Archive for March, 2016

A Martyr of ‘Laudato Si’?

The indigenous spirituality of assassinated activist Berta Cáceres

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By Betsy Shirley 03-18-2016

Less than two weeks after the March 3 murder of acclaimed indigenous Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, Nelson García, another Honduran activist, was murdered outside his home. Both García and Cáceres were members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the indigenous rights organization Cáceres co-founded.

Though Honduran police have claimed Cáceres’ murder was the result of an attempted robbery, many believe it was a political assassination, intended to silence her. Cáceres’ family, along with more than 200 human rights organizations and now the Holy See, are calling for an independent international investigation into the crime.

“I want to express my desire that there be an independent and impartial investigation into what happened in order to resolve this horrendous crime as soon as possible,” wrote Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a letter addressed to Cáceres’ family and friends.

For those closest to Cáceres, it’s a small but encouraging sign.

“It’s justifying what we’ve all been saying: that Bertita’s had a profound effect around the world,” Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, told Sojourners.

And, by some measures, that legacy can be found everywhere from remote villages in Honduras to papal encyclicals.

“I am vulnerable”

Berta Cáceres knew persistence was dangerous.

“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,” she said on April 20, 2015, after accepting the Goldman Prize for her leadership in a nonviolent campaign that pressured the world’s largest hydroelectric company to withdraw from the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River.

That same day, an international organization that monitors environmental abuse reported that Honduras is “the deadliest country in the world to defend the natural world.” According to the Global Witness report, at least 109 environmental activists were killed there between 2010 and 2015. Cáceres herself had received death threats for more than a decade, and her colleague, Tomás García, was shot by a military officer in 2013. Later that year, Cáceres told Al-Jazeera, “I take lots of care but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable…when they want to kill me, they will do it.”

The deadly environment for activists is closely tied to recent Honduran history. Following the 2009 coup, in which democratically elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, the new government declared Honduras “open for business” and granted profitable contracts to transnational companies looking to capitalize on Honduran natural resources — including resources on indigenous land. When leaders like Cáceres demanded the rights guaranteed to indigenous people by the U.N and the International Labor Convention — including the right to determine how indigenous land is used — it wasn’t great for business. The death threats followed.

Cáceres’ words about “giving our lives” not only underscore her persistence and courage but also her deeply rooted indigenous spirituality — an understanding that the well-being of humanity depends on the well-being of the earth.

“When we started the fight for Rio Blanco, I would go into the river and I could feel what the river was telling me,” Cáceres said in 2015.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I also knew we were going to triumph, because the river told me so.”

Image via Goldman Environmental Prize.

The spirituality of resistance

According to the Lenca creation story, when the first man began to clear land to grow maize, the trees bled and cried out against him. God then instructed the man to perform a compostura, “during which the man should sacrifice domestic animals to God and the earth to ask forgiveness for the violence he was about to do.”

Today, the Lenca people live in eastern El Salvador and western Honduras. But according to David Escobar, a Salvadoran Lenca and indigenous activist based in California, the concept of compostura remains an essential part of Lenca culture.

“‘Permission-giving’ is a common value that is still practiced today among the Lencas of Honduras and El Salvador,” he explained.

Consequently, when heavy machinery arrived on the Gualcarque River in 2011 to begin constructing a dam, without the permission of the Lenca people, the Lenca viewed it not only as the destruction of their livelihood and water supply, but also as the destruction of a sacred site and complete disregard for their indigenous rights.

So with the help of Cáceres and COPINH, the Lenca people fought back: On April 1, 2013, members of the Lenca community created a human road block to the construction site. They held out for 21 months.

As part of their defense, the Lenca people made traditional composturas, offering food and drink to the earth and asking the spirits of the earth, water, and sun for protection as they worked for justice. They also engaged the indigenous tradition of caminata, walking as a community to the dam headquarters while offering prayers or incense.

Cáceres identified these actions as a major turning point in halting construction on the Agua Zarca dam.

“In our fight to protect the Gualcarque River, the most powerful element has been the Lenca people’s spirituality and an impressive tenacity in the struggle that continues to this day,” she said.

Photo of Berta Caceres as a young child. Image via Betsy Shirley/Sojourners.

“Forgive me!”

Shortly after Berta Cáceres was murdered, Fr. Moreno Coto, a Jesuit priest known in Honduras as “Padre Melo,” wrote a note expressing “pain and rage” at the death of someone he called a “friend” and “sister.”

“We had a particular history of close friendship and common struggle,” he said.

A few days later, with the help of Fr. Fausto Milla, a diocesan priest who was another of Cáceres’ closest allies, Padre Melo conducted Cáceres’ funeral.

Cáceres, like many Lenca people, was raised Catholic, but she herself identified most closely with the practices and beliefs of her indigenous heritage. Though Cáceres had the support of local leaders like Frs. Coto and Milla, Carrillo said his aunt had a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church.

“Certain parts of the Catholic Church have not done well by the indigenous population there,” explained Carrillo.

For Cáceres, this complicated relationship included ongoing legacy of colonization by Spanish Catholics — which, by conservative estimates, cut the indigenous population in half — as well as Cáceres’ ongoing struggle with the Honduran hierarchy. According to Cáceres, Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez instructed churchgoers not to work with COPINH or listen to radio stations that were too critical of the Honduran state. Throughout his tenure as archbishop, Cardinal Rodríguez has also been accused of endorsing the 2009 military coup by reading “a statement on national television that seemed to bless the action.” The cardinal has denied these claims.

Cardinal Rodríguez’s feelings about Cáceres seem unchanged by her murder. Carrillo told Sojourners that although someone from the apostolic nunciature in Buenos Aires — the Holy See’s embassy in Argentina — had called Cáceres’ mother, offering condolences on behalf of the pope, no one in his family had heard from the highest-ranking Catholic in Honduras.

Jenny Atlee, who has worked on human rights issues in Central America for more than three decades, confirmed that Cardinal Rodríguez had made “disparaging remarks” about Cáceres and COPINH. But Atlee also noted that the discrepancy between the hierarchy and grassroots of the church wasn’t unusual.

“There’s a real gap between those two positions … with the top levels of the Catholic church being very allied with the powers that be … and another layer of church which is more rooted in the lives and struggles of the poor and accompany those struggles and interpret and reflect on scripture from that reality,” she said.

Image via Goldman Environmental Prize.

A martyr of Laudato Si?

But when it comes to the powers that be vs. the poor, at least one person on top level of the church seem to be squarely on the side of the latter: Pope Francis.

In 2014, Cáceres met Pope Francis at the first World Meeting of Popular Movements at the Vatican. During that meeting, the pontiff assured delegates that their concerns — a desire to have “land, housing, and work” — would have a place in his then-forthcoming encyclical on the environment.

And the Holy Father delivered,

“It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions,” he wrote in the fourth chapter of Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, his 2015 encyclical. He also acknowledged that “agricultural or mining projects” posed a serious threat to the survival of indigenous people.

Even the broader themes of Laudato Si sound like the interconnected worldview of indigenous spirituality that was so central to Cáceres’ work.

“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” wrote Pope Francis.

“It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Following Cáceres’ death, one Italian newspaper hailed her as “a martyr of Laudato Si.” Jenny Atlee, who knew Cáceres for more than 20 years, pointed out that while that descriptor might be accurate, the Lenca woman should also be viewed as part of the “long, ongoing history of violence and genocide against indigenous people.”

Perhaps the best suggestion for how we memorialize Cáceres comes from Naomi Klein, a secular activist who was invited to discuss Laudato Si at the Vatican.

“Particularly in Latin America, with its large indigenous populations, Catholicism wasn’t able to fully displace cosmologies that centered on a living and sacred Earth, and the result was often a Church that fused Christian and indigenous world views,” she wrote in the New Yorker.

“With Laudato Si’, that fusion has finally reached the highest echelons of the Church.”

As Klein points out, the lines of influence flow from indigenous spirituality to the encyclical, not the other way around.

