On International Women’s Day 2016 we mourn the loss of Berta Cáceres, a truly heroic environmental organizer. On March 3rd she was gunned down in her hometown of La Esperanza, Intibuca in Honduras. Her assassins are still at large and unlikely to ever be brought to justice.
Berta was an indigenous woman who championed land and resource rights. In 1993 she co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). She was a dedicated protector of the natural world who bravely stood up to powerful corporations, corrupt governments and police with ties to death squads.
This powerful Lenca women challenged Sinohydro (the world’s largest dam builder), and the World Bank and succeeded in stopping the Agua Zarca Dam from being built. For this and other accomplishments, Berta was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
In an interview with The Guardian after she won the award, Berta vowed to keep fighting and she urged others to join her:
“We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action,”
Berta was repeatedly threatened yet she was undeterred by the risks to her personal safety. She persisted knowing all too well just how dangerous it was to speak truth to power in Honduras. Berta’s friend and fellow COPINH leader Tomás García was killed by a military officer in 2013.
A 2014 Human Rights report sites corruption, intimidation, a weak justice system and killings committed by security forces as some of the issues in Honduras. There have reportedly been over 10,000 human rights violations by state security forces and the nation is the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists. According to Global Witness, more environmentalist activists are killed in Honduras than in any other nation on earth except Brazil. Between 2002 and 2014, 111 environmental activists were killed in Honduras, many of whom were indigenous people.
The United Nations special rapporteur for indigenous rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said:
“This shows the high level of impunity in Honduras. Beyond the high homicide levels in society, there is a clear tendency for indigenous campaigners and human rights activists to be killed.”
The killing of environmentalists in Honduras continued in 2015 and into 2016. If the past is any indication of the future, almost all of these murders will go unpunished.
Honduras may be among the worst countries for extra-judicial killings of environmentalists, but Brazil is the worst with 457 killings between 2002 and 2014. There are also many other countries that persecute environmentalists. In places like Peru and Cambodia environmentalists are routinely murdered or silenced by the courts.
It is assumed that Berta’s murder was connected to the COPINH protests in defense of the River Gualcarque and against the construction of a hydroelectric project by a Honduran company called DESA.
Since the military coup of 2009, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of mining operations this has resulted in a significant spike in energy demand which led the government to approve hundreds of dams. These dams destroy the land, poison the waterways and uproot entire communities. Those who challenge this authority risk being eliminated by a Honduran death squad.
There is complicity at all levels. Police told local reporters that the motive for Berta’s murder was a robbery.
People know better and they are demanding an independent international investigation. They are also vowing to continue the struggle to honor Berta.
Thousands of Berta’s supporters gathered in front of her home yesterday to pay their last respects. According to Democracy Now, one of those present said:
saying goodbye to her for the last time, but the truth is that Berta
hasn’t died. Berta lives on in our hearts. They haven’t actually killed
Berta; they haven’t killed her. Berta is a seed that we’ve been left
with. For us, that seed will germinate day after day, and we, as women,
will continue the fight. We are not scared.”
David Gordon, executive director of the Goldman Prize, said:
“Berta’s bravery in the face of overwhelming repression will be a rallying call for environmental activism in Honduras.”
A powerful comment on the original Guardian said:
“It is not enough to be sorry for her friends and family — we need to think of ways large and small to step into the vacancy left by her murder. We need numbers to begin to make a dent in the arrogance that brings someone to believe that they can kill someone who stands in their way for more profit and power.”
In this video, Berta makes a prophetic speech as she receives the Goldman Prize. She pledges her life to the cause and calls us to join her in defense of the earth and its resources. Reviewing the tremendous arc of Berta’s life we are pulled by the gravity of the realization that if we fail to act we are complicit in the murder.
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