Hondurans honoring Berta Cáceres in 2016. Her actions inspire many to continue her fight for human rights and the environment even as it puts their lives at risk.
In the deadliest country for environmental activists, Berta Cáceres did not back down when powerful interests sought to dam a river considered sacred to her people, the Lenca.
Under the leadership of the seasoned activist, the Lenca, one of Honduras’ largest native groups, succeeding in forcing the world’s biggest dam builder to abandon its plan to build the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River. It was a victory that earned Cáceres international acclaim, but also the ire of the project’s influential backers.
For this, and her many other crusades against government corruption and plundering corporations, Cáceres paid the ultimate price. In early March of 2016, a gunman entered the activist’s home in the dead of night and took her life in a still unsolved murder that sparked international outrage.
Cáceres has since become a martyr, her name a rallying cry for activists all over the world, from Honduras to Bolivia to Standing Rock.
To commemorate her life and legacy, hundreds of people from across the globe gathered last week in Cáceres's hometown of La Esperanza, Honduras. Hundreds more marched in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, protesting the ongoing political repression of activists and resource extraction that some say has only intensified since Cáceres's assassination.
Since 2010, more than 120 people in Honduras have been killed for defending their environment, according to Global Witness. At least seven, including comrades of Cáceres, have been murdered in the year after her assassination.
Yet Cáceres’ organization, COPINH, which stands for the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, remains active.
Through a combination of grassroots organizing and public demonstrations, and helped by strong ties with foreign NGOs such as Amnesty International and Global Witness, COPINH continues to battle the extraction of timber and other natural resources and other attempts to exploit the nation’s abundant hydropower potential—projects that often damage the land and livelihoods of indigenous and African-descended campesinos.
“Our victories are few and far between, but they’re significant,” said Silvio Carrillo, Cáceres's nephew and a freelance journalist, speaking to The Progressive from La Esperanza. He lives in California but has remained active in lobbying for justice in his aunt’s case.
“Our victories are few and far between, but they’re significant.”
There have been recent developments in the investigation into Cáceres's murder. The Guardian recently reported that three of the eight suspects arrested for her murder were elite U.S.-trained military officers, both active and retired. According to court documents, one retired officer received instruction at the School of the Americas (now called WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Georgia, which for decades trained hundreds of Latin American officers who later committed human rights abuses.
One of the three suspects with military ties previously worked as head of security for Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company behind the Agua Zarca dam. A fourth suspect was a manager of the dam project.
But Berta’s family points to new evidence unearthed by The Guardian that confirms its long-held suspicion that her assassination was orchestrated at the highest levels of government.
Despite the international spotlight, not much has changed politically since Cáceres's murder. The current Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is poised to run for reelection after a widely controversial change to the constitution loosened term limits. His victory would ensure the continuity of rightwing rule, which since 2010 has licensed hundreds of projects to domestic and foreign corporation, and at least fifty concessions, most of them dams, on Lenca territory.
Construction on the Agua Zarca dam stalled amid a loss of funding due to Cáceres's murder, but DESA is pushing to continue the project. And throughout the country several hydroelectric dams are currently under construction.
One of these is the Los Encinos hydropower project, controlled by the family of Gladis Aurora Lopez, the president of Honduras’ ruling party and one of the country’s most powerful politicians.
Three indigenous activists who opposed that project have been killed. In late February, legislators introduced a bill to further criminalize anti-government protest, raising the definition of such actions to terrorism.
At the age of nineteen, Cáceres co-founded COPINH, which over the years grew to encompass 240 Lenca communities. According to her nephew Carrillo, she was inspired by her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, who served her own town as a midwife and was privy to the private and public sufferings of the people, including extreme poverty and land grabs by powerful business interests. Flores López later became a two-term mayor of her hometown of La Esperanza, as well as a congresswoman and governor.
Beverly Bell, a North American activist involved with human rights in Honduras for nearly two decades, said Cáceres's values as an activist were infused by her values as a Lenca woman.
“Part of Berta’s brilliance was to take the values that have always been implicit in indigenous people and to bring them forward and turn them into political tools for justice, for respect of human rights, for respect of indigenous rights, for respect of mother earth, of women, children, elders, and gay people,” Bell told The Progressive.