Or more to the point: Berta Cáceres is not a martyr in the tradition of Laudato Si. Laudato Si is an encyclical echoing what indigenous leaders like Cáceres have been saying for centuries.

Betsy Shirley

Betsy Shirley (@betsyshirley) is Assistant Editor at Sojourners.

A few numbers begin to reveal why Honduran indigenous leader and global movement luminary, Berta Cáceres, was assassinated on March 3, 2016.

According to the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), more than 300 hydroelectric dams are planned for Honduras, of which 49 are on COPINH lands. Eight hundred seventy-two contracts have been handed out to corporations for mining alone, with many others created for mega-tourism, wind energy, and logging projects. The majority of these are planned for indigenous lands. Of those, all are in violation of International Labor Organization Convention 169, to which Honduras is a signatory, allowing free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous peoples before development may take place in their territories.

The many planned extraction projects – in a country slightly larger than the state of Virginia – add up to the need of the Honduran and US governments to subjugate the population. Quiescence and compliance are essential for the national elite and multinational corporations to make their profits. So here are a few more relevant numbers. Honduras has 12,000 soldiers – one for every 717 people, for a county not expected to go to war. Its 2013 “defense” budget was $230 million. Since 2009, the US has invested as much as $45 million in construction funds for just one of those bases, Soto Cano, commonly known as Palmerola. Last year, US taxpayers footed $5.25 million in direct military aid, and much more in training for 164 soldiers at the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Operation. Three hundred seventy-two US military personnel are in the country.

Given that state control is often attained through violence, a few more figures become relevant. One hundred one environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2014, making it the most dangerous country anywhere in which to try to defend the Earth.

Nine land defenders were attacked just yesterday, March 15, between the time we began writing this article and when we completed it. COPINH member Nelson Garcia, who had been helping recover lands on Rio Lindo, was assassinated in his home on March 15 while the Rio Lindo community was forcibly evicted.  This brings to 14 the number of COPINH members who have been murdered since the group was founded in 1993. A member of COPINH’s coordinating committee, Sotero Echeverria, was threatened with capture by police. Echeverria is one of the 3 members of the group who have been framed by the government for Berta’s murder.

Also yesterday, early in the morning, police agents arrested 7 members of United Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MUCA by its Spanish acronym), including the president, Jose Angel Flores. Flores and six other MUCA activists, including his family members, were arrested and taken to the police station. Flores has protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because of the danger he, like all those organizing in the Bajo Aguan region, face. Berta did, too. Protective measures have the weight of toilet paper with the Honduran government.

Despite the ongoing violence, COPINH, MUCA, and other Honduran organizations and movements – workers, campesinos, feminists, and more – have resisted the attempts to subdue them. As Berta loved to say about the movement, “They fear us because we are fearless.”

Photo: The Rio Blanco community at its blockade of the dam. COPINH member Aureliano Molina, one of the three who will go to trial on September 12 for being a danger to the nation, said, “We don’t negotiate life.”

Of the countless Hondurans who put their bodies on the line every day, no individual has more prominently encouraged or strategically organized dissent than Berta. No Honduran has more visibly spread the message of rebellion to the Americas, nor more audibly urged that rebellion to spread throughout the Americas. “Our call to this continent is that we really push the need to unite ourselves and to create strategies between social movements and left governments,” Berta told a large international gathering of prominent leftists in Havana in 2009.

Berta’s last stand was against a dam being illegally constructed on the sacred Gualcarque River in the community of Rio Blanco. In addition to the internationally financed company DESA, behind the dam was the World Bank, and the largest dam company in the world, Sinohydro, which is owned by the Chinese government. For more than a year and a half, the villagers of Rio Blanco were able to halt the dam construction with nothing more than their bodies, a small trench and fence across the road leading to the river, and their political militance. Berta and others, meanwhile, took the case to the world, building worldwide alliances which brought enough pressure to force the World Bank and Sinohydro to pull out.

Adding insult to injury to those seeking to control water, minerals, forests, and lands, for her work in stopping the dam Berta won the 2015 Goldman Prize, the equivalent of a Nobel for environmental defense. With the award, Berta’s prestige skyrocketed, further threatening domination by the political and economic powers that be.  In her acceptance speech, knowing that behind her stood tens or hundreds of thousands of other Hondurans toiling for justice, Berta dedicated her prize in part, to “rebellion.”

This was too much for DESA and the Honduran government. The multi-year efforts to eliminate Berta – through threats, kidnaping attempts, charges of sedition, and more – finally succeeded in the form of a bullet piercing her flesh. Who hired the assassin is unknown. What is known – given very explicit statements and actions of the company and the government in the days and weeks preceding her assassination – is that both were behind the act.

Yet even death cannot subdue Berta. In the days since her murder, the notoriety of her person and her message has multiplied exponentially around the word. The current level of global action against Honduran government impunity, US government’s support for it, and pillaging by transnational capital has reached heights that Berta could only have dreamed of. Click here for actions you can take in solidarity.


Beverly Bell is the founder of Other Worlds and more than a dozen international organizations and networks, Beverly is also an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Beverly has worked for more than three decades as an organizer, advocate, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S.   She is the author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance.

Hillary Clinton’s Link to a Nasty Piece of Work in Honduras

Posted on Mar 15, 2016


“They Fear Us Because We Are Fearless:” The Life and Legacy of Berta Cáceres



I began writing a eulogy for Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores years ago, though she died only last week. Berta was assassinated by Honduran government-backed death squads on March 3. Like many who knew and worked with her, I was aware that this fighter for indigenous peoples’ power; for control over their own territories; for women’s and LGBTQ rights; for authentic democracy; for the well-being of Pachamama; for an end to tyranny by transnational capital; and for an end to US empire, was not destined to die of old age. She spoke too much truth to too much power.

Berta cut her teeth on revolution. She was strongly marked by the broadcasts from Cuba and Sandinista-led Nicaragua that her family listened to clandestinely, gathered around a radio with the volume turned very low; those stations were outlawed in Honduras. Always a committed Leftist, Berta’s mother raised her many children to believe in justice. Doña Bertha – the mother made her youngest child her namesake – was mayor and governor of her town and state back when women were neither, in addition to being a midwife. She was Berta’s life-long inspiration. As a young adult, like so many others from the region who shared her convictions, Berta went on to support the Salvadoran revolution.

In 1993, Berta – a Lenca Native – cofounded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). At that time in the country, there was little pride and even less power in being indigenous. Berta created COPINH to build the political strength of Lencas, campesinos, and other grassroots sectors to transform one of the most corrupt, anti-democratic, and unequal societies in the hemisphere.


Berta loved to say, “They fear us because we’re fearless.” The fearlessness paid off over the years. COPINH has successfully reclaimed ancestral lands, winning unheard-of communal land titles. They have stalled or stopped dams, logging operations, and mining exploration – not to mention free-trade agreements. They have prevented many precious and sacred places from being plundered and destroyed.

In addition to Berta’s remarkable leadership, COPINH’s victories have come through their size, strength, unity, and fierce commitment. Communities have participated in hundreds of protests, from their local mayors’ office to the steps of the national congress. They have occupied public spaces, including several of the six US military bases in their country, and refused to leave. They have shut down the road to Tegucigalpa, strategically blocking goods from moving to the city. They have declared a boycott of all international financial institutions on their lands. They have helped coordinate 150 local referendums to raise the stakes on democracy.

