Murder of Environmental Activist Berta Cáceres, Political Crime
Regent’s Canal, London
La Jornada: Ignacio Ramonet
She called herself Berta. Berta Cáceres. March 4, 2015, would have been her 43rd birthday. They killed her on the eve of her birthday. In Honduras. For being an environmentalist. For being insubordinate. For defending nature. For opposing the extractive multinational corporations. For reclaiming the ancestral rights of the Lenca, her indigenous people.
At the age of 20, as a college student, Berta had founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which today brings together some 200 original communities and has become the most aggressive environmental movement. The Honduran regime, born of a coup, has ceded 30 percent of the national territory to transnational mining and hydroelectric corporations. Dozens of megadams are under construction, and more than 300 extractivist companies plunder the territory through government corruption. But COPINH has managed to stop the construction of dams, halt deforestation projects, freeze mining operations, prevent destruction of sacred sites and obtain restitution for the despoiled lands of Indigenous communities.
So it is that in the predawn hours of March 3, as she slept, two hitmen of a death squad entered her house in the city of La Esperanza and murdered Berta Cáceres.
This is a political crime. In June 2009, the constitutional president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown by a coup—which Berta protested with unprecedented courage, leading demonstrations against members of the coup. Since then this country has become one of the most violent in the world and a paradise for the predatory big transnationals and criminal organizations. In this context, the regime of Juan Orlando Hernández and the Honduran oligarchy continue to murder with impunity those who oppose their abuse.
In the last seven years dozens of campesino leaders, union leaders, social movement activists, human rights activists, rebel journalists, educators and environmentalists have been killed with impunity. Nothing is investigated, nothing is explained. No one is punished. And the mainstream international media, so willing to raise hue and cry at the least slip that might be committed in Venezuela, hardly mentions this horror and barbarism.
The same day that Berta Cáceres was murdered, the non-governmental organization Global Witness, London, reported that Honduras
"is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists."
Of the 116 murders of environmentalists who were on the planet in 2015, almost three-quarters took place in Latin America—the majority in Honduras, one of the continent’s poorest countries.
In 2015 Berta Cáceres received the most prestigious international environmental award, the Goldman Prize, the Green Nobel, for her resistance to construction of a hydroelectric megadam that threatens to expel thousands of Indigenous people from their land. With her bold struggle, Berta got the state-owned Chinese company Sinohydro—the largest builder of hydroelectric dams on the planet and an enterprise linked to the World Bank—to back down and withdraw their involvement in construction of the Agua Zarca dam, on the Gualcarque River, a branch of the river sacred to the Lenca in the Sierra of Puca Opalaca. Mobilized by Berta and COPINH, the Indigenous communities blocked construction access for over a year … And they got some of the world’s most powerful business and financial interests to give up their involvement in the project. This victory was also the most direct cause of Berta’s murder.
Propelled by the Honduran company Development Energies SA, with financial support from the Honduran Commercial Finance Bank SA, which received funds from the World Bank, the construction of the Agua Zarca megadam began in 2010. The project relied on financial support from the Central American Economic Investment Bank and two European financial institutions: the Dutch development bank, Nederlandse Maatschappij voor Ontwikkelingslanden Financierings-NV, and the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation. It is also involved the German company Voith Hydro Holding GmbH & Co. KG, contracted to construct turbines. All these companies have responsibility for the murder of Berta Cáceres. They cannot wash their hands.
They cannot wash their hands because both environmentalists and the Lenca people are defending a legitimate right. They denounce the violation of Convention 169 "concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples" of the International Labour Organization, signed by Honduras in 1995. There has been no free and informed prior consultation of persons affected by the megadam, as also required by the Declaration of the United Nations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).
Berta knew she was a woman marked to die. She had been threatened on numerous occasions. She was in the crosshairs of the death squads, hitmen for Honduran bosses. But she used to say:
"They don’t scare us, because we are not afraid of them."
When she received the Goldman Prize, they asked her if this award could be a protective shield, and replied:
"The government tries to link the murders of environmental defenders with common violence, but there is sufficient evidence to show that there is a planned and financed policy to criminalize the struggle of social movements. I hope I’m wrong, but I think that instead of decreasing, the persecution against activists is going to intensify."
She was not wrong.
The Agua Zarca dam is still under construction. And those who oppose it are still being unceremoniously murdered, as just happened—10 days after Berta’s murder—to Honduran environmental leader Nelson García.
The same people who killed Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Romero and Chico Mendes also cut short the life of Berta Cáceres, marvellous flower of the Honduran countryside. But they will not silence her struggle. As Pablo Neruda says:
"They can cut all the flowers, but they cannot stop the spring from coming."
Translated by Jane Brundage