For Berta Caceres, A Month After Her Death
This is an ode to Berta Caceres. Over one month after her murder, even as most newspapers have moved on to new atrocities, it remains difficult to write about this environmental activist. Her story is both inspirational and tragic. While undoubtedly her own, Caceres’s situation has a haunting familiarity that has captured the public’s imagination. She has become an icon, emblematic of fierce devotion to a just cause in the face of violent oppression.
Caceres was an exceptional, passionate, and fearless advocate for indigenous rights. It was her importance within Honduras that granted her international acclaim and caused her death to make waves across the globe. So how do we do justice to the woman who has come to represent so much, while also honouring the countless others, less prestigious but no less human, who have died defending similar convictions?
Berta Caceres was only a day away from her 45th birthday when four bullets shot deep into her flesh. She was in her home at the time with Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican activist who was wounded in the attack, and until recently barred from leaving the country. But little more is known about the activist’s death. In Honduras, the police force is untrustworthy and the justice system is flawed – by one estimate, less than 4% of murders result in convictions – so we are left with hearsay. It comes as no surprise, then, that the case of Caceres’s murder has been tainted by police abuse and conflicts of interest. Notably, there has been no independent autopsy, no secured crime scene, and no attempt to suggest that the perpetrators might lie outside of Caceres’s indigenous group itself.
Yet it seems bizarre and unlikely that Caceres would have been killed by one of her own when she had a laundry list of outside foes. As the co-founder of COPINH, an indigenous group that opposed large-scale energy and resource projects, Caceres was active enough to provoke a barrage of threats, most notably during her campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. Despite the 33 threats she received between 2013 and 2016, the state was unwilling or unable to protect her. Government corruption and lawlessness have allowed over one hundred environmental activists to be murdered in the past six years, most often with impunity. Caceres’s international renown, says her daughter Laura, makes this case different: “[Her death] shows that they can assassinate any of us in Honduras.”
Despite winning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, Caceres’s work with the Lenca indigenous community of Honduras continually placed her in harm’s way. The Lenca, like many Latin American indigenous groups, are taking steps to counter corporate development of their sacred territories. They must fight against forces that would subject their homes to environmental damage and carcinogenic pollution. And, it must be said, they are not winning.
The national and international responses to her death seem promising. While less now than in the early days following the murder, the reaction has been immense. In Honduras, protesters have demanded justice for Caceres. Meanwhile in the U.S., 62 members of Congress sent a letter to the Secretaries of State and Treasury in March calling for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to hold an independent investigation into her death, among other measures. Viviana Krsticevicthe, Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), affirmed, “We don’t want it to be business as usual.”
We must remember, though, that the indigenous have faced systemic oppression and violence for centuries. Even in the past hundred years, Honduras’s status as a banana republic entailed mass land devastation and inequality. Now, as governments throughout Latin America move forward with natural resource projects to kick-start their burgeoning economies, conflicts with indigenous minorities are treated with annoyance, if not outright aggression. The “Free, Prior, and Informed Consent” on projects, which indigenous peoples are promised under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has been violated time and time again. If we see the murder of activists as a watershed or a tipping point, we are ignoring a long-term trend.
Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of the fight to preserve what is rightfully theirs. To be a change-maker in a place like Honduras, at the mercy of internal corruption and external domination, is to be at risk. When members of Congress in the U.S. call for possible sanctions against Honduras, they should think about why these entrenched systems of domination are in place, and how best to remedy them. The answer goes far beyond an inquiry, a set of sanctions, or any single measure.
Whatever will or will not be done, it will be too late for Berta Caceres. Read up on her work. Acquaint yourself with her struggle, her tenacity, and her allies. But by no means think that there is an easy fix or clear culpability: we are all complicit in this silence.