Early in the morning of March 3, Berta Cáceres was assassinated as she slept.
The Honduran activist’s assassination shines a light on the risk of death for environmental defenders in Latin America.
Berta Cáceres cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, in order to defend the territorial rights of indigenous and campesino people against logging and other extractive projects. For over 20 years, COPINH has been a major player in resisting the Agua Zarca megadam complex being built in Rio Blanco on Lenca indigenous territory, and in 2015 Berta was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in that effort.
The Agua Zarca struggle is decades old. To give one example of the powerful forces acting against the Rio Blanco community, in 2013, defying a military lockdown of the area, local activists and COPINH maintained a road blockade that prevented machinery from reaching the dam site for over a year.
In clashes between the community and security forces, community leader Tómas Garcia was shot and killed. His death prompted increased local resistance that ultimately persuaded Chinese Sinohydro, the largest dam builder in the world, to pull out of the project.
Threats against the defenders failed to abate however, and Berta said the accomplishment “cost us in blood”. In an interview with El Universo newspaper in 2015, she said: “I never doubted I would continue the struggle despite the threats; they even gave me more resolve.”
Berta was not the first or the last defender to die in the struggle against Agua Zarca and other mega-dams. This story of repression and death is playing out in communities across Latin America, a continent with a high level of economic dependence on “extractivism” – a term used to refer to the extraction of unprocessed natural resources. Latin America consistently tops the global list for mining exploration and fossil fuel extraction shows a similar picture.
To generate cheap energy for these industries, many hydroelectric dams are being planned and built across Latin America, leading to a steady rise in socio-environmental conflict across the continent. The ferocity with which activists are specifically targetted is deliberate. More land and environmental defenders died in 2014 in Latin America than anywhere else in the world, with 88 out of 114 total recorded deaths. Honduras tops the list.
It is when defenders go so far as to speak out about the root causes of these projects — corporate greed, unfettered capitalism, political impunity — that they, like Berta, may be targeted and killed. Her supporters have no doubt that daring to challenge the corrupt and powerful forces behind this project is what led to her death.
“We know very well who murdered her,” COPINH said in a statement on March 3. Speaking of the Honduran government, corporations, and financial institutions backing the Agua Zarca dam, COPINH wrote, “their hands are stained with indigenous blood and with the blood of the Lenca people.” In a statement, her family concurred: “Her assassination is an attempt to end the struggle of the Lenca people against exploitation and dispossession of their territories.”
As activists in the Global North, we must use our position of privilege to shine a light on these assassinations and the death threats continuously received by environmental defenders in Latin America, and put unrelenting pressure on the corporations behind these projects to pull out.
As those celebrating Berta’s life cried just days after her murder, “Berta lives, and the fight continues!”
This article was originally printed in isssue 99 of Focus magazine. It was written by Sian Cowman, who works for The Democracy Center Bolivia, and a member of Comhlámh’s ‘Focus Magazine’ group
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