Two weeks ago, on February 17th, José Santos Sevilla, an indigenous leader in Honduras, was killed by armed gunmen in his home. This assassination comes just before the one-year anniversary of another assassination of an important indigenous leader in Honduras, Berta Cáceres. Today is the anniversary of her death. She would have been forty-six years old tomorrow.
Cáceres, who remains an iconic national hero for the poor – in a country in which about two thirds of the population live in poverty – is most well-known for her work organizing the indigenous Lenca people to resist the building of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River. The Gualcarque is considered sacred by the Lenca and the building of this dam – which violated Honduran indigenous treaties – would reportedly “cut off the supply of water, food and medicine for hundreds of Lenca people and violate their right to sustainably manage and live off their land.”
In 2015, her work with the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) which she founded in 1993, was awared the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. In a profile on Cáceres they briefly describe how, in 2006, members of the Lenca people in Rio Blanco sought help from COPINH after they began to see heavy construction machinery being transported into their region.
Under Cáceres, the people built a road blockade, which they were able to maintain against violent attacks and numerous eviction attempts for well over a year. The Lenca people used a well-organized communication system to keep a powerful and peaceful presence in the face of the aggressive Honduran forces impeding on their autonomy. .
The Goldman Environmental Prize profile goes on to explain that, since the 2009 military coup that ousted the democratically elected President, Manuel Zalaya, Honduras has seen a dramatic increase in the privatization of land and the building of megaprojects that are devastating important ecosystems, displacing poor and indigenous communities by the masses.
These violent land grabs only serve the interests of a small, wealthy elite in Honduras and foreign corporations like the state-owned Chinese contractors slated to build the Agua Zarca Dam and the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, which was funding the project.
Before her assassination, Cáceres was openly critical of the coup, as well as then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her role in legitimizing the brutal regime. Since 2009, Honduras has become one of most dangerous places in the world, especially for environmental activists who dare to challenge the state.
Earlier this year, Global Witness released a report that named Honduras as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists: more than 120 have been killed since 2010. The damning report details how both the elite, ruling party in Honduras and the United States government – Honduras’ biggest monetary aid donor and an active supporter of the regime’s exploitative megaprojects like the Agua Zarca – are directly implicated in this string of violence.
In June of 2016, The Guardian reported that, “Berta Cáceres, the murdered environmental campaigner, appeared on a hitlist distributed to US-trained special forces units of the Honduran military months before her death.” Cáceres, who had been receiving threats for some time before she was killed, refused to allow this intimidation to deter her efforts. Laura Cáceres, her youngest daughter, told the Guardian that just days before the assassination her mother told her, “If something happens to me, don’t be sacred.”
Laura also reflected that, “She won the Goldman prize, she met the pope, I thought recognition would protect her. Whoever was behind her murder wanted to send a message that no one is safe, that they can kill anyone. We can’t accept impunity.”
On the one-year anniversary of her assassination, it is important to remember the bravery and sacrifice of Berta Cáceres, José Santos Sevilla, and the others like them, that continue to risk their lives organizing and resisting a transnational neoliberal order that is seemingly hell-bent on destroying the environment and indigenous communities in the name of cheap resources and profit.
The struggle against these demonic forces – and I use that word quite intentionally, as I can think of no other that adequately expresses the principalities of darkness that would wreak such hell on earth in their limitless devotion to mammon – continues on today, not only in Honduras, but in North Dakota, Alberta, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and all over the Americas.
It is appropriate, here, to conclude with the closing words of Cáceres’ Goldman Prize acceptance speech:
The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth – militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits. I dedicate this award to all the rebels out there, to my mother, to the Lenca people, to Rio Blanco, and to the martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources.
Ryne Beddard is completing his MA in Religious Studies at the University of Denver and will begin his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall. He would like to thank Daniel Mejia for his indispensable insights on Berta Cáceres’s cultural standing in Honduras.