Here is one of many tales that Berta told of strategies and actions. The backstory is that Honduran farmers – which most COPINH members are – wear thick work boots made of unventilated rubber. Over their course of containing sweaty feet, they come to smell horrendously, so bad that campesinos/as refer to them as bombas, bombs. Early in COPINH’s history, a team went from La Esperanza to Tegucigalpa to negotiate with the government on a land titling law. The discussions went on for days. Berta told that, during lunchtime, the government received lavish, catered meals; the COPINH members had no money, and so their side of the table stayed empty. Far less connected in those days, the group had nowhere to sleep or shower, and spent the nights in the streets. At one point, the negotiations were tense and the members of COPINH’s team were shaky on their strategy. They asked for a recess, but the government refused. So someone on the COPINH side gave a discrete signal, and altogether the farmer-activists pulled off their bombas. The smell was so toxic that the government officials fled the room. COPINH was able to regroup and develop a stunning strategy. The indigenous radicals won the law.

The most recent campaign and partial victory are also the proximate causes of Berta’s death: stopping the Agua Zarca dam project on a sacred Lenca river. The COPINH community of Rio Blanco – everyone: elders, toddlers, nursing mothers – formed a human barricade and blocked construction of the dam. Meanwhile, Berta, other members of COPINH, and national and international friends pressured the World Bank and the largest dam company in the world, Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, to pull out. Rio Blanco did not blockade the construction for an hour or for a day, or for a week. They did it for more than a year. They did it until they won. They got the most powerful financial interests in the world to abandon the project. Tragically, because other financial interests are always waiting in the wings to plunder for profit, the dam is still under construction. Forty-eight more are either planned or underway on their lands.


Berta’s belief in participatory democracy extended profoundly to her everyday practice. As the unparalleled leader of COPINH, and with a large gap between her level of education and political experience and that of all but a few in the group, it would have been easy for her to act on her own. Yet she always made herself accountable to the communities she worked for.

I saw the degree of this commitment in action one night when Berta called in to Utopia, COPINH’s rural community meeting center, and asked to speak to everyone. Fifteen or so people quickly gathered around the cell phone on the shaky wooden table next to the only light, that of a candle. Berta explained a fairly pro forma request that had come to her from a government office, and proposed a response. When she was finished, she asked the almost exclusively illiterate, campesino/na group, “¿Cheque sí, o cheque no?” All raised their thumbs toward the little cell phone and called out, “Sí!” No joint decision had been required, and yet she had sought consensus.

That’s accountability.


Berta was unflappable. She was calm in the face of chaos and strategic in the face of disaster. She got right in the face of soldiers and goons when they aggressed her or others, and told them what was what.

Berta was indefatigable, working around the clock with no complaint. When not traveling around Honduras or the world to raise support for the struggle, she would wake early and go straight to her desk to receive updates, often on the most recent attacks on COPINH members, and in those cases to write condemnations – all even before a cup of coffee. She would then jump into her yellow beater truck to pick up other members of COPINH and head off to wherever action or investigation was needed.

I was amazed that Berta drove that noteworthy truck everywhere without protection, and that she lived in a house secured by only a small bolt and a couple of friendly dogs. Then I realized that it made no difference how much security she had. The government and the companies she opposed almost always knew where she was (Berta also spent periods in deep hiding), and how to get her when they were ready to kill her.

Berta took two small breaks in her life. The first was a two-week vacation with a friend in a neighboring country, the second a three-month semi-repose at my house in Albuquerque – though even then she spent most of her days building a continent-wide boycott of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.

Even as she served her community, Berta rose in the past decade to become an international people’s diplomat. She was a heroine to many global movements, a critical player in many struggles, a keynote speaker at many venues. She was someone consulted by government officials, by international networks, and even, a few months ago, by Pope Francis.

As we watched Berta’s rise as a global leader, our close friend and colleague Gustavo Castro commented to me, “I hope she never loses her humility.” She never did.

I once asked Berta how to say “integrity” in Spanish. She translated it “coherencia,” coherence between one’s stated principles and actions, coherence amongst all parts of one’s life. Berta had coherence.

She was highly critical of US Americans for our lack of that coherence. She once led an anti-oppression training for an organization I was running, in which she asked us to examine whether we were Caesars or artisans. She meant whether our practice – not just our statements – aligned us with the oppressors or with the oppressed, and whether we were promoting the grassroots or ourselves as leaders. For a long time after, the refrigerator that Berta and I shared held her line drawing of a thonged Roman sandal. She also commented to me once that the problem with US Americans is our attachment to comfort.

Berta herself eschewed comfort. She lived in the modest house in which she was raised, where she cared for her elderly mother. She slept in a bare cement room, more than half of which had been converted to her office, housing her desk with its mountain range of documents and small computer table. Her trademark style – regardless of with whom she was meeting – was jeans, sneakers, and a cotton shirt. She did not shop, go to fancy restaurants, take a plane when a bus was available.

Besides COPINH and the struggle for justice, Berta had another profound commitment: to her mother and her four children. I recall watching the deep pride on Berta’s face when one of her daughters, then only 7 or so, recited a poem “Las Margaritas” (The Daisies) for a group of foreign visitors; it was a very different expression than I had ever seen. She grew prouder as her three daughters and son grew older, all of them holding the flame for justice.

Following Berta’s murder, her children and mother issued a statement in which they said, “We know with complete certainty that the motivation for her vile assassination was her struggle against the exploitation of nature’s common wealth and the defense of the Lenca people. Her murder is an attempt to put an end to the struggle of the Lenca people against all forms of exploitation and expulsion. It is an attempt to halt the construction of a new world.

“Berta’s struggle was not only for the environment, it was for system change, in opposition to capitalism, racism and patriarchy.”

After the Honduran government dropped sedition charges against Berta – one of its countless attempts to silence her – in 2013, someone asked her mother if she were scared for her daughter. Laughing, Berta quoted her mother’s response: “Absolutely not. She’s doing exactly what she should be doing.”

Berta’s humor was legendary. A joke from her, and her soft up-and-down-the-scales laugh, punctuated the most tense of moments and kept many of us going, even as she never strayed from the gravity of the situation. One of her jokes was recirculated this week by radical Honduran Jesuit priest Ismael “Melo” Moreno. He once accompanied her to Rio Blanco, where someone snapped a photo of them together. As she peered at the picture, Berta laughed and said to Melo, “Let’s see which of the two of us goes first.”

When Berta saw a performance of the Raging Grannies, a group of elder women who dress up in outrageous skirts and joyously sing protest songs at rallies and events in Albuquerque, she told me, “I never wanted to live to be an old woman. Now I do.” That chance was just taken from her.


One person witnessed the assassination: Gustavo Castro Soto, coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas/Friends of the Earth Mexico, coordinator of the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model (M4), and co-founder and board member of Other Worlds. A close friend and ally of Berta, Gustavo slept in her house on the last night of her life to provide accompaniment in the hope of deterring violence, something dozens of us have had to do for her over the years. Gustavo was shot twice and feigned death. Berta died in his arms.

Gustavo was immediately detained in physically and psychologically inhumane conditions by the Honduran government, and held for several days for “questioning.” The subsequent days have resembled a bad spy movie, with Gustavo finally given permission to leave the country, only to be seized at the migration checkpoint at the airport by Honduran authorities, then placed into protective custody in the Mexican Embassy, only to be handed back to Hondurans, who took him back to the town of La Esperanza again for “questioning.” The Honduran government has just said that Gustavo must stay in Honduras for 30 days. He is being “protected” by the Tigers, vicious US-funded and -trained “special forces.”

Chillingly, according to the State Department, the US is cooperating with the Honduran investigators. A note from a close colleague, from outside Gustavo’s place of detention yesterday, said that a team of US “FBI types” are actually in the interrogation room. The role of the US government in the attempted destruction of social movements in Honduras is vast. One can also draw a straight line from Washington to Berta’s death. But that is the topic of another article.

Gustavo continues to be in terrible danger in Honduran custody, as what he witnessed is an impediment to the government’s attempts to pin Berta’s murder on COPINH itself. In a note to some friends on March 6, Gustavo wrote, “The death squads know that they did not kill me, and I am certain that they want to accomplish their task.”

