castro, a Mexican colleague wounded in the attack by gunmen that killed Berta, puts her murder in this international context in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Diario six months after they were shot:
“What basically explains this is that governments are opening their borders to investment under the mechanisms of free trade. Large companies are vying for the land.”
Castro goes on to say, “The free trade agreements require governments to change laws to facilitate investment. If they do not, the company can sue. This analysis is not seen. One only sees the defender who comes in, is beaten up, murdered and nobody knows why. ”
Berta knew. She knew the danger she was in and why. On June 21, the newspaper The Guardian published an investigative report in which a former Honduran soldier revealed that several army units received a hit list of “objectives to eliminate” with Berta Caceres’ name on it, among others. There was much talk of the existence of such lists and death squads before this article, but no proof on the international level.
The article reported that army units specifically trained by the United States received these lists. When journalists directly asked the spokesman for the State Department, he said he had “no credible evidence” of the existence of such lists, ignoring the first-hand testimony discovered by The Guardian and refusing to assume any commitment to investigate serious allegations that have implications under the laws of the US foreign aid. Of the four people arrested in Berta’s assassination, one is an active military officer, another is former military and one is from the company DESA. Missing are the masterminds of the crime.
As journalists insisted on an explanation, John Kirby, the State Department spokesperson, went to the absurd extreme of denying that they had any evidence of serious human rights violations by the Honduran security forces at all. Numerous international news articles and reports including the United Nations and a report of the State Department itself, document violations by the Honduran army, police and military police.
That the U.S. government continue to aid and train Honduran security forces is strategically important for some very powerful interests. First, by all accounts Special Forces are being used to confront and attack communities that oppose large-scale energy, agribusiness and tourism projects on their lands. Second, the funding increases U.S. presence in a country that has become (again) the beachhead for launching new systems of resource exploitation and social control, such as the “model cities” that grant access to public resources and self-government to corporations, and forms of selective repression against opposition. Finally, funding for Honduran police and armed forces means juicy contracts for U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, private security companies, and arms and equipment manufacturers, which consequently lobby for furthering the aid.
This has led to a fierce debate in Washington. Honduran organizations, including the nearly 50 human rights groups that make up the Coalition Against Impunity, demand an immediate halt to U.S. aid to corrupt and abusive Honduran security forces. U.S. human rights and solidarity organizations in the Mesoamerican Working Group, of which we form part, have joined the Hondurans in pressing Congress for suspension of aid.
More than 30 congressional representatives recently introduced the “Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act” demanding the suspension of all funding to Honduran security forces until Berta Caceres’ murder and other crimes and violations committed by security forces are investigated and prosecuted, the Honduran military withdraws from domestic policing as stipulated in the constitution, real steps to end impunity are taken and lands rights and other human rights defenders are protected.
At the same time, NGOs, defense companies and other members of Congress—some directly linked to those receiving contracts—are pressing to increase aid to the government of Juan Orlando Hernández, whom they recently received in Washington with accolades as he strives to improve his image. They claim that the presence of the United States supports strengthening institutions and respect for human rights, despite evidence to the contrary. But none of the major human rights organizations in the country agrees. Instead they view continued support for the Honduran government as perpetuating the current situation of abuse and impunity.
Berta understood that she was taking on international forces in her fight to protect the sacred river of the Lenca people, and that the only way to succeed would be to form a global resistance. The worldwide recognition she gained reflected her painstaking work to build international solidarity with Honduras, but also to recognize the links between the issues–against militarization, against land grabs, for indigenous rights and for the rights of women—in all parts of the world.
In this sense, Berta was not a symbol. She was, and remains in absentia, an effective grassroots leader, a flesh-and-blood woman, of laughter and tears. She is also not a martyr. She did not choose to die; she wanted to live. But she couldn’t live her life without defending the earth and her place on it.
Now, after six months of feeling her physical absence, the linking of issues and organizations she promoted is finally taking place in the newly formed Social and Popular Movement Platform of Honduras and the Berta Caceres Honduran People’s Coalition, both promoted by her organization: the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). On the six-month anniversary if her death, the hundreds of demonstrations and international solidarity events are the fruits of her work in life. The demonstrations united in demanding cancellation of the Agua Zarca project, a full and independent investigation into Berta’s murder and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in defense of their land and territory.
Even truth and justice cannot revive Berta Caceres. However, to fight for them is the only fitting tribute we can give her. Those of us who learned from her, who were inspired by her, and who fought alongside her—in Honduras or abroad—owe this, at least, to her memory and her legacy.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Mexico City-based Americas Program. This column originally appeared in Spanish in Desinformémonos.
Photo: Daysi Flores