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Story Publication logo March 1, 2017

In Honduras, Defending Nature Is a Deadly Business


Activist Tomas Gomez Membreño says that “more and more of our natural resources are being handed out to foreign corporations.” Image by Jeremy Relph. Honduras, 2017.

Murders of environmental and land rights campaigners are on the increase worldwide.

A shrine to Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza. Image by Jeremy Relph for Yale E360. Honduras, 2017.
A shrine to Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza. Image by Jeremy Relph. Honduras, 2017.

They came for her late one evening last March, as Berta Cáceres prepared for bed. A heavy boot broke the back door of the safe house she had just moved into. Her colleague and family friend, Gustavo Castro, heard her shout, "Who's there?" Then came a series of shots. He survived. But the most famous and fearless social and environmental activist in Honduras died instantly. She was 44 years old. It was a cold-blooded political assassination.

Berta Cáceres knew she was likely to be killed. Everybody knew. She had told her daughter Laura to prepare for life without her. The citation for her prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded in the United States less than a year before, noted the continued death threats, before adding: "Her murder would not surprise her colleagues, who keep a eulogy – but hope to never have to use it."

"I knew she was afraid," said Maria Santos Dominguez, who lives in the remote indigenous village of Rio Blanco in the country's mountainous west, where Cáceres was the national face of a campaign against a dam on a river sacred to the Lenca people. "It was too much for her. I could tell."

Most believe it was that campaign, against the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River, that provided the motive for her murder, one of a rash of recent killings of environmental and social activists in Honduras.

Honduras, says the international human rights group Global Witness, is "the deadliest country in the world to defend the natural world." At least 109 people have been killed for taking a stand against dams, mines, logging, and agricultural projects in Honduras since a military coup there in 2009 installed a government that was quickly supported by the U.S. State Department. Global Witness catalogues the killings of environmental and human rights campaigners around the world, and its latest report revealed that 2015 was the most dangerous year on record to be an environmental activist.

Cáceres was only the most high-profile victim of a worldwide epidemic that saw nearly 200 deaths during the past year. "The environment is emerging as a new battleground for human rights," Global Witness found. With demand for products like timber, minerals, and palm oil on the rise, companies are exploiting land with little regard for the people who live on it, according to the report, which noted that increasingly, "communities that take a stand are finding themselves in the firing line of companies' private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers."

And 2017 has already seen more. Another former Goldman Prize winner, Mexican indigenous leader and opponent of illegal logging Isidro Baldenegro was shot dead in January.

Yale Environment 360 has investigated the circumstances surrounding the killings of environmental activists on three continents — probing cases in Honduras, Malaysia, and South Africa. Two things emerge strongly: First, the frequent characterization of the activists as environmentalists only tells part of the story. Their campaigns run much deeper and are often rooted in the social identity of minority groups — in Cáceres's case, the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras.

And second, while lone thugs and gangsters often end up in court, there is frequently a conspiracy of actors engaged in silencing the activists. As Global Witness's chief campaigner on the issue, Billy Kyte, puts it: "These are not isolated incidents — they are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors."

According to Honduran prosecutors, of the eight people so far arrested in connection with the death of Cáceres, six have links to government security services, including an elite military squad trained by U.S. Special Forces. And two of those charged have alleged links to the Honduran company behind the dam project, Desarrollos Energeticas SA, including a security chief and the man in charge of its environmental policies. Yale Environment 360 has learned that the cases against those charged are being built based on records of mobile phone calls made around the time of the crime.

In a statement, the company said it "has not given any declaration, nor does it plan to do so, until the authorities in charge of the investigation determine the causes and perpetrators of this regrettable incident."

Cáceres had been born into one of the most prominent families of the Lenca people, who live in the mountains of western Honduras. In the 23 years since she helped form the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), she had helped revive the Lenca's cultural and political identity. Her organization, based around its stronghold in the market town of La Esperanza, had become entrenched and vocal. It had established a training center, nicknamed Utopia, and a network of radio stations, La Voz Lenca. 