The Honduran government also imprisoned COPINH leader Aureliano “Lito” Molina Villanueva for two days just after Berta’s murder, on “suspicion in a crime of passion.” It is interrogating COPINH leaders Tomas Gomez and Sotero Chaverria, while denying them lawyers. This is part of an effort to criminalize COPINH members. Now, COPINH needs more than ever to be protected, to be supported, and to carry on the legacy that Berta helped to build.


Berta touched everyone she met, and even countless ones she didn’t. My young daughter is one of those. The morning of Berta’s death, she wrote this: “Bev tells me that her close friend Berta died last night. I was shocked, because how can somebody kill someone who was only trying to do what’s right? Then I remembered they killed Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. If I die for doing the right thing, that would let me know that I did my part in this world. Just like Berta.”

When Berta received the 2015 Goldman Prize, the most prestigious environmental award in the world, she dedicated the prize to rebellion, to her mother, to the Lenca people, to Rio Blanco, to COPINH – and “to the martyrs who gave their lives in defense of the riches of nature.”

Now Berta is one of these martyrs.

Berta, Gustavo, and I were co-founders in 1999, and have remained active members of, the grassroots network Convergence of Movements of the Peoples of the Americas (COMPA). Early on the horrific morning of March 3, a COMPA listserv note blasted the news of Berta’s assassination. Reading that message, I spotted the posting just prior, dated February 24. It was from Berta. It read simply, “Aqui!” I am here!

She is here. Long may Berta live, in the hearts, minds, passions, and actions of all of us. May all women and men commit themselves to realizing the vision of transformation, dignity, and justice for which Berta lived, and for which she died.

¡Berta Cáceres, presente!

[Many thanks to Jeff Conant and Simone Adler for help writing and posting this article. Thanks, also, to Kate Brown, Lucinda Ellison, Lyle Aufdermeyer, Jeff Conant, Neil Tangri, and Moira Birss for help with this week.]

Beverly Bell is the founder of Other Worlds and an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. 

Murdered for Activism in Honduras

Berta Cáceres1By SILVIO CARRILLOMARCH 11, 2016

Oakland, Calif. — It was always a relief to see my aunt Berta, whom we affectionately called Bertita. Not just because of the constant threats to her life, but because she was a “rayo de luna” — a ray of moonlight — in any situation.

On March 3, shortly after midnight, unidentified gunmen stormed into the house where she was staying in La Esperanza, Honduras, and killed her. Berta Cáceres was a human rights and environmental activist who was playing a leading role in opposing a dam project that would force an indigenous community to abandon its ancestral homes and their livelihoods.

She was just one more victim in the continuing war against activists in Honduras.

The London-based human rights organization Global Witness has reported that at least 109 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015. Scores of journalists, human rights defenders, union leaders, L.G.B.T. rights activists, legal professionals and political activists have also been murdered over the last few years. A vast majority of these killings remain unsolved.

Berta Caceres receiving the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize

Berta Caceres receiving the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize

For a decade, Bertita and the organization she co-founded, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, had been fighting against construction of the Agua Zarca Dam across the Gualcarque River. It sits on land considered sacred by the Lenca, an indigenous people, to which Bertita belonged through her father. The Lenca said the project, for which the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. received a concession and which has been financed by the Dutch development bank FMO, has proceeded even though the Lenca were not consulted, as required by international law.

Rather than provide protection to council members, the Honduran security forces and judicial authorities have been part and parcel of the campaign of attacks and intimidation against the organization. Since 2013, according to Global Witness, three other members of the group have been killed, including one shot by a soldier as he peacefully protested the project. Bertita received frequent death threats, was detained by the police and faced trumped-up charges in court.

The attacks and threats only strengthened her resolve.

But Bertita was also a daughter, sister, aunt, mother and grandmother — she leaves behind four adult children and a grandson. As her children grew, she found it necessary to send three of them abroad for their secondary and college educations, so they could feel safe from the threats she faced.

During my frequent visits as a child to Honduras and our large extended family, Bertita and I — she was only two years my elder — would chase each other and our cousins

the daughters of Berta Cáceres

the daughters of Berta Cáceres

around the garden playing hide-and-seek, or play soccer in the dirt patches, always being careful not to crush my grandmother’s red roses.

In July 2009, I went to Honduras as a producer for an international news network. It was the day after a coup by the Honduran military, business elites and right-wing political opposition removed the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, from office. Army troops whisked him away to Costa Rica in his pajamas.

Bertita had been working with indigenous groups on education and rights issues with Mr. Zelaya’s support. She was already well known throughout the countryside and by international rights organizations in the region. Her opposition to the coup catapulted her into global recognition.

On our first night in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, I decided to profile her, but she warned me: “We need to go to a safe house. Come with us and we’ll talk there.” We set out in a taxi. One of her cellphones rang. After a quick conversation with another organizer, she said, “We need to switch taxis and someone will pick us up.”

This had become her life in Honduras; there were no roses to worry about now.

Berta Cáceres 83 - Berta Flores, Berta Cáceres y Olivia Zúniga.

Doña Austra Berta, mother of Berta Cáceres, and Olivia her daugher

At our destination, we ducked between houses and walked down a corridor to the back of one. We were welcomed by “compañeros en la lucha” — companions in the struggle. They cooked us a meal while we sat down and began filming.

Over the next few days I saw Bertita at rallies and leading protest marches. She spoke with vigor, clarity and force. She didn’t mince words. It was a side of her I had not seen.

“La lucha” was in Bertita’s blood. There was no other calling for her. We would never have tried to stop her because we all believed in what she was doing. Still, we knew that someday it would come at a cost.

Her work brought her the Goldman Environmental Prize, many other awards, and international recognition, all of which should have shielded her from harm. Perhaps they did for a while. But they also made her an even greater threat to the business and media elite, the military and the corrupt politicians of one of the world’s most dangerous places in which to be an activist.

And so, she was silenced.

Now the Honduran police and government have begun a campaign of information obfuscation. They first claimed the attack on her was a botched robbery, then a “crime of passion.” Then, a lawyer for our family in Honduras told me, they detained a friend of Berta’s who saw the murder as a material witness, and have asked to question leaders of the council, while making an outrageous claim that there might have been a power struggle in the group. The most obvious suspects — the public and private agents who attacked and harassed Berta and the council for years — don’t seem to be on the investigators’ radar.

Berta Cáceres86 -posterBut this could, at long last, become a turning point for one of Latin America’s poorest and most violent nations. Berta Cáceres touched countless lives, and the outrage in Honduras and around the world is palpable.

Much more international pressure can and should be leveled at the Honduran government — for an independent international investigation to uncover not just the triggermen, but also the highest-ranking authors of this attack and so many other killings of activists.

Silvio Carrillo is a freelance film and news producer based in California whose work has included coverage abroad for CNN, Al Jazeera English and The South China Morning Post.

Canadian mining is murder

Homegrown companies are among the worst human rights offenders on the planet


March 9, 2016

Four days after the assassination of Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres captured worldwide headlines, a vigil to remind of the blood on Canada’s hands for all those who have died protesting Canadian mining projects abroad interrupted the mining industry’s annual confab in Toronto on Sunday, March 6.

The vigil held by the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network at the convention of the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) was presided over by Anglican priest Maggie Helwig. “We are here to name the dead,” she said.

The vast majority of killings have not been solved or, in many cases, even investigated.

The names of some two dozen victims of such violence were read out at the PDAC vigil. The protesters were then escorted out by police.

Canadian mining companies are among the worst human rights offenders on the planet. The most recent evidence of that is a 2014 report submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. A 2009 report commissioned by PDAC but never made public also detailed targeted assassinations and persecution of activists and union leaders opposing Canadian projects abroad. 

It’s impossible to know exactly who killed each of these people. The vast majority of the cases have not been solved or in many cases even investigated. But they all have something in common: all were assassinated and all resisted Canadian mining projects. 

Merilyn Topacio Reynoso Pacheco The 16-year-old was killed and her father seriously injured in an April 2014 attack. The activists, part of the Peaceful Resistance in Defense of Natural Resources of Mataques-cuintla, Jalapa, had led the fight for a referendum on development of Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine in southeastern Guatemala. 

