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Berta Isabel Cáceres: Legendary Human Rights Activist

Berta Cáceres

In the late night of March 2nd, 2016, Lenca activist Berta Isabel Cáceres, who’s environmental advocacy had broken barriers and become an undeniable force in Honduras, was shot to death at her home in the town of La Esperanza. Her murder was masterminded by seven men (convicted in 2018), and came on the heels of her greatest victory: halting the construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River—considered a sacred site to the Lenca people. She was two days shy of turning 45.

“I believe it signifies life. I would go into the river and I could hear what the river was telling me. I knew it was going to be difficult. But I also knew we were going to triumph, because the river told me so.”

Berta Cáceres

Berta was a Goldman Environmental Prize winner (2015) and a lifelong defender of Indigenous rights in Honduras. During this year’s Latinx Heritage Month, we’d like to spotlight Berta’s powerful work for the people of Honduras. Her steely resolve and willingness to take on corruption and corporate entities that were dead set on siphoning the natural resources of the Lenca people remain a beacon for many activists. She was the physical bullhorn that inspired her community to reclaim their power by pushing back against non-consented land grabs by the Honduran government.

Berta, came of age in the 70s, when a wave of Central American violence had erupted all across the region. Growing up she was largely influenced by her mother, Austra Bertha Flores Lopez, a social activist and midwife who was known to have taken in refugees from El Salvador during their civil war. Austra was a well-respected public servant who served two-terms as mayor of La Esperanza as well as governor of the Department of Intibucá. From a young age, it was quite clear that Berta was destined to be a part of that tremendous legacy.

In 1993, she founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and it wasn’t long before the political climate would catapult her into the forefront of multiple movements within the country. Berta would go on to be the voice of the people, standing in solidarity with LGBT, feminist, and Indigenous causes.

Starting in 2006, a large contract funded by Sinohydro, World Bank, and Honduran company Desarollos Energéticos was being devised for the Agua Zarca Dam. Without consent of the Lenca people, the project’s approval was in direct violation of international law. The dam was considered an access point for water, supplies, medicine; and to the Lenca, it was sacred. Then in 2009 the US-influenced Honduran coup resulted in the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. Under the watch of the UN, global leaders, the Obama administration—most notably Hillary Clinton—Honduras descended into chaos.

According to the website GoldmanPrize.org, “Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has witnessed an explosive growth in environmentally destructive megaprojects that would displace Indigenous communities. Almost 30 percent of the country’s land was earmarked for mining concessions, creating a demand for cheap energy to power future mining operations. To meet this need, the government approved hundreds of dam projects around the country, privatizing rivers, land, and uprooting communities.”

During that tumultuous time, and despite being the target of constant death threats and harassment, Berta galvanized her community. She organized using legal strategies to block construction of the project and by 2013 had decided to stage a year-long protest in order to prevent the hydroelectric dam from being built. The fight was bloody, as the Honduran government shot protesters and used intimidation tactics on the members of COPINH.

“Her murder became a litmus test for a country where corruption and impunity reign – and for a justice system which has received millions of US and European dollars in international aid.”

Nina Lakhani, The Guardian
Photo Credit: Orland Sierra / AFP / GETTY

Berta’s resolve was disruptive and infuriated the political dynamics in Honduras. She was murdered in her home. The seven men responsible were found guilty, but the road that led to their convictions was littered with uncertainty. There was a concerted attempt to cover up the plot and botch the investigation. The void left by her absence in addition to the tense climate of the country swelled into a massive backlash. Her family’s persistence was echoed by the international community and even as last year’s trial came to a conclusion, the lingering effects of such an uphill climb have left an undeniable mark.

The upheaval of Honduras and its aftermath is still evidenced today, as many Hondureños continue to flee toward the southern US border, desperate for a life in which they see a viable future. Their lives are continually at risk back home in a country that is a hotbed for homicide, government corruption, and human rights violations. Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that climate change advocates and human rights activists keep disappearing.

In 2019, Indigenous communities all over the world remain entrenched in the fight against egregious land grabs from governments and businesses. These well-funded projects threaten not just those tribal communities, but the very sustainability of natural resources for all of us on the planet. The reckless pursuit of profit even as the effects of climate change increase the sense of urgency worldwide over necessary solutions is alarming. Which much of the recent attention over the issue being given to platforms that center white voices, many are wondering if all of this comes at the expense of Indigenous voices being muted. Voices like Berta’s. In the video below, her children speak about the undeniable impact of their mother’s legacy. It is deeply moving. May her legacy continue to live through each of us, and her inspiration be wide-reaching.

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