On the morning of March 3, 2016, Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was gunned down in her own home. One of her colleagues, Gustavo Castro Soto – an activist from Mexico – was also wounded by the assailants. Gustavo, the sole living witness to the attack, described his brush with death:
« I was working on a presentation when I heard a loud bang. I thought something had fallen, but when Berta screamed, ‘Who’s there?’, I knew it was bad, that it was the end. […] When the hitman arrived, I covered my face. He was three meters away. I moved as he fired, and the bullet passed my ear. He thought he’d killed me. It’s a miracle I survived. »
Berta, a longtime champion of the Indigenous Lenca People, had spent most of her adult life making enemies out of powerful organizations within Honduras. Since a coup d’état in 2009, Honduras has been an exceptionally dangerous place to be an activist of any kind. According to Global Witness, more than 120 environmental activists have been killed since 2010, making Honduras the deadliest country in the world for those protecting the land and water systems.
Berta’s history of advocacy extends back to her work as a student activist in the early 1990s, when she co-founded COPINH – the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Berta made a name for herself as an opponent of the various special interests which were exploiting the Lenca People’s land without their consent – plantation owners, illegal loggers, and the U.S. military, to name a few. As her profile grew, Berta knew that she had a target on her back.
In 2006, many of the Lenca began to notice the presence of heavy industrial equipment on their land and asked Berta to investigate. After doing some digging, she discovered the cause that would animate her for the rest of her life: the Honduran Government, the World Bank, the Honduran company DESA, the Dutch investment bank FMO, and the Chinese corporation Sinohydro had partnered together in order to push a project called Agua Zarca – the proposed construction of four hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River.
By failing to consult with the local people before beginning the project, these entities were in clear violation of international law requiring prior and informed concent. The Gualcarque River is considered sacred to the Lenca People, and damming it up presented a direct threat to their ability to access the food, land, and medicinal materials needed for their traditional way of life. Naturally, Berta and the other Lenca began to mobilize. It was difficult, but after several long years they made progress. In 2013, near-continuous protests by COPINH and other groups caused both the World Bank and Sinohydro to pull out of the project, delaying it indefinitely. For this, Berta was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize.
However, this victory came at a steep cost – three members of COPINH were killed and several others wounded in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, Berta told Al Jazeera the following:
« The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. I want to live, there are many things I still want to do in this world but I have never once considered giving up fighting for our territory, for a life with dignity, because our fight is legitimate. I take lots of care but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable… When they want to kill me, they will do it. »
The situation only degenerated further from there. Intimidation by the Honduran military and security forces increased. Berta was prevented from leaving the country while facing specious criminal charges for her leadership role in the protests. The murder rate of Honduran activists ticked up ever higher. Death threats against Berta and her organization became routine. In February of 2016, over 100 peaceful COPINH protesters were arrested. And mere weeks later, Berta herself was killed. Many, including her family, believe the Honduran government is the culprit.
Following this brazen attack, Grassroots International put together an emergency fund and was able to raise over $50,000 for activist movements in Honduras. Nearly half of this aid, $23,500, went to COPINH, the organization that Berta co-founded in 1993, with the remainder supporting two other threatened popular movements and COPINH allies in the country. With these emergency funds, COPINH was able to install security equipment like cameras and lighting in a building where many members come together to meet, work and sleep. In addition, funds were used for mobilizations and to partially pay for a lawyer who is assisting COPINH members in many criminal cases. Thanks to our donors, COPINH will be able to continue its struggle against special interest seeking to exploit Lenca land and provide a shining example to similar movements throughout Mesoamerica.
Most of the remaining emergency funds went to two other Honduran social groups who were also facing increased threats of violence as they struggle to protect their lands and water. The first of these is the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), an Afro-descendant Garifuna organization. OFRANEH works to protect Garifuna communities’ economic, cultural and social rights, particularly with regard to farming and fishing. Their coastal ancestral lands are increasingly coming under attack from large developers attempting to take them over for agribusiness and tourist projects. And these same coastal lands are increasingly being threatened by the impacts of climate change as ocean levels rise and storms become more severe. The $16,500 grant from Grassroots International, possible because of generous contributions from our supporters, covers the transportation, food and lodging needed for large-scale protests, mobilization in the capitol city of Tegucigalpa, and ongoing environmental organizing. A portion of the grants is also going towards payment of security/body guards for OFRANEH’s leader, Miriam Miranda.
Next is La Via Campesina Honduras and the Council for the Integral Development of the Peasant Woman (CODIMCA). These affiliated groups are part of the Honduran chapter of La Via Campesina, or The Peasant’s Way, a global movement that focuses on the rights of Indigenous People, small-scale farmers, and rural communities. Their primary mission in Honduras is to build a national movement to fight for food sovereignty in the country. Our $7, 900 grant has primarily been used to upgrade and strengthen the groups’ security in light of the ongoing attacks on activists throughout Honduras.
As the anniversary of Berta Cáceres’ assassination approaches, Grassroots International is proud of the work we and our donors have done to give these groups a fighting chance. Grassroots functions as a bridge for concerned people in the United States to directly invest in communities working for social and political progress worldwide, and we thank all of those who have supported our mission.
About the author: Eric Niermeyer began volunteering at Grassroots International in January 2017 and is a Political Communications major at Emerson College.