Adolfo Ich Chamán The respected community leader was hacked by machetes and then shot in the head on September 27, 2009, allegedly by security personnel working for Hudbay’s Fenix mining project in El Estor, Guatemala. A multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed in Canadian court by Chamán’s wife alleges negligence on the part of the company. The ex head of security for the mine is on trial in Guatemala for Chamán’s murder and the wounding of at least 10 others.

Telésforo Odilio Pivaral González The member of the Committee in Defense of Life and Peace in San Rafael Las Flores was killed near Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine in Guatemala on April 5, 2015. According to a statement released by members of the “We Are Human Rights Defenders” campaign, González, who had taken part in protests against expansion of the silver mine, was attacked “by unknown persons with firearms.”

Mariano Abarca Roblero The anti-mining activist was killed outside his home in Chiapas, Mexico, on November 27, 2009. He had blamed Calgary-based mining company Blackfire Exploration for contaminating local rivers, loss of crops and the deaths of livestock. Blackfire’s open-pit barite mine in Chiapas was closed in 2011 over environmental concerns.

Dora “Alicia” Recinos Sorto A member of the -Cabañas Environment Committee, which had been campaigning against the reopening of Vancouver-based Pacific Rim’s El Dorado gold mine in El Salvador, Sorto was shot and killed on December 26, 2009, as she returned home from doing her laundry. She was eight months pregnant. 

Ramiro Rivera The vice-president of the Cabañas Environment Committee was gunned down on December 20, 2009. His anti-mining activities against Pacific Rim in El Salvador were believed to be behind the killing. In an earlier attempt on his life, a would-be assassin shot Rivera eight times in the back and legs, but he survived.

César García Moreno A member of the farmers’ rights group Conciencia Campesina, García was active in the movement opposing multinational gold-mining company AngloGold Ashanti in Cajamarca, Colombia, when he was killed on November 2, 2013.

Rigoberto López Hernández The Honduran activist was found with his throat slit and his tongue cut out on May 3, 2014, an assassination that activists say was clearly meant to send a message over his opposition to the iron oxide mine in Quita Ganas.

José Isidro Tendetza Antún The indigenous leader, vice-president of the Shuar Federation of Zamora, was found bound and buried December 2, 2014 (with signs of torture and strangulation on his body). He was last seen on his way to a meeting of protesters opposed to B.C.-based Corriente Resources’ Mirador copper and gold mine in Ecuador. 

Rafael Markus Bangit An elder of the Malbong tribe in Kalinga province in the Philippines and regional council member of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, Bangit was at the forefront of opposition to mining activities on indigenous land, including against Calgary-based TVI Pacific. He was gunned down by a hooded assailant on June 8, 2006. 

Kibwabwa Ghati The 23-year-old Tanzanian farmer was shot and killed by police near Barrick Gold’s North Mara mine on November 6, 2012. Police accused him of trying to steal from the mine, but some media -reports suggest he may have been caught in the crossfire as other men tried to get into the facility. 

Emerico Samarca The director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood -Development, which opposed large-scale mining in the Philippines, including by Canadian company TVI Pacific, was killed in Lianga on September 1, 2015, by alleged members of a paramilitary group. 

Demetrio Poma Rosales Killed protesting Barrick Gold’s Pierina open-pit gold mine in Peru’s Ancash region on September 19, 2012. 

Juan Francisco Durán Ayala The student anti–mining activist disappeared after posting flyers as part of a campaign against Canadian mining company Pacific Rim in Cabañas, in northern El Salvador, on June 17, 2011. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador suspects local mayors with ties to organized crime had a hand in his killing.

José Reinel Restrepo The parish priest of the municipality of Marmato, Colombia, was killed on September 2, 2011, days after travelling to Bogotá to register his opposition to the open-pit gold mine proposed by -Toronto-based Gran Colombia Gold.

Jerónimo Rodríguez Tugri and Mauricio Méndez Both were killed February 8, 2012, when police opened fire against indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé protesting a new Panamanian law allowing Vancouver’s Corriente -Resources access to indigenous lands. 

Henry Tendeke, Taitia Maliapa, Paul Pindi, John Wangla, Pyakani Tombe, Yandari Pyari, Jerry Yope, Jackson Yalo, Joe Opotaro, Aglio Wija, Mina Mulako, Alonge Laswi, Manata Pita and Pyakane Eremi Fourteen of the dozens of people killed since 1993 by security forces defending Barrick’s Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea. 

Alvaro Benigno Sanchez The 23-year-old was killed by two men reportedly employed as security guards by a U.S.-Canada-owned Glamis Gold subsidiary in Guatemala on March 13, 2005. 

Damodar Jhodia, Abhilash Jhodia and Raghunath Jhodia Murdered on December 16, 2000, in the Kashipur region of Orissa, India, reportedly over their opposition to a mining project partially owned by Rio Tinto Alcan. 

Exaltación Marcos Ucelo The community activist, secretary of the Xinca Indigenous Parliament, was kidnapped, tortured and found dead on March 18, 2013, because of his opposition to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine in Guatemala.

Unnamed mine worker He died of heat exhaustion and dehydration at Nevsun’s Bisha Mine in Eritrea (date unknown). His death is the subject of a Canadian lawsuit against BC’s Nevsun Resources.

Rachel Small is a member of the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network.

“No había precio que pudiese llegar a la altura de Berta, era insobornable, estorbaba”según Ismael Moreno sj

Tras el asesinato de la dirigente indígena, Berta Cáceres, que causó conmoción nacional e internacional, las voces para exigir justicia se levantan y se topan con un gobierno que busca ofrecer otra imagen como producto de exportación, y da la idea de estar investigando a profundidad el crimen.

Para el sacerdote jesuita Ismael Moreno, director del Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación, Eric, reconocido a nivel internacional por el otorgamiento al premio Rafto 2015, sostiene que el gobierno de Honduras, detrás de sus palabras y de sus autoritarismos, no tiene sustento, necesita reivindicarse, y la mejor manera de hacerlo es recurrir al cinismo de decir que están investigando cuando en realidad sólo están desarrollando una única hipótesis.

“Hay una palabra que en estos días ha venido sonando de Berta y es indomable porque no se le podía controlar. No había precio que pudiese llegar a la altura de Cáceres, era insobornable, estorbaba” sostiene el sacerdote Jesuita.

Radio Progreso (RP) habló con el padre Ismael Moreno (IM) sobre el impacto de este asesinato, las demandas y la realidad a la que se enfrentan los defensores y defensoras en Honduras.

RP. ¿Qué sensación y qué sentimientos le deja el asesinato de Berta Cáceres?
IM. Es una sensación muy profunda y es contradictoria, es profundamente de dolor, pero lo que yo resalto en estos días de tanta preocupación por lo que pueda pasar a muchas otras personas defensoras de los derechos humanos y de los pueblos indígenas, de los territorios y de los bienes naturales comunes. A mí lo que me queda, ya como recuento de estos días, es la trascendencia de este acontecimiento tan duro, mortal, sangriento de Bertita Cáceres.

RP. ¿Cómo ve la reacción de la comunidad internacional?
IM. Hemos tenido la manifestación y las expresiones de repudio, de aliento, de solidaridad y también de exigencia por parte de la comunidad internacional y de las organizaciones de todo el mundo, como creo yo que hacía muchísimos años, pero muchos años, que no lo habíamos experimentado. Entonces uno se siente muy adolorido pero con un sentimiento de que estos hechos tan amargos y tan mortales son tan profundos y tan duramente conmovedores que han logrado impactar y estremecer al planeta entero, y Honduras de nuevo se convierte en el centro de atención tanto por el repudio del asesinato y también por la figura noble y tan vital de Berta Cáceres.