“Part of Berta’s brilliance was to take the values that have always been implicit in indigenous people and to bring them forward and turn them into political tools for justice, for respect of human rights, for respect of indigenous rights, for respect of mother earth, of women, children, elders, and gay people.”
It was her ability to bring together people from many different marginalized groups that was key to her success as a social and political leader, said Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies human rights in Honduras.
“She was a national leader on many fronts, part of this broad coalition,” Frank told The Progressive. “She unified activists from all these different sectors.”
An array of YouTube videos reveal Cáceres as a charismatic but direct speaker, concerned with the suffering of others and the intransigence of those in power.
“Mother earth—militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, where fundamental rights are systematically violated—demands we act,” she said in her acceptance speech for the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015. “Let’s construct societies that are capable of coexisting righteously, dignified and for life. Let’s get together and continue with hope, defending and guarding the blood of the earth and its spirits.”
Cáceres's activism against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam began in April of 2013, when she organized a community roadblock to prevent access to construction site on Lenca land. The threats and physical violence that followed did not deter Caceres and other defenders of the Gualcarque River.
After the company revised its plans, shifting the dam off indigenous farm land to the opposite river bank, the activists persisted. The threats on Cáceres’ life mounted. An alleged hitman with links to DESA walked around bragging how he would kill her.
When Cáceres and other members of COPINH met with American lawmakers in Washington, D.C., in late 2015 to convince them to drop support for the Honduran government, the bullseye on her back grew. Ten people in her organization had already been killed with impunity, she told CNN en Espanol at the time.
One of the lawmakers she met on that trip was Congressman Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia. In an interview with The Progressive, Johnson said he had been impressed by Cáceres, calling her a “very kind, warm-hearted woman, but a woman of determination, of great courage.”
When it became clear the State Department would not adjust its policy on Honduras, Johnson introduced the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act in June 2016. The bill called for a suspension of all military aid to Honduras until the country addressed its human rights violations. Last year, the U.S. provided $18 million of support to military and police, the largest contribution of any foreign country.
On March 2, the anniversary of her murder, Johnson reintroduced the bill, and vowed to continue to press the issue.
“We have a moral responsibility to make sure our money is not being spent to promote violence against human rights activists,” Johnson said. “That’s what’s happening in Honduras, that’s what’s been happening for years.”
“We have a moral responsibility to make sure our money is not being spent to promote violence against human rights activists. That’s what’s happening in Honduras; that’s what’s been happening for years.”
Cáceres also led the fight against “charter cities” in Honduras, which would be essentially autonomous free-trade zones governed by corporations. The brainchild of American economists, charter cities, also known as “model cities,” were authorized in a 2013 law but have not yet been implemented.
For Cáceres, charter cities were part of a wide pattern of exploitation by American multinational corporations, accompanied by the increasing militarization of the Honduran government.
“We’re in that phase of more aggression, a deepening of transnationalization, all with laws being made and changed to that tune, no matter the costs,” Cáceres said in a 2013 interview. “That project of domination, exploitation, and privatization is accompanied by the process of militarization, in which Honduras continues to be a lab experiment for the Americans.”
One of the ways COPINH keeps attention on Cáceres legacy and the plight of activists in Honduras is with periodic trips to the United States. Her youngest daughter, Laura Zuniga Cáceres, accompanied by dozens of Honduran and American activists, traveled to the Republican and Democratic Conventions this past summer, demonstrating outside of both.
It was at a meeting hall outside the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia that I heard Laura speak. Dressed in a flowing white dress, with a determination and clarity that belied her age, twenty-three, she addressed a packed audience of several hundred people about the role the U.S. government played in Honduras’ destabilization. This included Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State lent her support to President Zelaya’s ouster in the 2009 military coup.
Laura also spoke about the stymied investigation into her mother’s death, and the continued killing of activists in her country.
Earlier in the day, dozens of COPINH members and allies had marched from Philadelphia’s City Hall to the convention center, chanting and waving posters and giant paper mache cutouts of her mother.
One chant stood out, a reminder that Cáceres was one person who has moved thousands, a single life turned into countless calls for justice.
“Berta no murió. Se multiplicó.”
Berta didn’t die. She multiplied.