By Maria Alejandra Escalante, Climate and Environmental Justice Advocacy Officer
Although Berta Cáceres is no longer with us, her legacy endures in human rights and land defense movements in our region. Berta was the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a grassroots organization that articulates indigenous communities and social movements defending their land from hydroelectric, mining, and illegal logging extractive megaprojects. Nowadays, COPINH, coordinated by her daughter Bertha Zuñiga, builds on this legacy and keeps on working to strengthen popular education and develop a network of community radios and vegetable gardens. Berta was part of the Lenca indigenous community that maintains an intimate relationship with water, a living element that transmits ancestral memory and the wisdom required to sustain the struggles for their territories.
Considered a guardian of rivers, Berta was murdered on the night of March 2nd, 2016 in her house in La Esperanza, after experiencing persecution and defamation. The crime was related to her leadership in the resistance of her community against a hydroelectric dam project on the Gualcarque River, west of Honduras. Investigation gathered evidence revealing that her murderers followed orders from one of the most powerful families in the country, administrators of the energy company responsible for the project. Though some of the men accused of planning and executing her murder have undergone trial and been sentenced, the intellectual perpetrators are still free. COPINH claims that justice for Berta will only be achieved when all the people involved are prosecuted.
Last week, five years after Berta’s murder, COPINH launched an international campaign to pressure Honduran authorities. Her death is not an isolated case: at this moment, Latin America has the world’s highest rate of human rights and environmental defenders’ disappearance. As socio-environmental activists in the region, we are moved recalling that Berta’s death happened only six days before International Women’s Day – 8M – an important date in the feminist calendar, in which we mobilize to claim our right to be alive, to our territory, to our bodies, to fight under safe conditions.
Capitalist and patriarchal extractivism of bodies and ecosystems lead us to breakdown on multiple levels – economic, political, social, and environmental. Climate crisis is not a problem of the future. It’s a reality. Seas are rising, droughts and rains are unpredictable and last longer. The Covid-19 pandemic revealed a drastic lack of collective action, which is expressed by women and non-binary people being exposed to inequality, hunger, violence, and death. Most governments in our region, led by white and conservative men, besides tending to authoritarianism and demonstrating lack of commitment to human rights and social justice, are incompetent in facing this critical moment. We urgently need a new ethics of governance based on solidarity, balance, collective care, and harmony with our environment.
For this #8M, let’s speak about Berta, let’s remember her for all she has taught us. I am a young Colombian ecofeminist who works with FRIDA | Young Feminist Fund sustaining young feminist movement-building for socioenvironmental justice in Latin America and other countries of the Global South. And I have been in conversation, exchanging thoughts, with other human rights and environment defenders in Central America, including Bertha Zuñiga. Other women involved in this conversation are Ambar Morales, from Honduras — who also lived with Berta in her childhood —, Daniela Cortés, from Costa Rica, and Marilin Cabezas, from El Salvador. All three are young ecofeminists and advisors at FRIDA, helping us to identify pathways and challenges for social movements in the region. We talked about Berta’s legacy, the difficulties that stem from climate and environmental crisis, the risks we take while defending human rights, and what is needed to support building alternative scenarios in which we can finally flourish. The result of this reflection follows below. The memory of Berta Cáceres lives in each one of these words.
Defending land and defending identity walk side by side
Berta Cáceres taught us that when a community defends their territory, they also defend their identity and existence. In the context of her country, her daughter Bertha tells us that there are always organized communities defending their land and territory against extractive projects. Historically and until today, that land is not acknowledged as theirs.
After Berta’s death, COPINH reaffirmed with more strength its commitment towards this struggle despite the insecurity they face, which was expressed by Berta’s murder. In the spirit of keeping Berta Cáceres’ knowledge and legacy alive, her daughter describes the goals of the organization that she now leads: “We seek to make Lenca community an autonomous project and move forward creating spaces that are more democratic, free and committed to social justice”. In this sense, she highlights the vital importance of nurturing COPINH’s capacity to visibilize how the articulation between transnational corporate power and extractive companies, supported by the finance sector and governments, exerts militarization on territories and bodies.
Violence becomes an echo of activism
The persecution that defenders face attempts to silence dissident voices and spread fear among social justice movements. Marilin Cabezas, FRIDA’s advisor, points out that the killings of Latin American environmental and human rights activist leaders try to intimidate political territorial action and land defense, but end up having the opposite effect. “These deaths are going to strengthen the movement because, in a certain sense, they unite us, help us think more about our strategies, honor our martyrs, pass on the message and channel our outrage into movement building and political action. It’s a way of making us say that together they can’t terrorize us”.
Ámbar, young Honduran feminist activist and FRIDA advisor, analyzes that, stemming from Berta’s murder, land and human rights defense has gained attention and reveals the risks we face in this environmental crisis. Land defense supports increase in numbers. “We become more aware of how true her message is: wake up humanity, there’s no time to lose”.
Community and territorial feminisms are a collective mission and an opportunity to embody community, both in our movement building and in our care. Bertha’s experience after her mother’s death is profound and emblematic: “[Leading COPINH] has been my own healing process, having a platform where I can fight for my mother and acknowledge so many things we have achieved. It isn’t my or my siblings’ project but a collective effort. This has been really important and valuable for me and I am forever grateful to COPINH and all the people that have embraced our fight and struggles”.
Regarding her background as a young activist facing great challenges and thinking about the new generations of defenders, Bertha adds: “This youth has a lot of experience resisting on the streets, they are also desperate to transform the economic and political situation in Honduras (…). This youth knows how to fight, they know who the community’s enemies are because they were born in times of a lot of social polarization and today we envision a different type of Honduras”.