RP. ¿Quién era Berta Cáceres?
IM. Bueno, la recuerdo como una mujer tenaz y exigente en la lucha, terca como poca gente he conocido, incomodaba a quien fuera, pero al mismo tiempo dulce, nunca perdía la sonrisa. Y además tenía una capacidad tan profunda y al mismo tiempo de estar, con su sencillez, cerca de la gente y por otra parte ser tan fuerte y firme en su palabra contra aquellos que ella consideraba que amenazaban a las comunidades indígenas, a los diversos pueblos, a los territorios y a los bienes comunes de la naturaleza.

RP. ¿Por qué asesinaron a Berta?
IM. Hay una palabra que en estos días ha venido sonando de Berta y es indomable porque no se le podía controlar. No había precio que pudiese llegar a la altura de Berta Cáceres, era insobornable, estorbaba.

RP. ¿Qué va a pasar ahora?
IM. Una persona puede ser grandiosa, como es el caso de Berta Cáceres, pero la historia es activa, la historia es dinámica, la historia es viva y los liderazgos no se consumen ni se terminan en una persona. Allí quedan las comunidades organizadas de Copinh, los pueblos Tolupanes, los pueblos garífunas, sigue el campesinado hondureño, sigue las nuevas generaciones de la juventud, está la familia, las tres hijas de Berta Cáceres, está el hijo, está mucha otra gente que se ha sentido tan estremecida con la muerte de Berta Cáceres que muy bien se decía en su sepelio: Berta no murió sino que comienza a multiplicarse en muchísima otra gente.

RP. ¿Cuál es su valoración de la forma en que el Estado está llevando la investigación?
IM. Yo creo que el Estado, y particularmente el gobierno que lo representa, está manoseando, contaminando el caso de Berta Cáceres, y allí es donde, desde mi punto de vista, tiene que estar la primera gran exigencia y demanda de los diversos sectores que estamos repudiando el caso de Berta Cáceres, y es exigir una investigación a fondo, independiente y no contaminada por los intereses políticos y de los grupos fácticos que estuvieron atrás de las denuncias que a lo largo de varios años presentó y elevó Berta Cáceres, y muchas de esas denuncias eran de amenazas de muerte que ella advertía que le estaban haciendo.

RP. ¿Por qué lo hace el gobierno?
IM. El gobierno lo que está haciendo es tratando de cooptar, de capturar para sí mismo el caso de Berta Cáceres, sin duda alguna abrumado por la impresionante reacción internacional. Y este gobierno que detrás de sus palabras y de sus autoritarismos no tiene sustento, necesita reivindicarse, y la mejor manera de hacerlo es recurrir al cinismo de decir que está investigando pero lo que están haciendo es llevando solamente una línea de investigación.

RP. ¿Cómo debe dirigirse una investigación como el caso Berta?
IM. La demanda que presentamos es sostener la línea de investigación que debe llevar a aquellos actores que Berta denunció, que Berta identificó como los responsables de las amenazas a muerte que fue recibiendo en los últimos tres años.

RP. ¿Qué otras demandas se plantean?
IM. Una segunda demanda es que el gobierno anule definitivamente todos aquellos convenios que tienen que ver con la explotación del Río Gualcarque y de los territorios donde habitan las comunidades Lencas, particularmente el proyecto Agua Zarca que está en manos de la empresa Desarrollos Energéticos, DESA. También avanzar hacia la revisión orientada para que se anulen aquellos decretos y figuras jurídicas que tienen que ver con la venta de los territorios y de la soberanía nacional, particularmente la anulación del decreto de las ciudades modelos y la derogación de la ley de minerías.

RP. ¿Qué demandan a la comunidad internacional?
IM. Una presencia. Estamos animando a un encuentro aquí en Honduras de los sectores internacionales que han dado muestras de solidaridad ante el asesinato de Berta Cáceres. Promover un encuentro para que se defina un acompañamiento coordinado, articulado y orientado a fortalecer aquellas luchas por las que dio la vida y por las que asesinaron a Berta Cáceres, y que continúe la denuncia internacional porque eso contribuye a que la muerte de Berta Cáceres no quede impune.

RP. ¿Cuál es la situación real de los defensores y defensoras en Honduras?
IM. La más absoluta vulnerabilidad. Si han asesinado a Berta Cáceres, sin duda alguna, la mujer con el más alto nivel de reconocimiento internacional y con una trayectoria, qué es lo que no les está ocurriendo a otros defensores a nivel regional y local. Es cierto, hay muchas figuras jurídicas, hay una ley aprobada de protección a defensores, podemos tener muchas figuras jurídicas, podemos tener muchas palabras bonitas y hermosas, y hasta llena de bendiciones, lo que ocurre es que la institucionalidad aquí no funciona, o si funciona pero al servicio de los fuertes.

RP. ¿Cómo define a un defensor o defensora?
IM. Una persona que está presente y acompañando de cerca a sus hermanos y hermanas que están luchando y están padeciendo las consecuencias de una institucionalidad que no les protege y que no les garantiza sus derechos. Un defensor y una defensora es quien se juega la vida cotidianamente defendiendo a su pueblo.

RP. ¿Cómo define usted la justicia?
IM. La necesidad de defender a los más débiles.

RP. ¿Dónde encontramos las esperanzas en Honduras?
IM. En los pobres que cargan con las consecuencias de la injusticia y en aquellos que hasta ahora su voz no se les escucha.

Le invitamos a escuchar la entrevista completa con el padre Ismael Moreno sj.

“They Want to Prohibit Us From Dreaming”

A 2014 interview with renowned Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated last week.

The late Honduran activist Berta Cáceres and members of the group she co-founded, COPINH, in the Rio Blanco region of Honduras. Goldman Environmental Prize

The late Honduran activist Berta Cáceres and members of the group she co-founded, COPINH, in the Rio Blanco region of Honduras. Goldman Environmental Prize


Since the 2009 coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, scores of Hondurans have been slain for resisting the attempts of corporations, international banks, and Honduran oligarchs to seize rivers, plantations, and mining lands for their own enrichment

It appears this violence has now claimed its most high-profile victim. In the early morning hours of March 3, gunmen attacked renowned human rights activist Berta Cáceres in her home, killing her and wounding Mexican activist Gustavo Castro. A United Nations official said it is “highly probable” that the crime was politically motivated. (Honduran police initially called it a robbery.)

Government assassination list that appeared in 2013 with Berta Cáceres as number 1

Government assassination list that appeared in 2013 with Berta Cáceres as number 1

The co-founder of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Cáceres also received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her work organizing against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. The project would disrupt the Gualcarque River, cutting off access to a body of water the Lenca people of Río Blanco view as sacred.

Over the past several years, COPINH and Río Blanco residents have filed official complaints, staged protests, and blockaded the dam company’s access road. Cáceres faced constant persecution for her involvement, including death threats in the week preceding her killing.

In May 2014, during a protest outside the Honduran National Congress in Tegucigalpa, freelance journalist Chris Lewis spoke with Cáceres about her work, the persecution she experienced, and the global victims of US foreign policy. In her memory, Jacobin presents a translated and lightly edited transcription of the conversation.

What is important to know about the work of COPINH?

COPINH was founded in 1993 and is fighting for the purpose of defending the territorial, cultural, and spiritual rights of the Lenca people. But not just the Lenca people — COPINH also works to have a national and international influence. Its struggle is against all colonialism, and also capitalism, patriarchy, racism.

Berta was a co-founder of COPINH

Berta was a co-founder of COPINH

We still live in a country of multiple enclaves of domination. And COPINH has started important struggles, like road blockades, hunger strikes, and occupations of the National Congress, the house of the president, the judiciary. We have fought against the coup, against militarization, and against the United States military occupation in Honduras.

We are in a struggle for the defense of individual and collective human rights. We have been working for a long time, including before the coup, for the construction of a social movement that has more respect and more comprehension of resistance, diversity, and the multiplicity of experiences.

