They're Stealing Our Land, Yet We Are the Terrorists? Berta Cáceres 1971-2016

From the May/June 2016 PNL#850

By Andalusia Knoll

 On July 15, 2013, indigenous campesino Tomas García was murdered by Honduran soldiers in the town of Rio Blanco while he protested a hydroelectric dam which was slated to be built on top of his community’s main water source. Following his funeral I travelled with the legendary indigenous activist Berta Cáceres and other indigenous leaders back to Tegucigalpa, flying by military bases as the rain poured down and a police patrol vehicle trailed us to “provide security.” It’s a trip I knew I would never forget, emblematic of bitter land struggles being waged in Honduras. I never dreamed that I would remember it because it was the first, and one of the last times, I would see Berta, who was assassinated in her own home in La Esperanza, Honduras at midnight on March 2, 2016.

Cáceres, a hero for indigenous communities worldwide, was the general coordinator for the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Her murder has alerted the world to the violence and plunder that Honduras has suffered following the 2009 coup d’état which ousted center-left president Manuel Zelaya. Following the coup Honduras flung its arms open to international “development” in the form of dams, mines and other mega-sized projects. In September 2010, 41 hydroelectric dam concessions were granted, and new legislation was passed which allows for the privatization of the rivers. Resistance to these projects has been met with brute force dished out by the US-funded military and numerous hitmen bankrolled by the transnational companies.

During the coup in 2009, Hillary Clinton, serving as Secretary of State, actively worked to prevent democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya from returning to office. In recent statements, Clinton has refused to acknowledge that it was an actual coup, in which case she would have had to deny aid to the replacement government, which she didn’t do.

In 2013, on a schoolbus full of 40 campesinos from Rio Blanco heading to a protest demanding justice for their murdered compañero, I interviewed Berta Cáceres about development and bloodshed. She refused to respond to my questions in first-person and always managed to flip the answer to be about collective struggle. Her words reflected the true solidarity in which she fought these battles for land, water and the preservation of First Nations’ cultures.

Andalusia Knoll: Why are the people struggling in Rio Blanco against the Agua Zarca Dam (a hydroelectric project of SINOHYDRO, a Chinese government-run company notorious for human rights violations, and Honduran dam company DESA, approved to be constructed on indigenous Lenca territory–eds.)?

Berta Cáceres: This project is one of more than 300 dams in Honduras driving the privatization of rivers, water and land. It violates our individual and collective human rights. We’re not just speaking about indigenous peoples but the Honduran people in general. This energetic development stems from a capitalist logic that generates profits for multinational companies, while privatizing the communal natural resources. This is done regardless of the opinion, wishes or decisions of the people in the communities. In this case they are violating Convention 169 [the international convention concerning indigenous peoples, ratified by Honduras in 1995], which is the right of indigenous peoples to be consulted.

What they have done with the Agua Zarca dam is to impose a project in the name of sustainable development and clean and renewable energy, but it is a farce. Their concept of development is to generate profits for the private companies and not for the people.

We have been leading this struggle for a long time, and currently this process has led us to the militarization of the area. The company’s response has been to develop repressive practices which profile us, which has generated more criminalization against organizations like COPINH. Here in Honduras this is within the post-coup context where there has been a surge of human rights violations and impunity for transnationals. They are using new anti-terrorist laws against social movements.

This has sown fear and terror in the communities. This is not only the case with COPINH but in many other places such as Atlantida and the Lower Aguan, where they are fighting against a dam and a mine.

You have to place what’s happening in the context of the progress of international trade agreements. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was small in scope, but what followed—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—is bigger. It doesn’t just include the Americas but also the great continent of Asia—China and Taiwan as well as Europe, Canada and the United States. It was passed behind the backs of our communities. Dozens of countries participate in this treaty, and they have met dozens of times. The [Trans-Pacific Partnership] is more aggressive and allows for a greater degree of impunity.

We have said that Honduras has been a laboratory of mining enclaves, African palm enclaves, and military occupations. We have more than seven gringo army bases.

AK: What does this have to do with the coup, and who are the people who were responsible for the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya?

BC: The coup d’état’s goal was to advance a project of domination that greatly favors the corporations. It’s shameful to see how this country has legislated certain decrees that have permitted it to become this kind of laboratory. For example they are stimulating projects like “Future Cities,” that hand over our country in a way that has not happened in the past 520 years since the conquest. These Model Cities will be free-market enclaves largely developed for tourists in Afro-indigenous Garifuna along the northern regions of Honduras’ coast.

The coup was the door that allowed the entrance of mega-projects in our country. This is all related to militarization because no extractive project can be implemented without the backing of soldiers. It’s because the [projects] are against the well-being of the communities who in turn rise up in defense of their livelihood and fight these projects of death. The [companies] know they need to have the mechanisms of structural repression, and institutions and laws to guarantee their projects. This is why there was a coup—to justify greater intervention in our country. It is now a miserable country, which ironically has become the most violent in the world with the most violent cities in the world. Capitalism has not solved [these problems]. Here in Honduras that is proven.

