Bertha Cáceres was a world-renowned defender of the Earth and its people. She frequently took the struggles of her Indigenous Lenca people to global stages, from the Quebec People’s Summit in April 2001 to the Vatican in October 2014.
She was shot to death in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning, March 3, in her home in La Esperanza, department of Intibuca, about 180 km west of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Bertha—and yes, according to her friend, the journalist Sandra Cuffe, her name has that most un-Spanish ‘h’ in it—was the coordinator of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).
Bertha’s work was supported by people in various networks in which I am involved either personally or institutionally (Common Frontiers, Agricultural Missions and Mining Watch Canada). She is one of those people who is a “partner of our partners,” so Joel Suarez of the Martin Luther King Centre in Havana knew her through the World Social Forum, and Antonio Pacheco and Vidalina Morales of the Santa Marta Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES, in Cabañas, northern El Salvador) knew her through the Central American networks of communities affected by mining.
Bertha and I were both victims of teargasing during protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, but if I met her there, it was among a cast of thousands. But I did meet her ex-husband, Salvador Zúniga (still a collaborator in COPINH) during a visit to ADES in 2013.
COPINH, like ADES, is involved in trinational (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) conversations about the 18,000-km2 Río Lempa river basin that is threatened by mining and hydro-electric developments.
Thirty per cent of Honduran territory is now subject to mineral exploration. At the time we spoke, permits had been issued in all but two of the 18 departments. Canada’s free trade deal with Honduras seemed likely to give Canadian capital an advantage ahead others.
By 2013, there were 70 gold-mining concessions, and four projects underway. Honduras, governed since a 2009 military coup by business-oriented elites, is creating special development regions (REDs) and “charter cities” that essentially suspend Honduran sovereignty for the sake of private investment. Mining royalties, for example would go to the RED, not to the national government.
These were the issues that Bertha and her colleagues talked about wherever they could.
And those issues connected her too with allies in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and so it was that an acquaintance from my years of work in Mexico, Gustavo Castro Soto, was wounded in the same attack that took Bertha’s life.
I met Gustavo several times in the mid and late 90s when I was doing what I could to promote comprehension of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and of the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Mexico. I saw him as one of the young geniuses who worked with Bishop Samuel Ruiz in the mediation commission that resulted in a comprehensive agreement on Indigenous rights in 1996. (The accord was named for the place where the talks took place, San Andrés Larrainzar, and was later tragically undermined by the government of President Ernesto Zedillo).
Now 52, Gustavo is coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas, an ecological defence group linked to Friends of the Earth. He was in La Esperanza with Bertha to train Indigenous ecological defenders. They were also planning a meeting of the Mesoamerican Movement Against the Extractive Mining Model (called the M4).
Subsequent days have been a blur of urgent calls for action to protect Gustavo. He is an eyewitness to the assassination—but in a country that is manifestly unable to protect witnesses, human rights defenders or just about anyone else. As efforts continued Monday to get him out of the country, judicial authorities required him to return to La Esperanza, again provoking serious concern for his safety, despite accompaniment by officials of the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa.