Worldview: Berta Cáceres

Let Us Wake Up, Humankind! Justice for Berta Cáceres and for All Environmental Activists Killed around the World”

By María Valeria Berros

In our worldview, we are beings who come from the Earth, from the water, and from corn. 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. COPINH (National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), walking alongside people struggling for their emancipation, validates this commitment to continue protecting our waters, the rivers, our shared resources and nature in general, as well as our rights as a people. Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We are out of time. […]

With these words Berta Cáceres opened her acceptance speech upon being awarded the Goldman Prize in April 2015 in recognition of her work and engagement as an environmental activist in Honduras. Less than a year later she was murdered in her own home. Her murder is considered a response to her leading role in defending indigenous communities and nature, especially rivers, which have a special place in the worldview of the Lenca, an important indigenous people in Honduras and eastern El Salvador. They consider themselves guardians of nature, particularly watercourses, which are currently highly desired as a natural resource that can provide energy for mining projects in the region.

Berta Cáceres. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

Berta, a Lenca woman, had a major role in stopping plans to exploit rivers by building hydroelectric dams, among them a dam construction project on the Gualcarque River. The project, known as Agua Zarca, was a joint initiative of the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos and Sinohydro, a Chinese hydropower and construction enterprise, and was supported by the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation (IFC). Sinohydro and IFC withdrew from the project at the end of 2013 due to the local resistance led by Berta and the COPINH. While this particular project is now paralyzed, others are being planned with the same objective and with the similar negative consequences for the communities, their territories, and ways of living, and for nature.

These kinds of proposals are currently the center of attention not just in Honduras but across Latin America. The increasing number of natural resource exploitation projects will have substantial impacts on local communities, in particular indigenous ones. In the case of Honduras, approximately 30 percent of the land is licensed for mining, generating a growing demand for energy. Converting watercourses has become a major objective for power production. The Agua Zarca project would have affected the Gualcarque River, which is considered sacred by the Lenca people, and yet they were not consulted about the plans. The participation of indigenous communities before the finalization of this type of project is obligatory according to international rules, in particular the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, ratified by Honduras in 1995. In the case, it was not applied by the national government.

Ancestral guardians said Berta Cáceres. She was one of them. Thanks to the resistance led by her and the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras since 2006, the dam initiative could not be started. First, a series of peaceful local actions, as well as numerous international claims to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and against the financial supporter, were organized, but it was not enough to get a response from the authorities. The plans for the project continued without giving any heed to the Lenca’s arguments against the dam or to their repeated petitions.

Assembly of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras in La Tejera, Río Blanco, Intibucá. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2013, the activists changed their strategy: they created a road blockade to stop the arrival of construction materials at the site of a plan that would violate their human rights and those of the sacred river. From this moment the tensions continued to mount, as did the violence against protesters, an aspect repeatedly denounced by the members of the community and by Berta.

The Honduran Military killed Tomas Garcia, an indigenous leader and member of the COPINH, in July 2013. He was part of a group of people blocking the road, including his son, who was seriously injured. He was not the first and he was not the last person killed during this resistance process.

Three years later Berta Cáceres was murdered. On 3 March 2016, a gunman entered her house in La Esperanza and assassinated her under circumstances that have not yet been clarified, in spite of international pressure. Several detentions, names of suspects, and the publication of blacklists and confessions have not managed to really shed light on what happened and who is truly responsible for committing this crime.

After growing up in the 1970s in Honduras, a violent period in the entire region, Berta lost her life due to the reemergence of violence today. She had been engaged from an early age with the protection of human rights, indigenous people, women and nature. In 1993 she was one of the co-founders of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, one of the central bases of the resistance to environmental destruction and protection of indigenous rights: walking alongside people struggling for their emancipation. A very risky fight in a country where more than a hundred activists for human and environmental rights were murdered between 2010 and 2015, according to information collected by the Global Witness Foundation.

From a young age Berta’s engagement was beyond question. Then she became an internationally relevant figure in environmental activism and, after her death, she is now a symbol of an urgent problem that is taking place at present: the increasing number of environmental activists who are murdered each year.

Demonstration in front of the Organization of American States. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

The Global Witness Foundation has been doing important work recording the assassination of environmental activists. For these numbers are constantly growing. The year 2015 was the worst yet: 185 killings in 16 countries, 122 of which took place in Latin America. The previous year, the number of assassinations was 116, and once again, more than 75 percent took place in Latin America, a region where agribusiness, mining, and hydroelectric dams are developing intensely and rapidly, creating enormous pressure on natural resources.

These types of projects can be identified as the main causes of the crimes against activists, not only in Latin America but also in Asia and Africa, where people are being killed for their engagement in protecting nature and human rights. The situation in the Philippines is the most serious, with a total of nearly a hundred people murdered since 2002.

The death of Berta Cáceres was a breaking point in making visible the cruel reality in many countries where the pressure to exploit the environment also includes a willingness to plan and carry out murders in order to achieve this end. Four months after Berta’s murder, with international organizations condemning her death and calling for an investigation, the body of Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía was found in a landfill in Honduras on 6 July 2016. She, too, was an environmental activist connected with the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Another woman killed while fighting for emancipation in a world where, listening to Berta’s words, we need to wake up.

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