On the morning of March 5, the streets of the small Honduran town of La Esperanza woke up to the sounds of mournful crowds and cries for justice. Locals gathered to say goodbye to the prominent indigenous environmental activist, Berta Cáceres, slain in the early morning hours of March 3. Gunmen had broken into her house and shot her to death. The procession followed Cáceres’ white coffin to the local cemetery, where her family waited in tears. Cáceres had received numerous death threats for her activism throughout her career, but these had intensified in the days leading up to her death. Aware of the dangers of political activism in Honduras, Cáceres’ colleagues had prepared a eulogy on her behalf years in advance. But when the moment arrived to deliver the goodbye speeches, the realization that one more victim had fallen to the country’s endless violence hit hard in the hearts of her friends.
Only a year earlier, Cáceres had flown to San Francisco to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize—better known as the Green Nobel—for her work in defense of Honduras’ Gualcarque River, which formed part of the territory of the Lanca indigenous people. In 2013, a transnational construction company (Sinohydro) and state-owned company (DESA) planned for the construction of a dam on the river, in a joint project that would displace the local community. In 1993, Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which rallied against the construction of the dam. While several indigenous groups have mobilized for the defense of land in Latin America in recent decades, defeat is the usual outcome in a region where transnational interests heavily influence political agendas. Yet against all odds, Berta won the battle. Both companies pulled out from the project in 2013, after she organized a year-long peaceful roadblock with fellow COPINH members.
However, Berta’s victory was ended with a bullet. It is unclear whether the details about her assassination will come to light any time soon. The night of her murder, Berta was hosting a Mexican environmental activist named Gustavo Castro at her home in La Esperanza. According to local accounts, both activists woke to the sound of gunmen entering the house. Though both activists were shot, Castro was only wounded. The following day, when Castro attempted to return to Mexico, he was detained by Honduran police. The country’s Attorney General determined that, as the sole witness of the crime, Castro was to stay in the country throughout the investigations, for a minimum of 30 days. The court had clearly dismissed the fact that he himself was a victim of an assassination attempt. What’s more: on a public letter published on local newspapers, Castro declared that he had been deprived from food and sleeping while detained. Police claimed to have shown him several pictures of potential suspects, but Castro denounced that the photos corresponded to COPINH members, on what may have been a police attempt of criminalizing environmental activists. The question is whether the government is afraid that Castro may reveal to the world what Honduran people strongly suspect: Cáceres’ assassination was an act of political terror. She is now one among among hundreds of Honduran activists silenced by the government since the country's 2009 coup.
Since the 1990s, Cáceres had peacefully campaigned against the entrance of extractive companies in Lenca’s territories in Honduras. She became known for her explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-racist and feminist rhetoric, for her commitment to her community, and for fearlessly denouncing government abuses and US intervention. Like thousands of indigenous people across the Americas, Cáceres turned to environmental activism when her community became endangered. The defense of the environment is not a simple matter of political ideology for these communities: companies that deal in natural resource extraction constitute a real threat to the very existence of indigenous people, as their practices physically destroy the lands they inhabit. Since many of these companies are state-owned or directly work for the government, the interests of the Honduran government are at odds with those of the Lenca people and other indigenous groups. As a means to resolve these differences, the government has opted for the use of repressive violence.
Activists like Berta are constant targets of state violence in Honduras. While the Honduran constitution defends the right to protest and the right of indigenous people to govern their lands, the government fails to uphold what its constitution mandates. It's systematic rights abuses have been documented by local groups like COPINH, as well as in reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The rule of law has weakened since 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a US-backed military coup. The coup has left an early legacy of dramatic escalation in state-sponsored violence, crime, and corruption. While the country officially transitioned back to democracy in 2010, the ongoing crisis of violence shows that Honduras remains politically unstable. As the country’s governmental institutions are eroded and political violence increases, memories of the era of Cold War dictatorship awake in the minds of Hondurans. Just like in the dictatorship period from 1963 to 1981, the defense of human rights has once again become an act of defiance against the government, as those who stand up against abuses face the possibility of death. While Honduran resistance came in the form of guerrilla warfare during the Cold War, Honduran activists today engage in peaceful forms of protest. Indigenous people, attempting to defend their territories, appeal to international treaties that protect territorial rights when peacefully taking to the streets. And yet, the government response feels eerily reminiscent of another era. Death squad-like groups are silently surging in democratic Honduras, as reported by the Associated Press, and targeting those who defend the environment.
Several other members of COPINH, the indigenous group that Cáceres belonged to, have been victims of acts of violence despite their peaceful campaigns. Tomás García, the second co-founder of COPINH and a close ally of Cáceres, was murdered during a peaceful protest in 2013. In addition to García, 109 environmental activists were killed between 2010 and 2015. Not surprisingly, a March 4 report from international NGO Global Witness ranked the country as the most dangerous for people defending the environment. In the case of Honduras, a large proportion of these environmental activists are also indigenous people. Berta Cáceres was no exception. In an effort to prevent potential state repression, she requested protection from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights against her government. Still, international law and Cáceres’ status as an award-winning environmental and indigenous activist were not enough to save her from the reign of terror. The oppressive hand of the Honduran government does not discriminate.
As history repeats itself and violence becomes increasingly unbearable, a sense of hopelessness reigns in Honduras. Many desperate families from communities touched by violence are opting to send their children away to the United States. The penurious journey usually requires travelling on the top of freight trains for days across Central America and Mexico. Still, for many, this option feels more promising than remaining in Honduras. Last summer, pictures of unaccompanied Central American children migrants reaching the US-Mexico border flooded the internet and caused an uproar among policymakers. They are testament to the degree to which a dignified life in Honduras is becoming impossible for many of its people. To others, however, the idea of leaving is inconceivable. Indigenous people have resisted five centuries of state oppression in the defense of their territories. Their stake to the land is stronger than the fear of governmental repression. Whether they decide to stay or flee, Hondurans are forced to take this hard decision in the face of the violence that reigns in their country. Berta did not give up fighting for her land; she was forced to.
In her speech at the 2015 Goldman Prize ceremony, Cáceres said: “Our ancestors taught us that giving our lives for the well-being of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity.” She lived up to her words in her defense of the Gualcarque River. As an outspoken indigenous leader, Berta inspired those around her. While aware of the dangers of activism in Honduras, she never hesitated to criticize her government for the defense of her community. Her case is a painful reminder that indigenous people are the first victims of environmental destruction in Honduras, and generally across the region. In remembering the life and work of the indigenous and environmental leader, let us reflect on the resistance of indigenous people across the Americas, and their commitment to protecting the environment, in spite of centuries of state oppression.
Note: Less than two weeks after Cáceres’ assassination, while this article went through the editing process, another member of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras was murdered. Nelson García was shot to death on Tuesday, March 15. He was the leader of the Rio Chiquito community, a group of 150 indigenous families, which, at the time of this writing, is being evicted from their territory by the Honduran military police. It appears that mourning in Honduras is an endless occupation.
CAMILA RUIZ SEGOVIA B’18 is mourning.