Berta Caceres’ killing was a symptom, not an isolated incident.
Berta Cáceres wasn’t the first and, unfortunately, she hasn’t been the last. The world-renowned Lenca leader assassinated last month in Honduras for her opposition to government-backed megaprojects is one of an increasing litany of fallen fighters for indigenous and environmental rights in Honduras and around the globe.
The pattern of murder and criminalization of those who would defend land and the rights of rural people has only gotten more clear. We argue that this pattern responds to the land grab phenomenon that has intensified since the global financial and food crisis of 2007-2008.
On March 15 another Honduran environmental and indigenous activist was murdered. Nelson García was an active member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh). His murder took place “when he came home for lunch, after having spent the morning helping to move the belongings of evicted families from the Lenca indigenous community of Rio Chiquito,” said Copinh.
García was a colleague of the recently slain Cáceres, working with communities opposing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project. The Agua Zarca dam project, now on hold, would provide energy for the numerous extractive projects slated for Honduras in the coming decade. Since the 2009 coup d’etat against President Manuel Zelaya, 30 percent of Honduran territory has been allocated to mining concessions.
The eviction after which García was killed was one of many recent violent evictions carried out by Honduran military police in indigenous territories. Elevated levels of state violence and disregard for due process are business as usual nowadays in Honduras, according to civil society organizations.
In its February 21 report on the Situation of Human Rights in Honduras, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern about the high levels of violence and insecurity present in Honduran society, highlighting risks to indigenous people. The report pointed out that violence against indigenous people has emerged to a large degree from land grabs. The violence is exacerbated by a context of inequality and discrimination, in addition to the consequent barriers to access to justice. Official figures released in April 2013 by then Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí indicate that 80 percent of killings in Honduras went unpunished due to a lack of capacity on the part of investigative bodies.
According to the IACHR, the challenges that indigenous communities face are mainly related to:
(i) the high levels of insecurity and violence arising from the imposition of project and investment plans and natural resource mining concessions on their ancestral territories;
(ii) forced evictions through the excessive use of force and
(iii) the persecution and criminalization of indigenous leaders for reasons related to the defense of their ancestral territories.”
Moreover, the IACHR has clearly stated that many of the attacks carried out against indigenous leaders and advocates are specifically aimed at reducing their activities in defense and protection of their territories and natural resources, as well as the defense of the right to autonomy and cultural identity.
Harassment takes the form not only of targeted criminal attacks, as we have seen in the case of Berta Cáceres, Nelson García and many others, but a much broader net has been cast against environmental and indigenous leaders. Official state entities, enacting formal legal procedures, have used the judicial system to catch activists in false charges, resulting in months or years of preventive prison, bogus sentences, legal fees and often a permanent criminal record. In a context in which state violence intertwines itself with the violence of international economic power, corruption and unethical practices, hundreds of leaders have been prosecuted for crimes such as usurpation of land and damage to the environment.
What we see in Honduras is part of the global land grab phenomenon, a term that in the words of Phillip McMichael, professor of development sociology at Cornell University, “invokes a long history of violent enclosure of common lands to accommodate world capitalist expansion, but it sits uneasily with the ‘free market’ rhetoric of neoliberal ideology.”
Land grabs are a symptom of a crisis of accumulation in the neoliberal globalization project, which has intensified since the global financial and food crisis of 2007-2008. This in turn is linked to an acceleration of a restructuring process of the food regime as a consequence of a large-scale relocation of agro-industry to the global south.
According to the 2011 Oxfam briefing paper, “Land and Power, the growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investment in land,” recent records of investment show a rapidly increasing pressure on land, resulting in dispossession, deception, violation of human rights and destruction of livelihoods. It is a war on indigenous peoples conducted in order to establish modern corporate capitalism.
Indeed, all around the world peasants and indigenous people are being displaced from their territories in order to develop large-scale agribusiness, such as massive palm oil and soy plantations, mining projects, hydroelectric dams and tourist resorts, among other investments. State-sanctioned violence and impunity create the conditions for investors to acquire land that would otherwise not be for sale. The result is a serious threat to the subsistence and socio-ecological resilience of millions of people across the world.
One of the most dramatic examples of this process is the case of the Honduran Palm Oil Company Grupo Dinant, which has an extended record of violence and human rights abuses associated wutg the killing of more than 100 peasants in Lower Aguan Valley. Ghe Unified Peasants Movement of the Aguán Valley (MUCA) waged a long battle to defend their land rights, sustaining many losses. In addition, international human rights groups such as FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) brought pressure to bear, and in 2011 the Honduran government was forced to convene MUCA and the company to negotiate a deal. Paradoxically, according to the deal, the farmers have to buy back the disputed land at market prices (Oxfam 2011).
Land grabbing in Honduras has a long and lamentable history, and related violence has increased dramatically since the 2009 coup d’etat. Despite regular violent evictions by state security forces, indigenous and peasant groups continue to pursue their right to control their ancestral lands through land occupations.
