Since the 2009 coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, scores of Hondurans have been slain for resisting the attempts of corporations, international banks, and Honduran oligarchs to seize rivers, plantations, and mining lands for their own enrichment.
It appears this violence has now claimed its most high-profile victim. In the early morning hours of March 3, gunmen attacked renowned human rights activist Berta Cáceres in her home, killing her and wounding Mexican activist Gustavo Castro. A United Nations official said it is “highly probable” that the crime was politically motivated. (Honduran police initially called it a robbery.)
The co-founder of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Cáceres also received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her work organizing against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. The project would disrupt the Gualcarque River, cutting off access to a body of water the Lenca people of Río Blanco view as sacred.
Over the past several years, COPINH and Río Blanco residents have filed official complaints, staged protests, and blockaded the dam company’s access road. Cáceres faced constant persecution for her involvement, including death threats in the week preceding her killing.
In May 2014, during a protest outside the Honduran National Congress in Tegucigalpa, freelance journalist Chris Lewis spoke with Cáceres about her work, the persecution she experienced, and the global victims of US foreign policy. In her memory, Jacobin presents a translated and lightly edited transcription of the conversation.
What is important to know about the work of COPINH?
COPINH was founded in 1993 and is fighting for the purpose of defending the territorial, cultural, and spiritual rights of the Lenca people. But not just the Lenca people — COPINH also works to have a national and international influence. Its struggle is against all colonialism, and also capitalism, patriarchy, racism.
We still live in a country of multiple enclaves of domination. And COPINH has started important struggles, like road blockades, hunger strikes, and occupations of the National Congress, the house of the president, the judiciary. We have fought against the coup, against militarization, and against the United States military occupation in Honduras.
We are in a struggle for the defense of individual and collective human rights. We have been working for a long time, including before the coup, for the construction of a social movement that has more respect and more comprehension of resistance, diversity, and the multiplicity of experiences.
We do it with the objective of refounding this matria. We propose a refoundational process, not just the refoundation of the state in an official, institutional sense, but rather a refoundation of each of our customs. We do it without waiting for a constitutional assembly, but instead with what we live daily, because that is what we think we can put forth.
You can’t imagine how many and what type of powers we have had to confront in this struggle. COPINH works a lot against the privatization of rivers, water, and energy. We see energy as a human right, not through the logic of capitalism and consumerism.
We are also involved in the struggle to defend forests from industries exporting timber. We have confronted seventeen projects that privatize rivers. We stopped the El Tigre Dam, a very important binational mega-project.
In all of this, we have had to confront the World Bank, the European Union, USAID, transnationals like Siemens, and now other banks that we didn’t even know existed like the Dutch FMO and Finnfund. We have also confronted Sinohydro, the planet’s transnational hydroelectric monster, and we expelled them. We have had a pile of successes, but we continue on.
What campaigns are you involved in right now?
COPINH puts forth a strong fight in defense of the rivers. Those seventeen concessions that we are confronting in the departments of Intibucá, Lempira, and La Paz were approved illegally and illegitimately in this National Congress, without respecting the right of free prior informed consent of indigenous peoples. So we have had to confront them directly.
For example, in Río Blanco, in defense of the sacred Gualcarque River against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project being pursued by the company Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA), Sinohydro, Siemens, and all those banks that I mentioned.
That project has been imposed with militarization, with very wicked maneuvers on the part of the company. There have been murders, they have threatened us with death, there has been judicial, political, and military persecution.
For now, we have succeeded in stopping the project, blockading the road, and exercising territorial control for over a year. We are also involved in other struggles, like the fight to respect the indigenous government elected in the town of San Francisco de Opalaca. We also have fights in defense of other rivers.
There are financial bodies, there are companies, there are oligarchs, there are transnationals, and they all want to impose mining projects as well. For example, the town of Erandique, where they want to extract opal. They say that the opal of that region is the second most valuable in the world, after what exists in Australia. They are going after gold, silver, rare earth metals, and other metals and minerals.
There is militarization not only of the repressive forces in Honduras but also from the gringo army, which hopes to put a military base in the San Antonio Valley, a very beautiful place, a place filled with biodiversity and culture. And we know that they are going after the common property resources of the nature that exists there.
The gringos have been conducting operations, including with tanks and cannons. That’s something that we hadn’t seen for quite some time. All of these operations are linked to plunder and colonization. To subdue us. So that is part of the struggle of COPINH.
