“She is a seed that has multiplied”
How the murder of Berta Cáceres launched a movement

Photo: Berta Cáceres with members of COPINH during a meeting to remember those killed in the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam. Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Berta Cáceres and members of COPINH meet to remember those killed in the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam. Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

May 29, 2018

By Carolyn Ziv, Fund staff

Bertita Zúñiga embodies resilience.

 At just 26-years-old, she has lost her mother, renowned Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, to a brutal assassination, received multiple death threats, and narrowly escaped an attack on her life.

Yet, like her mother before her, Bertita persists in her relentless pursuit of justice and human rights—not just for her own Lenca people, but for indigenous people across Mesoamerica.

“To see the strength with which indigenous people are fighting, the level of dignity they have, and their incredible desire to transform their current situation—that gives me an enormous amount of motivation and inspiration,” Bertita said during a recent interview with the Fund for Global Human Rights.

She spoke candidly about her mother’s assassination, the work of the group her mother founded—Fund grantee Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH)—and what gives her hope. Throughout, the young activist reinforced the power of collective activism.

“It’s critical that we identify with other struggles and make alliances with other organizations,” she said. “It has to be a joint struggle—that’s the only way we can win.”

Indigenous land under threat

Bertita was referring to the tension between local indigenous communities in Mesoamerica and powerful groups that wish to exploit the land and resources they depend on to survive.

Governments and corporations often seek to extract the minerals, hydropower, or agricultural potential of indigenous lands within Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. But in the majority of cases, those seeking to exploit the land fail to get free, prior and informed consent from the people living on it. Instead, government and corporate actors pressure, trick, or even violently evict entire families and communities from their ancestral homes. Often, they move to exploit communal lands without assessing the environmental impact on local people entirely.

With the help of locally-rooted groups like COPINH, communities affected by megadevelopment projects are fighting back. In Honduras, this resistance has been met with a particularly lethal response: Since 2010, an estimated 120 environmental activists have been killed for their work—including Berta Cáceres.

“My mother is a seed that has multiplied”

Gunned down in her home the night of March 2, 2016, Berta’s murder was the culmination of years of harassment, intimidation, and smear campaigns launched in response to her opposition to and peaceful struggle against the Agua Zarca dam project. Backed by the government and international investors, the dam directly threatens the land and livelihoods of Lenca communities in western Honduras, who had no say in its planning.

Investigations into Berta’s murder by national and international actors point to an elaborate web of co-conspirators. The web includes high-level government officials, former military personnel, and top executives at Desarrollos Energeticos SA (Desa)—the company building the dam. Nine people have been charged in the case, including five hitmen, one former and one active member of the Honduran military, and Desa’s manager for social and environmental affairs.

On March 2, authorities arrested the president of Desa, who is believed to be one of several key intellectual authors of the crime. His apprehension, which occurred on the two-year anniversary of Berta’s death, marked a major step forward for COPINH. But according to Bertita, more is needed.

“The nine people who will go to trial certainly have responsibility in my mother’s case, but it’s not enough. Until all the intellectual authors behind the crime are brought to book, we will not have justice.”

Together with her grandmother, her sisters, and her colleagues at COPINH, Bertita plans to take her mother’s case as far as she can. If the national courts fail to hold all those implicated to account, they will go to regional and international courts.

They aren’t alone. The implications of Berta’s death have reverberated across Honduras and Latin America. If her killers thought it would have a chilling effect on other indigenous communities and activists, they could not have been more wrong.

“My mother is a seed that has multiplied,” said Bertita.

Like the first spark in a wildfire, Berta’s killing has ignited and unified a regional movement for dignity and justice for indigenous communities.

“The trial is making visible a reality that is happening in so many other places,” Bertita explained. But as the fight against the Agua Zarca dam shows, defending indigenous land rights is an uphill battle.

The dam that started it all

As the case against Berta’s killers advances, so too does the campaign to stop the Agua Zarca dam. In a victory for COPINH and its allies, two major investors pulled out of the project in June 2017: the Dutch bank FMO and the Finnish finance company FinnFund. This leaves the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (Cabei)—the largest backer of the dam,  which is currently suspended but not cancelled.

Consequently, COPINH has set its sights on Cabei and Desa, combining strategies of community organizing and legal action. The group presented an appeal against the concession agreement that gave Desa permission to construct the dam. The fact that the area’s villages were not consulted could negate the agreement, and COPINH is pushing to make this case.

Meanwhile, COPINH has continued to educate communities about the project, drawing on their community radio programming, and to organize people for peaceful gatherings and demonstrations. They have also used social media and leveraged the movement sparked by Berta’s killing to keep the project in the regional and international media spotlight.

With 120-member communities, the Agua Zarca dam protest movement is just one of many efforts COPINH is supporting. For example, in addition to helping communities defend their resources from other megadevelopment projects, they are working to promote women’s rights and food sovereignty for impoverished Lenca communities. They do this by strengthening local governance structures, supporting educational programming, and training farmers in sustainable agriculture.

“For COPINH, it’s about a comprehensive struggle for human rights,” said Bertita. With the Lenca people connected to the land for their identity and culture, the work also has a spiritual component.

“COPINH puts a lot of emphasis on the spiritual aspect of this, and that gives us strength in the face of ongoing attacks.”

Hope against all odds

Given the loss of her mother, the ongoing threats to her life, and the difficulty of her work, it would be understandable for Bertita to experience periods of hopelessness or despair. Instead of allowing those emotions to overcome her, she chooses to think of Berta and the impact she has had on communities across Central America.

“Seeing my mother multiplied in other activists motivates me,” she explained.

“If it was an isolated struggle—if it was just the struggle of me, or my mother, or COPINH—it would be very sad. But when you see the collective struggle, when you see that it’s not just the Lenca people, it’s all across Honduras and beyond—that’s where I see my mother, that’s where I feel her presence, and that’s where I’m really filled with hope.”

The Fund is committed to standing with COPINH in this struggle by continuing to support their organization and similar groups in Honduras. This includes support for the security and protection of both their staff and member communities, because the world can’t afford to lose another Berta Cáceres. Thankfully, the seeds she has planted have shown that they are taking root, and the movement she helped fuel shows no signs of letting up.