Inspired by Berta’s resistance, as a generation, we are more certain about the urgency to transform these injustices and inequities at a structural level, to guarantee the fundamental rights of all communities, and carry on raising younger generations so they can take over in the region.
Land defense is also feminist
Berta knew that, besides her political leadership, the fact she was a woman and part of the Lenca community also shook up power structures. Women – especially those who identify as indigenous, afro, LGBTQIA+ and rural – withstand a history of violence and exploitation against their bodies imposed by a patriarchal system that underrates them. Because of this, community and territorial feminism show us that protecting our land against exploitation connects with seeking freedom for our diverse bodies.
“Our liberation as communities can not exist without a democratic and liberatory horizon; without justice, political engagement and peace; without women and communities, in all their diverse range of expression, having voice and choice (…) I think that, if we want to dismantle this economic model that has caused so much harm to communities, we have to radically move towards acknowledging these rights and building a less patriarchal society”, says Bertha.
For Daniela, Berta’s leadership inspires rural women movements in other countries where the anti-hydroelectric movement is very strong. Berta clashes with the patriarchal scheme that places men as leaders; she was raised in social movements; she has become a model for activists that see themselves in her. “Like Berta, many women that face these struggles, challenging the stereotype of male leaders, empower us and situate us as women that can defend what we believe in”, says Daniela.
Berta, both in life and death, continues to seed new activisms that seek freedom for all of us historically in the margins, creating alternative ways of living aligned with our ecosystems.
Collective care and celebration of life
Human and environmental rights defenders shouldn’t have to worry: governments should guarantee the rights that safeguard their lives and freedom so that they can pursue their activism. Berta’s murder, together with the one of Marielle Franco in Brazil, Samir Flores in Mexico, and the hundreds of silenced activists in Colombia, among many other cases in the region – can not become a reality we get used to. “It’s a pity that it was only after Berta’s death that mechanisms were put in place to protect defenders [in the country], although these mechanisms helped save many lives (…) and there weren’t as many Bertas as there could have been”, says Ámbar.
Berta Cáceres’ death teaches us the importance of investing in security protocols, which turns into an even bigger challenge under the urgency of migrating our movement building online due the pandemic. “Digital platforms are now the new space for activism”, asserts Marilin.
Although security is a State responsibility, the reality is that we are still very vulnerable. Until governments accomplish their role of protecting us and promoting the required changes for all of us to benefit our human rights, movement supporters and allies must make sure that defenders are well. National and international donors must make financial and non-financial resources available so that activists can work under physically and digitally safe conditions with their care needs looked after.
Berta also teaches us that revolution, as intense and hard as it might get, is also an opportunity to celebrate life. Her daughter recalls the hope and joy she emanated in her everyday life, despite the threats she received. “She had this optimism and conviction that community struggles would be fruitful”.
As young feminists, we don’t want any more martyrs in our region. We want everyone that is fighting for equality to stay alive. Along with safety and security, we believe that learning how to care for ourselves and heal the wounds of living in a patriarchal and extractive society is also essential to sustain our struggles. “Something very important that is being promoted is self-care and collective care. We need to underline that we are also humans who have feelings, families, and experience different violations. Although we are sustaining the fight and resistance, we also need care”, says Marilin.
Driven by Berta’s feminist energy, women defenders are not only resisting but are also cultivating life all across the region. The grief for her loss has revitalized the weave of transnational feminist solidarity, making us understand that territories are much more than administrative borders and that we need to keep on articulating with regional social movements if we want to accomplish lasting changes in the oppressive systems we live in.
“It was surprising for us as Honduran women, who always felt unnoticed and in a small country, (…) and suddenly we were in the news in every part of Latin America and were like an inspiration for all feminist women. We sensed the importance of our struggles, and that we were not alone”, shares Ambar.
For young ecofeminists, justice, support and acknowledgment
The lack of justice for Berta’s murder also makes human and environmental rights defenders in the region more vulnerable. Persecution and silencing can’t become a normality or remain unpunished.
“The criminal structure that killed her prevails, which represents an ongoing threat for the justice we claim for her and those who are part of that voice”, says Bertha, as she also calls out for collective action: “We feel that land defense movements, the struggles for democratizing the world, aren’t just our fight, as organizations or indigenous communities. All of us and our futures are affected. We all need to commit to this fight, fierce and powerful.”
As we rebuild social, economic and political systems after the impact of Covid-19, these grassroots movements and activist groups are going to need more untied resources to protect the land and well-being of communities. If government, companies and civil society are in charge of promoting necessary structural changes, philanthropy can also – with its capacity and position – guarantee resources for grassroots movements that, despite facing the biggest challenges, create alternatives moving towards self-determination, equality and justice.
International funds and organizations should pay more attention to those that are in the territories. We need to attend grassroots movements and communities, listen to them and offer flexible financial and non-financial support, as well as training that fits their needs; include them in decision-making spaces and amplify their voices. Most of all, we need to acknowledge that these activists are the ones that know their communities and realities, they know what they need, and donors should focus on these experiences and not impose projects and agendas or burden them with conditions to access resources.
“Grassroot movements always seek untied funding. In COPINH, we know that institutional state funding comes with its own agenda and intentions. We need funding that is more aligned with social movements, money that isn’t covered in blood”, affirms Bertha.
We hope this #8M is full of renewed strength for all the feminists and territories in the region. May these reflections and shared voices be a reason to remember Berta Cáceres’ joy, conviction and legacy amid a moment of uncertainty and hardship. May her memory inspire us and help us accomplish step by step the liberation of Latin America’s body-territory.
Note: I thank Bertha Zúñiga, Ámbar Morales, Daniela Cortés and Marilin Cabezas for joining this conversation and for trusting in what we are building together. I appreciate your leaderships, voices, and supports.