Celebrating Berta Cáceres and Protecting Environmental Rights

Four days before International Women’s Day, feminist and human rights icon Berta Cáceres—a powerful organizer for indigenous rights and democracy—was assassinated. Fellow activist Nelson Garcia was also murdered less than two weeks later, on March 15, after Honduran Security forces violently evicted an indigenous Lenca community.

Cáceres, whose mother was a midwife and governor, had started the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) when Berta was a young woman. She led campaigns on a variety of issues but is particularly celebrated for mobilizing the Lenca people against the Agua Zarca dam, which threatened their access to water, food and medicine.

For this critical effort, COPINH built a roadblock that lasted a year. Through legal and community action, they convinced the International Monetary Fund and the Chinese company, Sinohydro, to withdraw from the project. Another Honduran company, DESA, reinstated the dam project on the Gualcarque River, which COPINH continues to oppose.

In 2015, Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman prize, comparable to a Nobel Prize, for the environment in South and Central America.

Gustavo Castro Soto, coordinator for Friends of the Earth Mexico, was with Cáceres during the March 3 attack. Cáceres died in his arms. He was also injured, later detained, held in inhumane conditions, and questioned. After being released, he was escorted to the airport by the Mexican ambassador, but has been ordered by Honduran authorities to stay in the country for 30 days.

These events occurred within the context of repressive Honduran leadership that has stepped up violence since the 2009 coup d’état that occurred after the democratically elected president, Mel Zelaya, ordered a non-binding straw poll to consider democratic revisions of the constitution. The Honduran military and judicial system opposed Zelaya, and he was removed from office and forcibly flown to Costa Rica. The United Nations and the Organization of American States called the action a “coup,” but the United States did not intercede to support Zelaya’s return.

Since the coup, Honduras has pursued mass privatization of rivers and cities. More than 100 other members of COPINH have been murdered, child refugee numbers have increased 40-fold, and Honduras has been ranked the most dangerous country for environmental advocates. Terror has reigned for citizens while the government has protected multinational corporations and financers from any accountability.

Cáceres’ and Garcia’s deaths must be met with justice.

There must be independent investigations into their deaths and full accountability for the perpetrators. Castro must be safely returned to his home, and criminalization of COPINH activities must end.

So too must the United States deeply question our long history of support for brutal regimes. And we must end “security” aid to Honduras and other repressive governments.

Cáceres, a vocal critic of the coup spoke of a way forward: “We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self destruction … Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life.”

Veena Trehan, Chair,
Global Women Task Force

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