We do it with the objective of refounding this matria. We propose a refoundational process, not just the refoundation of the state in an official, institutional sense, but rather a refoundation of each of our customs. We do it without waiting for a constitutional assembly, but instead with what we live daily, because that is what we think we can put forth.

You can’t imagine how many and what type of powers we have had to confront in this struggle. COPINH works a lot against the privatization of rivers, water, and energy. We see energy as a human right, not through the logic of capitalism and consumerism.

We are also involved in the struggle to defend forests from industries exporting timber. We have confronted seventeen projects that privatize rivers. We stopped the El Tigre Dam, a very important binational mega-project.

Berta Cáceres10In all of this, we have had to confront the World Bank, the European Union, USAID, transnationals like Siemens, and now other banks that we didn’t even know existed like the Dutch FMO and Finnfund. We have also confronted Sinohydro, the planet’s transnational hydroelectric monster, and we expelled them. We have had a pile of successes, but we continue on.

What campaigns are you involved in right now?

COPINH puts forth a strong fight in defense of the rivers. Those seventeen concessions that we are confronting in the departments of Intibucá, Lempira, and La Paz were approved illegally and illegitimately in this National Congress, without respecting the right of free prior informed consent of indigenous peoples. So we have had to confront them directly.

For example, in Río Blanco, in defense of the sacred Gualcarque River against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project being pursued by the company Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA), Sinohydro, Siemens, and all those banks that I mentioned.

That project has been imposed with militarization, with very wicked maneuvers on the part of the company. There have been murders, they have threatened us with death, there has been judicial, political, and military persecution.

For now, we have succeeded in stopping the project, blockading the road, and exercising territorial control for over a year. We are also involved in other struggles, like the fight to respect the indigenous government elected in the town of San Francisco de Opalaca. We also have fights in defense of other rivers.

Bertha Cáceres67There are financial bodies, there are companies, there are oligarchs, there are transnationals, and they all want to impose mining projects as well. For example, the town of Erandique, where they want to extract opal. They say that the opal of that region is the second most valuable in the world, after what exists in Australia. They are going after gold, silver, rare earth metals, and other metals and minerals.

There is militarization not only of the repressive forces in Honduras but also from the gringo army, which hopes to put a military base in the San Antonio Valley, a very beautiful place, a place filled with biodiversity and culture. And we know that they are going after the common property resources of the nature that exists there.

The gringos have been conducting operations, including with tanks and cannons. That’s something that we hadn’t seen for quite some time. All of these operations are linked to plunder and colonization. To subdue us. So that is part of the struggle of COPINH.

What are your main strategies in these struggles?

I’ll say that the struggle of COPINH is a peaceful struggle, but a vigorous one. Why vigorous? Because we are confronting the forces of global capital, we are confronting the Honduran oligarchy, the banking and finance power of this country, we are confronting the World Bank. A state that has leveraged all of its machinery against COPINH. From the public ministry to all three powers of the state, the army, the attorney general.

So because of that it’s vigorous, because it’s an honorable, historic struggle. This is the history of our people.

It’s clear that a principal stage of the struggle is the fight for territorial control. It’s not the only one, but it is the most important because what institution of justice can we go to? If there is absolute impunity, who can we trust among the authorities of this country? We can’t trust anybody, simply put. 

Have you experienced any persecution for your work?

"You have the bullet ...I have the word, the bullet dies when fired but the word lives to be multiplied"

“You have the bullet …I have the word, the bullet dies when fired but the word lives to be multiplied”

Yes. Almost always. For almost my whole life. I come from a family that fought a lot against militarization, and in solidarity with refugees from other armed conflicts in Central America. From the kidnapping of my mother to the torture of my siblings, I lived through all of that. That’s how I grew up.

But also right now, as I have assumed responsibility within COPINH. I also know I have been persecuted not just for political leadership but also for being a woman, for being Lenca. In this country it’s not the same being a male leader and being a female leader. And that comes with a very heavy weight.

I think it may be easier to confront the transnationals and the army than it is to confront the patriarchy, because that we encounter everywhere. Within our own organizations as well. There won’t be justice or democracy, nor will we humanize this society if the patriarchy exists, and even worse if we don’t discuss it in our organizations.

So, I have been the object of repression just like many compañeros. They have threatened me with death. I have received threats by cell phone. Sexual harassment from the security guards of these companies. I have received threats against my family, against my daughters, against my son. I have been threatened with criminal charges. Accusations. Everything from the illegal possession of arms to coercion, usurpation, and continued damages.

And now they want to open another case for sedition because of my work in Opalaca. There have been a lot of illegalities, lots of manipulation and holes in the cases. We have won some with the political and legal efforts of COPINH, but I still have provisional release — we haven’t been absolved. It’s not just me — there are three of us, and the cases are still pending.

What is your vision for Honduras in the years to come? What do you want to see in five, ten, twenty years?

Look, here in this country, they have prohibited us from dreaming. They want to prohibit us from dreaming.

We, as COPINH, put forward an effort with communities in which we had to collectively reflect on what Honduras we dream for. It was really interesting. Here’s what I take from the sentiment of the communities: first, we dream of a Honduras in which we have the right to be happy. It’s the most insurrectionary, most subversive, they could say the most “terrorist” right there could be. The right to be happy.

Berta Cáceres13It seems so simple, so plain, so easy, but it has a really deep meaning. It has to do with peace with justice, it has to do with the end of impunity, it has to do with the respect of spiritual and territorial rights, to have the right to walk without feeling assaulted. To live in a demilitarized society — not just the weapons, but also culturally. It’s going to require a cultural revolution.

That’s what we dream of. We dream of a Honduras where women aren’t just present but where we also make decisions. Also, black and indigenous people, sexual diversity, and people who work in the streets, the women of the maquinas. Everyone, no? And so that we be respected, listened to, and this country be ours.

That’s what we dream of. It seems like a small thing to say, but it’s a monumental act of defiance.

If you could say anything to the people or the government of the United States, what would it be?

Well, first that we have a lot of respect for the people of the United States. We know your story, your resistance, your rebellion, your support for the struggle of indigenous people, the struggle of black people for their rights. We know the struggle for peace, for the end of war, for the right US citizens have to housing. For many things.

But the government of the United States wants to be the first enemy of its own people and also all the peoples of the world. Because its big business is pillaging our peoples, starting wars, selling weapons. It’s the exploitation of immigrants.

The United States has a great responsibility for the violation of human rights in Honduras. They have financed and trained these repressive forces, not just right now, but for a long time. They have invaded this country. They have occupied it. They used us as a banana enclave, and still for mining enclaves.

Today as an enclave for multinationals, for the capitalist project on the subject of energy. The United States uses us as a laboratory for the invasion of brother and sister peoples. And they have the cynicism to say that what we do is terrorism. The government of the United States is terrorist, because massacring entire villages — boys, girls, women — that’s terrorism.

So we demand equal respect. Respect for the self-determination of our people, our lives, and our right to decide our own destiny. It could be crooked, whatever it may be, but it’s going to be ours.

The Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was at home last week, in a town called La Esperanza, when gunmen stormed in and shot her dead. Cáceres, who was forty-four, had known she was in danger. Late last month, while leading a march in a nearby village, she had an altercation with soldiers, police officers, and employees of a Honduran company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., or DESA, that she had been fighting for years. In 2010, the Honduran Congress passed a law that awarded contracts to a group of private companies, including DESA, to build dozens of hydroelectric dams throughout the country. Four of the approved dams, which are known collectively as the Agua Zarca Dam, were along the Gualcarque River, in western Honduras, on territory inhabited by the indigenous Lenca people.

