By Michael Lowy
Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmental activist, killed in 2016, has becone a planetary symbol of combat against ecocidal monopoly capitalism.
Belonging to the indigenous Lenca community of Honduras, Berta Caceres got involved at 17 in the Salvadorian guerrilla struggle. Returning to her country, she chose another strategy, that of mass social mobilisation, and co-founded in 1993, the COPINH (Citizen Council of Amerindian Peoples’ organisations of Honduras). But she did not renounce her revolutionary and anti capitalist ideas. The COPINH activists often receive death threats, because they are opposed to mine projects or to electric dams that endanger the environment and the survival of local populations.
From 2006 Berta Caceres took the lead in the opposition to the Agua Zarca building project of four hydroelectric dams by the Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA) – at the head of a multinational consortium – on the Rio Gualcarque. It is a mega toxic project that threatens to destroy the local vegetation and the water supplies of all the riparian population and in particular of the Lenca indigenous communities.
In 2009 a coup d’état (supported by Hillary Clinton) overthrew the liberal President Zelaya and established a deeply authoritarian regime. The military and police repression against the environmentalists and the COPINH intensified, but in 2013 the activists managed to block the building site for a year. They were removed by the military, but their action ended up forcing the World Bank and China to abandon the project. In 2015 Berta Caceres received the Goldmann Environmental Prise, a sort of alternative Nobel Price, which honours ecologist activists.
At the head of COPINH Berta Caceres also participated with the National Front of Popular Resistance to the Coup d’Etat (FNRP) proclaiming: “We have to raise awareness against predatory Capitalism, Racism and the Patriarchy, that lead us to destruction.”
She was constantly bullied by the military, and received anonymous death threats. One of her favourite statements was: “they are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them”. But she was perfectly aware of the danger to her life; in an interview with Al Jazeera in December 2013 she declared: “I want to live, there are still a lot of things I want to do in this world, but I have never considered the possibility of giving up the fight for our territory, for a dignified life, because our struggle is legitimate. (…) In this country where Impunity reigns, I am vulnerable. When they decide to kill me, they will”.
On 3rd March 2016 a paramilitary commando killed Berta Caceres in her house; a friend who happened to be there, Mexican Ecologist Gustavo Soto, was wounded and left for dead. The police pretend that it was a robbery or a crime of passion…They even went as far as arresting for a time a militant of the COPINH, Aureliano Molina, as a “suspect” for the murder. But the international pressure and the denunciations from the COPINH and from Berta Caceres’ family forced the authorities to arrest the real criminals and their accomplices in the police. Some were former military, members of the Security forces of DESA; two officers were trained in the sinister School of the Americas of the USA; they will all be sentenced for long periods in jail. But it was only on 5th July 2021 that the Supreme Court of Justice of Honduras recognised the culpability of Roberto David Castillo, DESA President, who organised and planned the murder of the activist and also paid €2,200 to each of the killers. Before being named Desa President, Castillo had been an officer of the Honduras Army; trained at West Point American Military School. It was the first time in Honduras that the head of a corporation was condemned for crimes against socio-ecological activists.
“It is a victory for the peoples of the world who have supported us”, declared Berta Zuniga Caceres, the daughter of the murdered militant, while denouncing the responsibility of the Atala Sabia family, owner of DESA – one of the five families who control the economy and politics of Honduras. COPINH and Berta Caceres’ family have demanded the immediate cancellation of the permit to build Aqua Zarca dams.
Unfortunately the killing of socio-ecologic activists has not stopped in Honduras; between 2016 and 2020 there were 27 victims. In March 2021 it was the turn of another Lenca indigenous leader, 41 year old Juan Carlos Escalante, President of the Movement against the El Tornillo hydroelectric dam; he was killed by 40 bullets in front of his children. “Another crime” COPINH proclaimed, “as part of the war between certain companies, in collusion with circles of power, in order to get rid of all opposition to their project”.
Since 2015 the memory of Berta Caceres has been honoured everywhere as a martyr for the ecological cause and in particular for the fight of the indigenous communities in defence of Mother Earth. Her example is a permanent source of inspiration for eco-socialists, and for socio-ecological struggles not only in Honduras and in Latin America, but in the entire world.