What would Berta Cáceres make of today’s world had she not been murdered in her home five years ago on March 2, 2016?
The Indigenous Lenca land defender in Honduras did not live to see the COVID-19 pandemic. She did not live to see the Trump administration. She did not live to see thousands flee her home country for the United States which would only deport them back to homes that had been swept away by a hurricane or mine. She did not live to see dozens of Honduran activists be murdered like her.
Many of us were introduced to Berta Cáceres a decade ago through a flurry of emails from organizations engaged in solidarity with Honduras such as Rights Action. The emails defended Berta when her life was in danger, and they quoted her appealing to the world for solidarity when one of her colleagues was murdered. Then on the eve of what would have been Berta’s 44th birthday, on March 3, 2016, the emails told us she had been assassinated in her home as she lay sleeping.
Berta was a founder and director of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). When she gathered under an ancient oak tree on the banks of the sacred Gualcarque River with Lenca people who had walked miles across the Río Blanco to discuss the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in April 2013, she spoke of how Indigenous people on their continent had resisted 520 years of colonialism that was not over yet. The crowd decided to resist the dam. They blocked the road to the dam site for months in 2013.
Three months after the gathering under the oak tree, Berta and fellow COPINH member Tomás Garcia were detained for their opposition to the dam. Then, on July 15, 2013, in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, a Honduran soldier shot and killed Tomás and wounded his son Alan. Tomás, 49, was a father of seven.
In response to Tomás’ murder, Berta called for international solidarity and reaffirmed her community’s determination to defend their territory, saying: “We continue steadfast in the struggle, we won’t let ourselves be cornered, we won’t let ourselves be imprisoned by fear, and we’ll carry on in this peaceful but energetic battle for life.”
Berta was left to not only mourn her colleague but also had to navigate death threats, and a state set on criminalizing her. Berta told Telesur a year before her murder: “I have received direct death threats, threats of kidnapping, or disappearance, of lynching . . . threats of kidnapping my daughter, persecution, surveillance, sexual harassment.”
For her unwavering defence of life despite the dangers to her life, Berta was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. Berta told the audience gathered at the San Francisco Opera House to watch her receive the award:
These are centuries-old ills, a product of domination. There is a racist system in place that sustains and reproduces itself…. The political, economic and social situation in Honduras is getting worse and there is an imposition of a project of domination, of violent oppression, of militarisation, of violation of human rights, of transnationalisation, of the turning over of the riches and sovereignty of the land to corporate capital, for it to privatise energy, the rivers, the land; for mining exploitation; for the creation of development zones.
Months later Berta was dead. Just before midnight on March 2, hired assassins shot and killed Berta while she slept in her home. She died in the arms of Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto, who was shot twice in the attack. Honduran authorities immediately tried to blame Gustavo for the murder.
Thirty thousand people attended Berta’s funeral. Tributes to Berta poured in from organizations across the world. Banners were dropped at Honduran embassies that said, “Berta Cáceres Did Not Die, She Multiplied!” Most of the people participating in these actions never met Berta but they were inspired by her activism and outraged by her murder.
Despite more eyes looking at Honduras and condemning the repression of land defenders, days after Berta’s assassination, on March 15, Nelson García, another COPINH member, was shot and killed after returning home from a violent eviction. Nelson was 38, a father of 5, and a farmer.
In June 2016, a former soldier who fled his unit told The Guardian that Berta Cáceres’s name was on a Honduran military hit list that included the names and photographs of dozens of activists to eliminate. Nina Lakhani explains in her book, Who Killed Berta Caceres?, how the Honduran state and capital came together to eliminate a woman they saw as too big of a threat to their designs for profit.
Berta’s family, Lencans, Hondurans and activists around the world have pressured Honduran authorities to bring to justice Berta’s assassins, including the intellectual masterminds.
In 2018, seven men were convicted of planning and carrying out the murder of Berta in a Honduran court. The court also found that Berta’s murder was ordered by executives of the Agua Zarca dam company, Desa. Indicted as the “intellectual author” of Berta’s murder, DESA president David Roberto Castillo Mejía was arrested on the second anniversary of Berta’s murder as he was about to fly to Houston. Just this week, the trial date of the US-trained former military officer accused of masterminding Berta’s assassination was scheduled for next month.
What would Berta Cáceres tell us about today’s world had she not been murdered in her home five years ago? Berta probably would have reminded us that the hurt that pours out in Honduras today is the result of capitalism, an economic system concerned foremost with profit and bolstered by racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression.
Honduras is one of the original banana republics, long subjected to plunder for the profit of multinational corporations and the domestic elite. The small nation has been a base of American military operations since the Reagan administration’s war against Nicaragua in the 1980s. Several hundred U.S. Marines are deployed in Honduras and soldiers trained at the notorious School of Americas are implicated in the murder of activists.
A 2009 military coup in Honduras ousted democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Since the coup, the country has become the murder capital of the world. Zelaya’s actions as President included proposals to raise the minimum wage by 60 per cent, ban open pit mines and cyanide use, and provide free education for all children.
The U.S. and Canadian governments have been criticized by Honduran social movements for legitimizing the post-coup regime, a regime that is friendly to American and Canadian investments in the country and deadly for environmental activists, journalists, lawyers, peasants and queer activists. When Berta was murdered, a loud message to activists was sent: no activist was safe in Honduras.
Berta did not live to see the Biden administration or the Trump administration but she did live through the Obama administration. In 2014, about a year before her assassination, Berta named Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, as a key perpetrator in Honduran suffering: “We’re coming out of a coup that we can’t put behind us. We can’t reverse it. It just kept going. And after, there was the issue of the elections. The same Hillary Clinton, in her book, Hard Choices, practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country.”
Clinton was campaigning to be the first woman president of the United States when Berta was murdered. Greg Grandin, a historian on Latin America, called on Americans to demand answers from Clinton for Berta’s assassination in The Nation:
Hillary Clinton will be good for women. Ask Berta Cáceres. But you can’t. She’s dead… I’m tempted to end this post with a call on Bernie bros and sisters to hold Hillary Clinton responsible and to ask, when possible in town halls and meet and greets, if she ever met Cáceres, or if she is still proud of the hell she helped routinize in Honduras. But, really, Cáceres’s assassination shouldn’t be reduced to the idiocy of American electoral politics. All people of goodwill should ask Hillary Clinton those questions.
All people of goodwill should ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau those same questions. After the U.S., Canada is the largest foreign investor in Honduras. In 2011, the Canadian government signed a free trade agreement with Honduras that paved the way for Canadian investment in the impoverished nation. Before Berta was killed, she was organizing Lenca opposition to a dam being built by Hydrosys, a Canadian company, and she said she had received death threats from Blue Energy, a Canadian hydro developer at another site near her home.
Berta would likely look at today’s pandemic world and the inequalities that COVID has made more visible and still demand more of the activists concerned about climate change and forced migration. She would call on people everywhere go to the root cause of oppression and environmental degradation.
To mark the fifth anniversary of Berta’s assassination and what would have been her 50th birthday on March 4, Berta’s family has asked people to plant trees in her memory. As we gather and dream of a new normal post-COVID, we must remember Berta’s spirited call on American soil in the months before her assassination: “Let us wake up! Wake up humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.”
Nina Lakhani, author of Who Killed Berta Caceres?, will be speaking as part of the Tertulia Fredericton series on March 3 at 7:30pm Atlantic time on Zoom/Facebook Live. Details here.
Tracy Glynn researches the gendered nature of resistance to resource extraction, and engages in solidarity work with mine-affected communities in Indonesia, Canada and beyond.
A version of this story was published in rabble.