The Lenca voiced their opposition as soon as the plans became public, around 2011—first with formal votes and entreaties, and, after those were ignored, with road blockages and demonstrations. In the spring of 2013, these turned to violent confrontations with police, who arrested Lenca protesters en masse. That summer, soldiers based out of DESA’s local headquBerta Cáceres11arters opened fire on a crowd of residents, killing one indigenous leader and seriously injuring several others. Cáceres was on the front lines from the start, having founded the group that has organized much of the opposition, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

At one point, in 2013, Cáceres was briefly forced into hiding. At least three of her colleagues had been murdered for opposing the Agua Zarca Dam, and DESA had launched a criminal case against her, first for possession of an unlicensed gun and later for incitement. “They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me; they threaten my family. That is what we face,” she said afterward. Later that year, two of the dam’s main backers—the Chinese engineering and construction company Sinohydro and an arm of the World Bank­—withdrew their support because of the public opposition and increasingly bloody state crackdown. (Last year, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in persuading them to abandon the project.) The threats against Cáceres increased. This past October, and again in December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (I.A.C.H.R.) called on the Honduran government to take “precautionary measures” for her security. COPINH complained of a fresh wave of threats just days before she was murdered.

Between 2010 and 2014, a hundred and one environmental activists were killed in Honduras, which is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the most perilous for environmental activists, according to a report from Global Witness. Ninety-eight per cent of violent crimes in Honduras go unsolved. A week after Cáceres’s assassination, there is little clarity on how it happened. Were there two killers or as many as ten, as some rumors have suggested? Did they fire just the four shots that killed her, or were there more? The police at first claimed Cáceres was killed in a robbery, and also insinuated that her killing might have been a “crime of passion.” President Juan Orlando Hernández was more diplomatic in his statements, calling Cáceres’s murder “a crime against

Berta and her mother

Berta and her mother

Honduras” and “a blow for the people.” At present, the only two people who are said to have been in police custody in connection to the murder are a fellow activist and a Mexican colleague who was with Cáceres when she died and was shot twice himself. As the sole witness to the crime, he has been ordered not to leave the country, and his life remains in danger; in an open letter to a local newspaper, he insisted that the investigating authorities tampered with the crime scene and that Cáceres’s killers would likely return for him. Two other members of COPINH are reportedly under investigation. (A spokesperson for the Honduran government said it was working with American law enforcement, including the F.B.I., to investigate the killing.)

On Tuesday, I called a longtime friend of Cáceres and a fellow human-rights advocate, a Jesuit priest named Ismael Moreno Coto, better known as Padre Melo, who runs the Jesuit-sponsored community radio station Radio Progreso. The station is openly critical of the government, and its employees work in a climate of extreme danger. In 2014, its marketing manager was stabbed to death, even after the I.A.C.H.R. spent three years petitioning the government to protect him. Cáceres had been scheduled to appear on Melo’s show the day we spoke. “I always had a certain fear of Berta Cáceres,” Melo said, in a wry, melancholy voice. They met when Cáceres was a twenty-year-old schoolteacher obsessed with social justice. “She had a special way of making us uncomfortable,” he said. “She wouldn’t leave us in peace until we were all part of the fight.”

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Berta said that the people were the “children of the land, the water and the corn”

Cáceres was born into the Lenca community, and grew up in western Honduras in the nineteen-eighties, when violence was sweeping through neighboring El Salvador. Her mother, who was a midwife and social activist, cared for the refugees who streamed across the border. Cáceres became a student leader, gaining prominence in the community for fighting logging operations on Lenca land. She was also a mother of four—a son and three daughters—who eventually received threats as well. As the pressure on Cáceres mounted, in the winter of 2013, her son and two of her daughters fled the country.

For the past three years, Melo told me, the threats against Cáceres and COPINH were constant—“dozens of them, and getting stronger each time,” he said. “All of them were documented. They came from people working for, or with, DESA.” For Melo, the fact that the government hasn’t followed those leads, focussing instead on a group of fellow activists, was typical. “Anyone who questions the government winds up penalized as being opponents of the public order,” he said. “We are portrayed in the media as bad people. We are persecuted, subjected to repression or worse, death, like what happened to Berta Cáceres.” He called for a serious investigation conducted under the direction of international monitors. (The Honduran government denies ever having “made negative public comments about the activities” of COPINH and says it is pursuing all open leads in its investigation.)

Padre Melo and Berta were both children raised in poor peasant families and shared the same hopes and struggles for the poor.

Padre Melo and Berta were both children raised in poor peasant families and shared the same hopes and struggles for the poor.

When I asked Padre Melo if speaking out might put his own life at even greater risk, he was unflinching. “I want it to be absolutely clear. The government of Juan Orlando Hernández is responsible for the death of Berta Cáceres.” He was suggesting, as so many others in Honduras have, that the government knew about the escalating clashes between the local community and DESA but did nothing to stop them. The thugs who beat up, intimidated, and even evicted Lenca residents were given cover by federal troops, who often broke up peaceable demonstrations themselves.

Just days before Cáceres’s murder, President Hernández was in the U.S. to meet with American leaders and reassure them of his continued commitment to tamping down violence in Honduras. The U.S. continues to treat Hernández as a partner in fighting corruption and swelling gang violence in the region. But as Dana Frank, a historian and Honduras expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz, pointed out last year in Foreign Policy, the current government “is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime.” Before becoming President, Hernández, a member of the conservative National Party, was in Congress, where, in 2009, he endorsed the military coup that toppled then-President Manuel Zelaya and plunged the country into a period of unprecedented violence and lawlessness. (The U.S. government all but endorsed the coup

Over 10,000 came to the small town of La Esperanza for the ecumenical funeral of Berta

Over 10,000 came to the small town of La Esperanza for the ecumenical funeral of Berta

and in many ways remains responsible for the chaos that ensued.) It was in the aftermath of the coup that Congress awarded DESA its dam contracts, even while the principal financiers of the company were roundly denounced as key supporters of the 2009 uprising.

A few years later, Hernández helped depose four Supreme Court judges, then led an effort to illegally appoint a new attorney general. When he ran for President, in 2013, there were multiple allegations of vote buying, intimidation, and the killing of political opponents. His time in office has been bloodier still. Rather than root out the corruption in the state’s police forces, Hernández expanded the military and tasked it with domestic policing. Claims of rapes, beatings, and intimidation have trailed soldiers across the country. Echoing these complaints, Melo has demanded that the government remove federal soldiers from Lenca territory, where they’ve been strong-arming the population in apparent coördination with DESA.

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Bus loads of people from all areas of Honduras came to the funeral of Berta

In remarks made the day of Cáceres’s memorial service, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, called for the Agua Zarca Dam project to be abandoned. A few days later, I spoke to a member of his staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tim Rieser, who has helped Leahy shape key deals in the region in recent years. “Will Honduras stop supporting projects like this that disrupt local communities and threaten the environment?” he asked. (Rieser was authorized to speak for the Senator.) “The local population was not properly consulted, they are unlikely to benefit from the project, and look at all the problems it has caused,” he added. At this point, a few foreign contractors are still on board—among them, Siemens and Voith Hydro—but Cáceres’s slaying, and what it brings into view, may change that.

How Honduras responds to Cáceres’s murder may also affect how the U.S. deals with the government in the future, Rieser told me. For the current fiscal year, Congress has already approved seven hundred and fifty million dollars in aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, with various strings attached. The U.S. may withhold further aid to Honduras unless it demonstrates a commitment to defending human rights, including those of social activists and journalists, Rieser said. On Thursday, more than two hundred interfaith, environmental, and human-rights groups worldwide called on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to support a thorough investigation into Cáceres’s assassination.

Berta Cáceres38Cáceres and her legacy will haunt the Honduran government as it decides how to proceed, both with the murder investigation and the Agua Zarca Dam project. “She was a person with an enormous capacity to communicate humanity and to defend it,” Padre Melo said. She could empathize and spar with humble people, he told me, telling jokes and stories “with the same smile as always.” But when she was in front of the police or the military, he said, “se engrandecía”—she grew big—“speaking firmly, elevating her voice with strength. She was like a machine gun. She would finish talking to the authorities who opposed the community, and then return to the people. She would go back to being Berta.”