The best thing about Berta Cáceres receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize yesterday, and being recognized internationally for her grassroots efforts to protect the environment, is that it means she is still alive. Berta has been fighting for decades to defend the forests and rivers of the indigenous Lenca peoples in Intibucá, Honduras—and that is a dangerous thing to do.
Twelve environmental defenders and land rights activists were murdered in Honduras last year; 111 since 2002. A new Global Witness report titled “How Many More?” shows that activists like Berta have a greater chance of being killed in Honduras than in any other country. Last year, Berta’s colleagues Irene Meza and William Jacobo Rodríguez were killed, and in a separate incident seven men attacked and wounded María Sánchez Domínguez and cut off the ear of her 12-year-old son. A year earlier, the Honduran Army shot dead Berta’s friend Tomas García and seriously wounded his son. Berta herself has received numerous death threats and has seen time in jail. Nonetheless, as Jeff Conant said in a recent blog, “As I write, against all odds, Berta is still alive.”
I first met Berta 20 years ago in her home in La Esperanza, a small city in southwest Honduras, surrounded by rolling hills of pine and oak. She told me excitedly about how she and her Lenca colleagues chased out dozens of sawmills to protect the forests they depend on. A few years earlier, she and her colleagues had founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the group she remains with today.
Over the years, COPINH has managed to convince the National Congress of Honduras to ratify an international treaty defending indigenous rights (ILO 169), obtain land titles for over 100 indigenous communities and create a school for Lenca teachers. After the coup in 2009, COPINH became one of the most effective and outspoken voices for democracy, and against militarization.
The Goldman Prize went to Berta this year for her successful efforts to stop foreign companies from constructing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River. In the aftermath of the coup, large energy companies persuaded the Honduran government to make dozens of concessions for the building of dams and mines without consulting with the indigenous communities who would be most affected. One of those communities was in Rio Blanco, a poor Lenca village of 400 families, which suddenly found itself occupied by two giant companies—DESA and Sinohydro—that planned to dam a river on which the Lenca depend and consider sacred.
Under Berta’s leadership, Rio Blanco has stood up to hundreds of soldiers and police and peacefully resisted the companies’ efforts. Their chant “They fear us because we are fearless” has now been heard around the world, and brought global solidarity. So much so that the Chinese Sinohydro and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) both backed down, and the project has effectively come to a halt. Through grants to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Ford Foundation has played a small role in that story, and we congratulate Berta and COPINH for receiving this prize.
Berta is an extraordinary person—one of the most dynamic, charming, outspoken and stubborn women you are ever likely to meet. But the most amazing part of this story is that Berta is not unique among Hondurans. Berta’s close friend Miriam Miranda, who heads the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) is leading similar struggles in the Garifuna villages along the northern Atlantic Coast. Miriam was kidnaped last year and almost killed, but she refused to give up the fight. Then there is Norvin Goff, the young Miskitu leader, who has led his people to victory and won them title for their territories.
Indeed, in many countries around the world, indigenous peoples and local communities are struggling to defend the little they have. They don’t have degrees or bank accounts, pensions or insurance; only fields and forests, meadows and rivers. They depend on those resources for their food, fuel, fodder, medicine, water, housing and cash incomes; and they are central to their religions and cultures. These communities face an onslaught of large mining and energy companies, agribusiness plantations, logging operations, tourism developments, land speculators and ranchers, all trying to grab their resources. Many—like Berta—are resisting, and too many are dying in the process.
While Berta speaks first and foremost as an indigenous leader, she has always been proud to be a feminist. She has also stood beside every group that works for social justice—including small farmers, gays, lesbians, journalists and trade unionists.
We must stand beside Berta and other courageous leaders risking their lives to protect the rights and resources of indigenous people the world over. The Goldman Prize is a significant expression of that support.