Those who are incensed by the killing of Berta Cáceres must understand that her assassination was not an isolated event carried out by those who had a personal vendetta against her. Rather, Berta, her colleagues at Copinh and other indigenous organizations represent an obstacle for those who would further a vision of society that values profit over all else.
Murder of Environmental Activist Berta Cáceres, Political Crime
She called herself Berta. Berta Cáceres. March 4, 2015, would have been her 43rd birthday. They killed her on the eve of her birthday. In Honduras. For being an environmentalist. For being insubordinate. For defending nature. For opposing the extractive multinational corporations. For reclaiming the ancestral rights of the Lenca, her indigenous people.
At the age of 20, as a college student, Berta had founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which today brings together some 200 original communities and has become the most aggressive environmental movement. The Honduran regime, born of a coup, has ceded 30 percent of the national territory to transnational mining and hydroelectric corporations. Dozens of megadams are under construction, and more than 300 extractivist companies plunder the territory through government corruption. But COPINH has managed to stop the construction of dams, halt deforestation projects, freeze mining operations, prevent destruction of sacred sites and obtain restitution for the despoiled lands of Indigenous communities.
So it is that in the predawn hours of March 3, as she slept, two hitmen of a death squad entered her house in the city of La Esperanza and murdered Berta Cáceres.
This is a political crime. In June 2009, the constitutional president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown by a coup—which Berta protested with unprecedented courage, leading demonstrations against members of the coup. Since then this country has become one of the most violent in the world and a paradise for the predatory big transnationals and criminal organizations. In this context, the regime of Juan Orlando Hernández and the Honduran oligarchy continue to murder with impunity those who oppose their abuse.
In the last seven years dozens of campesino leaders, union leaders, social movement activists, human rights activists, rebel journalists, educators and environmentalists have been killed with impunity. Nothing is investigated, nothing is explained. No one is punished. And the mainstream international media, so willing to raise hue and cry at the least slip that might be committed in Venezuela, hardly mentions this horror and barbarism.
The same day that Berta Cáceres was murdered, the non-governmental organization Global Witness, London, reported that Honduras
“is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists.”
Of the 116 murders of environmentalists who were on the planet in 2015, almost three-quarters took place in Latin America—the majority in Honduras, one of the continent’s poorest countries.
In 2015 Berta Cáceres received the most prestigious international environmental award, the Goldman Prize, the Green Nobel, for her resistance to construction of a hydroelectric megadam that threatens to expel thousands of Indigenous people from their land. With her bold struggle, Berta got the state-owned Chinese company Sinohydro—the largest builder of hydroelectric dams on the planet and an enterprise linked to the World Bank—to back down and withdraw their involvement in construction of the Agua Zarca dam, on the Gualcarque River, a branch of the river sacred to the Lenca in the Sierra of Puca Opalaca. Mobilized by Berta and COPINH, the Indigenous communities blocked construction access for over a year … And they got some of the world’s most powerful business and financial interests to give up their involvement in the project. This victory was also the most direct cause of Berta’s murder.
Propelled by the Honduran company Development Energies SA, with financial support from the Honduran Commercial Finance Bank SA, which received funds from the World Bank, the construction of the Agua Zarca megadam began in 2010. The project relied on financial support from the Central American Economic Investment Bank and two European financial institutions: the Dutch development bank, Nederlandse Maatschappij voor Ontwikkelingslanden Financierings-NV, and the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation. It is also involved the German company Voith Hydro Holding GmbH & Co. KG, contracted to construct turbines. All these companies have responsibility for the murder of Berta Cáceres. They cannot wash their hands.
They cannot wash their hands because both environmentalists and the Lenca people are defending a legitimate right. They denounce the violation of Convention 169 “concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples” of the International Labour Organization, signed by Honduras in 1995. There has been no free and informed prior consultation of persons affected by the megadam, as also required by the Declaration of the United Nations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).
Berta knew she was a woman marked to die. She had been threatened on numerous occasions. She was in the crosshairs of the death squads, hitmen for Honduran bosses. But she used to say:
“They don’t scare us, because we are not afraid of them.”
When she received the Goldman Prize, they asked her if this award could be a protective shield, and replied:
“The government tries to link the murders of environmental defenders with common violence, but there is sufficient evidence to show that there is a planned and financed policy to criminalize the struggle of social movements. I hope I’m wrong, but I think that instead of decreasing, the persecution against activists is going to intensify.”
She was not wrong.
The Agua Zarca dam is still under construction. And those who oppose it are still being unceremoniously murdered, as just happened—10 days after Berta’s murder— to Honduran environmental leader Nelson García.
The same people who killed Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Romero and Chico Mendes also cut short the life of Berta Cáceres, marvellous flower of the Honduran countryside. But they will not silence her struggle. As Pablo Neruda says:
“They can cut all the flowers, but they cannot stop the spring from coming.”