It was unapologetically Marxist in its approach, but rooted Lenca identity in the mountains and rivers, the forests, and the plant life of the region.

"Berta was COPINH and COPINH was Berta," says Karen Spring, a Canadian social activist based in the national capital Tegucigalpa. "Especially after the 2009 coup, she had become one of the leading people in the country. And feared. That's why they wanted to kill her." She had opposed a rash of development projects and "concessions" handed out, often illegally, to private companies for dams, mines, and other projects.

Cáceres had also become an important figure in the growing Latin American movement of indigenous peoples. More than 3,000 people thronged the streets of La Esperanza for her funeral. A year later, the town is still full of graffiti declaring "Berta Vive," and shrines are visible on street corners. Strangers from across the world make their way to her grave in the town cemetery. The martyrdom of Berta is well underway.

Cáceres's political tenacity came from generations of family politics, particularly among the women. To understand her, I visited her 85-year-old mother, Austraberta Flores, with whom she lived until the final months. Friends say she left to spare her mother from witnessing the inevitable end. Besides having nine children, Flores was a midwife. Almost everyone I met in La Esperanza claimed to have been brought into the world by her.

But she was also a politician — thrice mayor of the city and a congresswoman in the capital Tegucigalpa. She promoted into national law an international code requiring free, prior, and informed consent from communities like the Lenca before development projects such as dams and mines can go ahead on their lands. "It's still the strongest law we have," Flores told me proudly.

She had also been a frontline activist, making regular forays to the border with El Salvador during the civil war there in the 1980s to help female Salvadoran fighters deliver their babies while on the run. "We were helping Salvadorans to liberate themselves so they could help liberate us," she said.

Flores blames the state for her daughter's death. "She had filed 40 reports of threats against her. They knew she was under threat, but they failed to protect her." Now Cáceres's daughters, Bertita, 26, and Laura, 24, "have the responsibility to carry on," Flores told me.

Much of COPINH's power lies in combining political radicalism — anti-military, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, and anti-American — with a deep conservative attachment to the Lenca peoples' heritage and land. In COPINH's Women's Wellness Center, a new and heavily guarded building in La Esperanza where abused and intimidated women can take refuge, I met 75-year-old Pascualita Vasquez. She was the longtime chair of the council of elders, established by Cáceres to revive cultural traditions and links to the land. They bless rivers, bless soil before harvests, and bless new houses. 

"Before Berta, our ceremonies were being forgotten. I remembered them as a child, but we no longer did them," she told me. "But Berta emphasized for us how important it was to rescue our traditions, and to hold ceremonies before discussions of current issues like dams. We revere our ancestors, and now that Berta is dead, we see her as an ancestor, too."

Now, reviving local herbal remedies and seeds — of corn, for instance — is central to reclaiming their land, she said. We spoke beside a shrine to Cáceres set up in the middle of the room, with candles, corn cobs, pine cones, and a flask of water from the river that Cáceres was protecting before she was killed.

The next day I traveled to Rio Blanco, the distant village that became the focus of Cáceres's last campaign, against the Agua Zarca dam. It had been a violent and bitter struggle. In 2013, local activist Tomas Garcia had been shot dead by soldiers during protests at a camp established by Chinese construction workers set to begin work on the dam.

"Berta grew up with struggle. She saw it every day," Flores told me. "It was her schooling. I knew she would be important. I was always pushing her to become what she became." Berta and her mother made a formidable team. While Flores drafted legislation on "free, prior, and informed consent" on development projects, her daughter organized street demonstrations supporting its introduction.

My host was villager Maria Santos Dominguez, local leader of opposition to the dam. She had a nasty scar on her face. She explained how the villagers had become divided between those for and against the dam. One family in particular had complained that she "spoke too much." It was her fault, they said, that they couldn't get economic development in the village. 

"They saw me go past on the way to my children's school one day, and they hid for my return. Then they attacked me with a machete. I had taken my phone out to talk to my husband. He heard it all and came running. He had my son with him and told him: 'They are killing your mom.'"

