Article by Berta Cáceres, published in 2016 in The International
2023, Senior, Creative Writing
Climate Hero: Berta Cáceres, Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras
Where do I even start?
This is, surprisingly, my first attempt at penning an article. I grew up on oral tradition; sitting by my grandma’s side as she fanned herself with a plantain leaf and told us about the shoeshine man and Yoro’s Fish Rain in her throaty, vibrant voice that made every story come to life. Online interviews and videos, I can do. But I shy away from physical writing that I can see and feel and touch and smell, the way I can for the ongoing destruction of our precious Gualcarque River.
“What is that like?” someone who’s never been to Río Blanco may ask. I’ll tell you: it looks like uniformed men shooting into crowds of unarmed gente pacífica; feels like the pain that pulsates endlessly through our streams, acute ripples that plague us day and night; has the texture of our loamy soil clotted with freshly spilt blood; smells like the pungent chemicals poisoning our ancestral earth and children’s veins. It even has a sound, too: the agonized wail of family members who rush forward, too late, as their relative crumples to the ground.
You must be confused. All this violence and bloodshed, over some patch of land? And in some random county I’ve never even heard of? Well, allow me to rewind.
45 years ago, I was born, the youngest of 12, into an era of immense civil unrest. My mother, an incredible force of a woman, was alternately a midwife, a two-term mayor of our hometown, a congresswoman, and a governor. She was also highly involved in social activism, a locally known caretaker of El Salvadorian refugees. Growing up, I always had three constants in my life: new faces in our home, the smell of food cooking, and my mother’s compassion. It wasn’t just the color in their cheeks when they left, or the way their eyes lit up whenever they saw her, an ally in a hostile environment. It was, in my mother’s own words, a sense of duty that drove her. “It’s immoral to see oppression and not take action,” she would say. So you can see how I might’ve come to appreciate the power – and necessity – of such kindnesses.
In 1993, I co-founded an organization named COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), which remains my sole occupation to this day. Our mission was and is to empower the indigenous community – my community of Lenca people – to fight for our rights on a scale we’d never done before. And we’ve come a long way; COPINH now is made up of 200 Lenca communities. For 23 years, our members have peacefully protested for every possible issue, from abolishing plantation owners to campaigning for LGBTQ rights. Surprisingly, it is our environmental efforts that have always been met with the most resistance, be it protesting illegal logging or destructive mining. It remains unbelievable to me, the sheer cruelty and heartlessness of corporate greed. But we’ll get to that later.
For now, I want to bring your attention to the work that we’ve done, the massive strides of progress we’ve made, and the indignities we’ve managed to overcome. After all, if the fairytales of my childhood are any indication, there’s always a space for optimism and celebration. Our decade-long and still ongoing resistance against the Agua Zarca Dam’s construction, particularly, will forever remain a direct manifestation of the bravery and resilience of our tight-knit community.
In 2006, I was approached by community members from Río Blanco. Out of the blue, machinery and construction equipment had come flooding into their town. As it turned out, it was a joint venture project between foreign companies looking to build four hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque – with blatant disregard of its spiritual significance to the Lenca people. We were incensed; but anger itself wasn’t enough. Along with community representatives, I lodged complaints with government authorities, organized local assemblies, and headed peaceful protest after peaceful protest. We even appealed to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, pointing out the International Finance Corporation’s involvement and asking them to withdraw funding. Our message couldn’t have been clearer: we wanted our river back.
Our requests fell on deaf ears, not for the first, and certainly not the last, time. The Honduran government and our local mayors, in blatant denial of our rights, gave the dam-builders their stamps of approval. Their betrayal didn’t stop there; they even fabricated evidence of local support by bribing locals with cash for their signatures. The situation only worsened from there. In 2009, the coup d’état of President Zelaya occurred, giving rise to even more environmentally destructive projects that tread on the livelihoods of indigenous people.
Yet we were persistent. A blockade of roads leading up to the site was the solution: we took turns maintaining a peaceful presence, holding up even as militarized security contractors and the Honduran armed forces carried out violent attacks and repeatedly tried to remove us. In 2013, Sinohydro (one of the contractors) and the IFC finally withdrew. No construction was done on the Gualcarque and, to this day, nothing has been built or destroyed.
But, as with most stories, this one does not yet have a happy ending. DESA, the other company, has still not entirely pulled out, simply moving their construction site to a different location. The price we paid and continue to pay is almost too heavy to comprehend. Our beloved Tom, or Tomás Garcia, a fierce defender of human rights, died after a bullet to the chest during a peaceful protest. It didn’t stop there. Since then, countless other members have faced detention, torture, and even assassination. I count myself among the luckiest. In 2013 I was arbitrarily detained, released, and then detained in advance of a trial, in which I was charged with “usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million,” alongside Tomás Gracia and Aureliano Molina. Our case was fortunately dismissed. In 2014 I was again detained and released. Justo Sorto was killed in January that year, and hitmen tried to do the same to Maria Santos Domínguez in 2015.
In recent years, the threats against my own life have escalated. The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters, with my name at the top. The messages never stop, the harassment never stops, the death threats never stop – have me under constant surveillance. Even my four children and 80-year-old mother, who fled this country because of them, have not been spared. The security that the IACHR promised to grant me? They never showed up. I try my best to stay vigilant, but ultimately, when they want to kill me, they will do it.
People say that water has memory. So does land, I want to say. So does every part of the earth, whether an ash-gray dead or swelling with life, whether flowing or immobile, whether eroded by feet or untouched by any civilization. So do the people. And we remember, all too well.
They have placed a target on the backs of human rights activists since day one. It is a risk that I’m aware of and willingly accept. But I am writing to let you, the international community, know that this is not where it ends. Our efforts do not end with a single gunshot, or three, or ten, or 100. No amount of petty violence and underhanded activity can sway our resilience and determination to protect our homeland and culture from being razed by capitalism.
As I have said time and again – they are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.
Berta Cáceres was assassinated in her home by hitmen in 2016. Seven men were eventually convicted of her murder, including a former Special Forces Sergeant. The scheme was revealed to be backed by DESA executives. The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, a bill demanding a suspension of all U.S. security aid to Honduras, was passed shortly after her death. To this day, Honduras remains the most dangerous country in the world for climate and environmental human rights activists. In researching the legendary and tragic tale of this incredible activist’s life, I was deeply moved by her never-ending devotion to her community and ceaseless dedication to fighting for justice, but also troubled by the fact that I’d never heard of her or any other South American activists who campaigned for environmental human rights.