A peasant organizer said the words slowly, as if each carried a sour taste: “A peasant without land is someone without a country, without a mother.” It was the first day of Grassroots International’s recent delegation to Honduras, and we were huddled together in La Vía Campesina’s office in Tegucigalpa where agrarian and environmental justice activists were briefing us on the Honduran political context. The repression, persecution, and constant criminalization of indigenous people have caused the small Central American country to reach the ranks of the most dangerous place in the world for environmental activists. Since the 2009 coup d’état, the de facto regime has killed more than 120 of them.
One of these activists was known better than the others, and her name was Berta Cáceres.
The charismatic Lenca leader had rallied members of her community and revolutionaries across the country as part of her commitment to the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a fierce popular movement that she co-founded in 1993. Over the decades that followed, Berta worked at the intersections of community organizing and global education and advocacy, even while her country was in the throes of violent political transitions and resource wars.
Those issues collided forcefully on the heels of the coup and become entangled in Agua Zarca, a dam on the Gualcarque River backed by the right-wing government and transnational capital—including the largest dam builder in the world. Berta and her comrades at COPINH knew that it would change the face of ecosystems and act as a pilot for future hydroelectric projects throughout Honduras.
For them, it was a David vs. Goliath battle worth fighting. Collectively they succeeded in putting a stop to the dam’s construction—at least for now. But their victory came at a steep price.
U.S.-trained elite troops stormed Berta’s home on March 3, 2016 and shot her dead. She was buried a day later on what would have been her forty-fifth birthday.
News of Berta’s murder ricocheted throughout the Americas and beyond. Her story quickly became emblematic of the many rural and indigenous people putting their lives and bodies on the line in defense of territory and natural resources. And for those doing so in Honduras, the mother narrative was interwoven into the fabric of protecting the earth and honoring Berta’s legacy.
Back at La Vía Campesina’s office in Tegucigalpa we were face to face with some of the finest of such activists, and preparing to meet with more in what would be a weeklong cross-country delegation commemorating Berta’s legacy exactly a year after she was killed. On the one hand, our invitation by the Honduran social movements came from their wish to have international presence during an intense time of struggle and celebration. On the other hand, their desire for us to be there came in response to our pledge to raise awareness around our government’s role in resource grabbing and political upheaval in the Honduran context.
The Latin American and Caribbean region is no stranger to U.S. intervention and support of right-wing dictatorships—from the occupation of Haiti, to Pinochet’s Chile, to the Contras of Nicaragua. When the army kidnapped then president Zelaya in 2009 and flew him out of the country from the largest U.S. military base in Central America, calls came from around the world to restore democratically elected order. That never happened.
Central America is equally familiar with some of the highest instances of land grabbing in the world. Often taking the form of megaprojects—industrial food crops, agrofuel plantations, mining, big conservation, resorts, roads, and dams—indigenous and afro-descendent peoples are being stripped of their territory while local governments, transnational corporations, and the elite profit. In Honduras, the coup broke already fragile social safety nets and a new grid of power grabs took their place. Landlessness has skyrocketed.
These are the new Contras, and like those that came before, they have everything to do with natural resources.
Against such a backdrop, Grassroots International had chosen its ten-member delegation carefully by including activists that were already at the forefront of awareness-building and funding around policy advocacy campaigns at the U.S. and international levels through their own political organizations. Each had a role to play. Among them were representatives of Cooperation Jackson, a Mississippi-based Black and Latinx working class led group dedicated to replacing the exploitative, exclusionary, and environmentally destructive economy and society, and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, its umbrella movement that has become a leader in the contemporary fight for climate justice.
Also present were young people connected to Resource Generation, an organization that works with people of wealth and class privilege who wish to equitably distribute inherited resources, as well as NoVo Foundation, one of Grassroots International’s newest institutional givers. This composition of activists is key to following through on the delegation’s commitment to its Honduran allies: getting the work done at the policy level requires a double-edged sword of root cause analysis and donors willing to speak that truth to power.
In practice, that kind of political project can have many different targets at once—and each is critical. For the U.S. government, whose funding and training of the Honduran military allows it to carry out abuse and assassination, an obvious “ask” is to stop military aid. The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act is a congressional bill that proposes a halt to multilateral loans to Honduras. Getting it passed would represent a milestone achievement in solidarity with our Honduran sisters and brothers.
For global governance mechanisms, the target is utilizing international soft law that protects rural and indigenous people from escalating land grabs. In Honduras, social movements like COPINH and Grassroots International’s partner the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) have started focusing on Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) enshrined in the 169th covenant of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and subsequently, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). FPIC came out of years of struggle by indigenous peoples who warned that their lands where changing hands without their consultation or consent. When used in the spirit in which it was written, FPIC is a powerful tool: Honduras ratified the original ILO convenient and was a signatory to UNDRIP.
As with many global governance instruments intended to benefit the most vulnerable, FPIC must remain within their hands. With corporate and political elite cooptation of such measures on the rise, OFRANEH organized a daylong workshop in Tegucigalpa on FPIC so that its base members would be able to be aware of such misuse. Our delegation was honored to attend these events at the invitation of OFRANEH and learn more.
At the same time, transnational agrarian movements are in the process of passing a declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas to extend the kinds of rights found in UNDRIP to groups of poor rural workers not covered by that particular declaration. Earlier this month, La Vía Campesina, which has been leading this process, organized a Peasants’ Rights Congress in Germany where they drafted a manifest of the urgent need for such human rights legislation.
“Berta didn’t die, she multiplied,” was a repeated rallying call throughout our time in Honduras a year after her assassination.
It was shouted at a demonstration in Tegucigalpa on the way to deliver legal papers to the Supreme Court. It was whispered in candlelight vigils in Berta’s home and final resting place of La Esperanza. It was sung by Garífuna activists along the Caribbean coast that identified and formed alliances with the Lenca struggle to protect their ancestral territories. The people who echoed those words were acting as guardians of Berta’s legacy, in whom her seed of resistance grows on.
About the author: Salena Tramel is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements. In addition to her research at ISS, Salena draws on her global experience with social movements and grassroots organizations to inform her work as a policy and development consultant and freelance journalist. Prior to joining the academic community at ISS, Salena served as the program coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti at Grassroots International, where she oversaw two key geographical areas while developing pro-poor advocacy strategies at the U.S./UN levels. Salena holds an MA in Sustainable Development with concentrations in Policy Analysis and Advocacy and Conflict Transformation from the School for International Training and a BA in Romance Languages from Point Loma Nazarene University. She has language skills in French, Spanish, Arabic, Haitian Creole, and Romanian. A wide range of mainstream and alternative media outlets have published her work.