Dominguez spent six months recuperating at the Wellness Center in La Esperanza. "She was on the brink of suicide," aides there told me. But now she was back home, as determined as ever. She broadcasts every week on the Lenca radio station, from a location that is kept secret to prevent attacks.

"We were born here. It is our land and our river," she said. "If we lost the river, we'd die. We need its water to bathe, for fish, for water, for our crops and animals."

She took me to the river, to a gorge where a quiet pool formed between two rapids. It was a beautiful spot and, in engineering terms, an ideal place for the dam they had so far been able to prevent. Dominguez often bathes her children in the clear, cool mountain waters. "The river is sacred to us. We believe in the spirits in the river – they are three little girls, and they give us strength to fight the dam builders," she said. For Dominguez and others, it has become an existential fight.

A few days before her murder, Cáceres had come to Rio Blanco. "There were dam people on the river, working with machinery. It looked like they might be about to begin work on construction. So we went to see them," said Dominguez. "But they accused her of stirring us up, and they threatened to kill her. A few days later she was dead. The dam people haven't come back to the river since."

Will the Agua Zarca dam ever be built? Some now doubt it. It would only have delivered a modest 22 megawatts of electricity. After the outcry over Cáceres's death, international funders, including Dutch financier FMO and the Finnish Finnfund, announced that they were pulling out of the project. The Chinese are gone, too. But elsewhere on Lenca territory, dams are going ahead.

In La Paz province, the Lenca have been fighting a rash of hydroelectric schemes on mountain streams, being promoted by a local politician and vice president of the Honduran Congress for the ruling right-wing Nationalist Party, Gladys Aurora Lopez, and her husband Arnold Castro. These projects are proposed for mountains that locals say have been illegally taken from them. Local leader Ana Mirian Romero had her home burned down. "They call us stupid Indians," said La Paz activist Margarita Pineda Rodriguez. "But these projects offer us no benefits, only loss of our natural resources."

"We are seeing the recolonization of our country," says Tomas Gomez Membreño, Cáceres's successor as interim COPINH's coordinator, as we talked at length in the training center in La Esperanza one evening. "More and more of our natural resources are being handed out to foreign corporations. There is more and more repression of people who fight back."

This is a wounded community. Cáceres's brother Gustavo, hovering in the background as I interviewed her mother, seemed a broken man. Another of her former lieutenants, Sotero Chavarria, told me that he could not bear to go to the cemetery to see her grave.

But their tenacity in the face of continuing violence remains remarkable. In March 2016, less than two weeks after the assassination of Cáreras, another COPINH activist Nelson Garcia was shot dead outside his home south of La Esperanza, after spending the day defending local Lenca people against efforts to evict them from their land.

In July, activist and mother-of-three Lesbia Yaneth Urquia was found dead near a garbage dump in the town of Marcala, with deep cuts to her head. One day in October, COPINH's Membreño was shot at in the street, and someone opened fire on the home of another local leader, Alexander Garcia, while he and his family were asleep inside.

The day I arrived in Honduras a La Paz activist, Victor Vásquez, was shot in the leg by a policeman while taking video footage of an eviction in the village of San Pedro de Tutule. "They tell us this is not our land, but we have been here for 500 years," Vásquez told me a couple of days later at his home, where he was recovering. "The president wants to sell our land and our rivers, and the clean air in our mountains. He would sell the birds in the trees."

In a quavering voice, his young son sat on his bed and sang me a song of defiance. Flying high on a tall tree above his village was a Honduran flag, its placement there a sign of indigenous resistance, he told me.

Cáceres's modest bungalow stands empty today. The only sign of her violent end is a dent in the wire fence where the assassins had climbed over. A "Berta Vive" poster hangs in the window. Some want her home to become a museum of her life, to seal her martyrdom. The river she died to protect may or may not get dammed. But the battle for her legacy — and for the future of the Lenca and their lands – goes on.

This story was also featured on The Guardian.



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