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.