By Sarah Bates
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Berta Caceres — killed for defending the planet

In the run-up to International Women's Day, Socialist Worker remembers climate fighter Berta Caceres
Issue 2793
A mural to environmentalist and indigenous rights activist Berta Caceres

A mural to climate activist and indigenous rights activist Berta Caceres reading, “It did not die it multiped”

Fearless land defender and tireless fighter for indigenous rights Berta Caceres was defiant until the end. Born in 1971 in the city of La Esperanza, Honduras, she was assassinated at just 44 years old. She was a victim of the lengths the rich will go to dominate our natural world.

In 1993, when at ­university studying to be a teacher, Caceres co-founded the organisation that would define the rest of her life—Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh). Copinh was established on “pillars of struggle—anti-capitalism, anti-patriarchy, and anti-racism.” 

Caceres waged battles against illegal logging and open cast mining, and spoke out about wider issues of social injustice. Her last battle was to stop the Agua Zarca—a series of four dams in the Gualcarque river basin. The project, ­managed by energy firm Desa, threatened Caceres’ Lenca indigenous people. They argued the dam would contaminate ­drinking water, disrupt farming and tarnish the spiritual and cultural significance of the river.

From the off the battle was mired in bloodshed. Caceres endured years of threats of rape, murder and attacks on her loved ones. “I cannot live in peace, I am always ­thinking about being killed or kidnapped,” she once said. “But I refuse to go into exile. I am a human rights fighter and I will not give up this fight.”

Caceres led a campaign setting up blockades to disrupt construction, where the Honduran military and private security forces shot at protesters. In her acceptance speech for the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize she said, “Wake up—we are out of time. “We must shake our ­conscious free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self destruction. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life.”

Despite her high profile, two thugs shot her in her sleep on 2 March 2016. The state initially tried to claim she was the victim of a burglary or died as a result of infighting in Copinh. Her death sparked protests and served to undermine the dam project she gave the last years of her life to stopping.

In July last year David Castillo, ex-boss of the Desa energy firm, was found guilty of ordering her execution. His involvement at any level speaks not just to the cosy links between the Honduran and US governments, but the power of the fossil fuel industry.

Castillo trained at the elite US military school West Point. He then built a career in the Honduran armed forces and later co-founded Desa. He used his military ­training and contacts to relentlessly harass Caceres, and ultimately ordered her execution. 

Today, some of her ­killers have been brought to justice. And the Agua Zarca dam remains unbuilt after international ­backers withdrew funding in the months following her murder. Honduras remains one of the most dangerous places for climate activists. Human rights organisation Global Witness says nearly 140 environmental ­defenders have been murdered in the country since 2012.

Caceres is survived by her four children and mother, who helped expose the truth behind her death. She leaves a ­powerful legacy of environmental struggle behind her. Extinction Rebellion named one of its boats used in protests after her.

Her words live on, ­speaking to an urgency that she displayed in life. “We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action”.

This is the first in a series of columns on radical women to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March.

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