What are your main strategies in these struggles?
I’ll say that the struggle of COPINH is a peaceful struggle, but a vigorous one. Why vigorous? Because we are confronting the forces of global capital, we are confronting the Honduran oligarchy, the banking and finance power of this country, we are confronting the World Bank. A state that has leveraged all of its machinery against COPINH. From the public ministry to all three powers of the state, the army, the attorney general.
So because of that it’s vigorous, because it’s an honorable, historic struggle. This is the history of our people.
It’s clear that a principal stage of the struggle is the fight for territorial control. It’s not the only one, but it is the most important because what institution of justice can we go to? If there is absolute impunity, who can we trust among the authorities of this country? We can’t trust anybody, simply put.
Have you experienced any persecution for your work?
Yes. Almost always. For almost my whole life. I come from a family that fought a lot against militarization, and in solidarity with refugees from other armed conflicts in Central America. From the kidnapping of my mother to the torture of my siblings, I lived through all of that. That’s how I grew up.
But also right now, as I have assumed responsibility within COPINH. I also know I have been persecuted not just for political leadership but also for being a woman, for being Lenca. In this country it’s not the same being a male leader and being a female leader. And that comes with a very heavy weight.
I think it may be easier to confront the transnationals and the army than it is to confront the patriarchy, because that we encounter everywhere. Within our own organizations as well. There won’t be justice or democracy, nor will we humanize this society if the patriarchy exists, and even worse if we don’t discuss it in our organizations.
So, I have been the object of repression just like many compañeros. They have threatened me with death. I have received threats by cell phone. Sexual harassment from the security guards of these companies. I have received threats against my family, against my daughters, against my son. I have been threatened with criminal charges. Accusations. Everything from the illegal possession of arms to coercion, usurpation, and continued damages.
And now they want to open another case for sedition because of my work in Opalaca. There have been a lot of illegalities, lots of manipulation and holes in the cases. We have won some with the political and legal efforts of COPINH, but I still have provisional release — we haven’t been absolved. It’s not just me — there are three of us, and the cases are still pending.
What is your vision for Honduras in the years to come? What do you want to see in five, ten, twenty years?
Look, here in this country, they have prohibited us from dreaming. They want to prohibit us from dreaming.
We, as COPINH, put forward an effort with communities in which we had to collectively reflect on what Honduras we dream for. It was really interesting. Here’s what I take from the sentiment of the communities: first, we dream of a Honduras in which we have the right to be happy. It’s the most insurrectionary, most subversive, they could say the most “terrorist” right there could be. The right to be happy.
It seems so simple, so plain, so easy, but it has a really deep meaning. It has to do with peace with justice, it has to do with the end of impunity, it has to do with the respect of spiritual and territorial rights, to have the right to walk without feeling assaulted. To live in a demilitarized society — not just the weapons, but also culturally. It’s going to require a cultural revolution.
That’s what we dream of. We dream of a Honduras where women aren’t just present but where we also make decisions. Also, black and indigenous people, sexual diversity, and people who work in the streets, the women of the maquinas. Everyone, no? And so that we be respected, listened to, and this country be ours.
That’s what we dream of. It seems like a small thing to say, but it’s a monumental act of defiance.
If you could say anything to the people or the government of the United States, what would it be?
Well, first that we have a lot of respect for the people of the United States. We know your story, your resistance, your rebellion, your support for the struggle of indigenous people, the struggle of black people for their rights. We know the struggle for peace, for the end of war, for the right US citizens have to housing. For many things.
But the government of the United States wants to be the first enemy of its own people and also all the peoples of the world. Because its big business is pillaging our peoples, starting wars, selling weapons. It’s the exploitation of immigrants.
The United States has a great responsibility for the violation of human rights in Honduras. They have financed and trained these repressive forces, not just right now, but for a long time. They have invaded this country. They have occupied it. They used us as a banana enclave, and still for mining enclaves.
Today as an enclave for multinationals, for the capitalist project on the subject of energy. The United States uses us as a laboratory for the invasion of brother and sister peoples. And they have the cynicism to say that what we do is terrorism. The government of the United States is terrorist, because massacring entire villages — boys, girls, women — that’s terrorism.
So we demand equal respect. Respect for the self-determination of our people, our lives, and our right to decide our own destiny. It could be crooked, whatever it may be, but it’s going to be ours.