AK: You have talked a lot about criminalization. When we were en route to Rio Blanco the man who gave us a ride said we better watch out when we arrive because there is a woman, Berta Cáceres, who has been threatening community. We thanked him for his advice and went on to look for you.

BC: (Berta responds with a laugh)

We are aware that the people working for SINOHYDRO/DESA are not our enemies. The big companies are our enemies. They have offered up thousands and even millions of Lempiras [Honduran currency]. It comes as no surprise that there is a racist and patriarchal campaign against us. We lead a vigorous and peaceful fight. They have something specifically against me because I’m a woman, and I have had to face the military directly. We have not just started receiving death threats; it has always been a constant.

We have been part of a struggle against the military occupation by the United States from the beginning. For a long time we have denounced the introduction of more military bases. The government said “it is true, we’re not [building] anything” and [President] Pepe Lobo still maintains that it is not true that a huge military base, perhaps the largest on the continent is going to be constructed.

This [militarization] will not only be against the liberation struggle here in Honduras but against all people on this continent, against the progressive governments, against the popular projects of integration [i.e., Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America] and against the self-determination of communities and their identities. The capitalist logic wants to destroy our diverse identities—rich, colorful, strong, resilient, insurgent and creative rebels. This complexity of indigenous peoples is an obstacle to capitalism.

AK: What role does the US Army School of the Americas play in all this mess? (Still popularly known as the School of the Americas, this combat training school for Latin American soldiers run by the US Army has been renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and remains located in Fort Benning, Georgia.—eds.)

BC: The colonels who developed strategies of low intensity warfare against the Lenca people studied at the School of the Americas. The Executive Manager of DESA, David Castillo, studied at the Academy of West Point in New York. There is a confluence of all these forces, of all these interests to advance the project of plunder.

AK: How is this all related to the struggle that indigenous communities have waged for the past 520 years against colonial powers?

BC: I think Honduras is a laboratory of all these colonial elements. We are at a stage where the multinationals have adopted a new approach to acquire more territory. Before, they used politicians, mayors and officials to carry out their projects. Now they enter directly into indigenous communities and offer local leaders perks and bribes to break down defense of their land.

Their strategy to counter social struggles includes the reproduction of manuals that were used in Guatemala during the war against the indigenous peoples there. They have studied and developed a language that comes directly from the communities. If we listen to the DESA Executive in Rio Blanco, he speaks of community and uses the peoples’ terms. The manuals explain that they have to use popular means of communication and popular pedagogic thought. This is very worrying for social movements as it shows a deepening of the transnationals’ aggression. I think their other strategy is to play with the misery of the people.

AK: Y’all have received many death threats as well as other members of COPINH and people in the communities threatened by megaprojects. Who is behind these threats?

BC: Yes, both our comrades and we have received various threats. The hitmen are paid by the extractive sector and the army and state officials with SERNA, which is the governmental environment institution, who criminalize and repress us. The situation becomes more dangerous once hitmen are involved. With a soldier, they wear a uniform and you can identify them. But not with the hitmen, and they’re becoming a big industry.

 AK: Who bankrolls these hitmen?

BC: Those who have the greatest interest in earning millions of profits with the Agua Zarca Project. The army knows that and permits their existence.

AK: When you were transporting Tomas García’s body from the hospital to his burial in Rio Blanco you had an escort of six policemen. How did you feel being “protected” by the same police who have repeatedly criminalized you?

BC: We accepted the police escort because it signified that they would have to take responsibility for anything that could happen. Their role has been to protect DESA and their investments, not the population. The level of vulnerability in which we find ourselves, the level of death threats, the danger to our physical and emotional integrities is severe. It is a very high level of risk. If we had money to pay for our own security force with bodyguards we wouldn’t search out the police. But we don’t have that money. At the moment in which we had to deliver our comrade’s body and saw how the hitmen and DESA employees were reacting to the situation, we had to re-evaluate our own security.

We are afraid. That is normal. We are human. But we will not paralyze our activities or stop our struggle.

AK: What gives you hope to continue in this fight considering all these incredibly difficult conditions?

BC: It is the strength of the Lenca people of Rio Blanco. The strength of the girls, the children, the women. They are impressively brave, with clear political convictions. They are determined, and are the ones who have most strongly resisted the temptations of the company. They hold down three roles at one time, spending time at the road blockade, the river and the mobilizations. This is what nourishes me. It’s as if you’re in the desert and there is no water, and then suddenly someone knows where to find the water, which is what gives you strength.

We are a people with a history [of being] anything but submissive. We have dignity; we are Lenca people, the people of Lempira, with a heritage of rebellion. i