Update: less than two weeks after her death, fellow activist Nelson García was shot in the face by unidentified gunmem.
When the world woke up on Thursday 3rd March to news of the murder of Honduran environmental and human rights campaigner Berta Cáceres, it was all too familiar. A committed activist, 38 year old mother Cáceres spent her life campaigning for environmental justice, indigenous rights and women’s rights. After years of death threats, and despite (apparently inadequate) police protection, armed intruders entered her home in the dead of night and assassinated her.
The group Berta Cáceres co-founded – Council of Indigenous People of Honduras (COPINH) – was resisting the Agua Zarca hydro-dam on the Gualcarque River, which would cut off a vital water source for hundreds of Lenca (indigenous) people. Since 2013, three of her colleagues have been killed. The week before, members were detained and threatened after clashing with police, soldiers, the local mayor, and Desa-sinohydro, the Honduran-Chinese company planning to build the dam.
Berta Cáceres’ story is no exception. All around the world, activists who stand up against land grabs and environmental destruction are silenced. Global Witness reports at least 116 environmental activists murdered in 2014 (almost double the number of journalists), with 40% of those victims indigenous. In that year, tribal rights charity Survival International reported 4 indigenous activists, Ashéninka Indians from the Peruvian Amazon, campaigning against illegal logging, were assassinated in Brazil. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian writer and environmental activist who led a non-violent campaign against the environmental degradation of the land and waters of the Niger Delta by Royal Dutch Shell Company, while also criticising the Nigerian government’s failure to enforce environmental regulations. He was hanged by the military dictatorship in 1995 on spurious charges. His was a high-profile death, among many others, that illustrates the extent to which governments are often complicit in the silencing of critics; many activists are murdered by a nexus of powerful state and business actors. The more one digs, the more it is clear that Berta Cáceres’ death is just the tip of the iceberg.
“We aren’t going to give up the struggle to keep our natural resources clean and in the hands of the community. There are those who want easy money by tearing up the land, contaminating the water. We have been here respecting the earth that gives us our food and we intend to stay here fighting for our right to feed ourselves.”- Member of indigenous Tolupán group from Locomapa.
The story of indigenous and/or environmental activists in Honduras, or Brazil, or Indonesia, protecting their land is inseparable from our lives. It is connected to our consumption patterns, of energy and of goods, which is reliant on a huge amount of resources, labour and energy. The coal we use in our power stations comes from companies that have devastated and displaced land and communities; Colombia’s El Cerrejon mine provides over one third of the UK’s coal. In that region, communities have been displaced, promises to compensate and resettle them have been left unfulfilled, and local ecosystems destroyed. The ‘extractivism’ that fuels (literally) our way of life takes place beyond our horizons, and its environmental damage and human cost has been outsourced further and further away as sources of gas and minerals slowly run out and companies are forced to search further afield.
Big corporations, determined to extract oil, or copper, or gold, or coal in order to boost profits and increase shareholder satisfaction are undeterred by local resistance to having land plundered and destroyed. In the wake of protests against Shell’s activities, which have led to mass pollution and human suffering in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, key human rights and environmental activists were found dead. The lengths CEOs and government officials will go to in order to quell dissent is painfully clear.
And state officials, perhaps bribed into silence or under fear of disinvestment, are often complicit in the execution and covering up of assassinations. Two days after the murder, students at the University of Honduras took to the streets in anger at the authorities’ failure to protect Berta Cáceres, despite so many death threats. Her relatives and colleagues report increased harassment and intimidation by the Honduran authorities since her murder; eight of the COPINH’s nine coordinators have been held and interrogated for up to 12 hours without reason.
We (Europeans and Americans) are also implicated through our financial systems, with our banks and our governments supporting and funding the same corporations that eventually take the drastic steps of eliminating critics that become too powerful. Cáceres herself accused Hillary Clinton and the US government of being involved in the Honduran coup. But there is a sliver of hope… What this does tell us, is that these activists are making a difference. It tells us that big corporations are afraid, that these activists are a real threat to their interests.
So how can we support these brave campaigners?
That our way of life is so intimately linked to Berta Ceceres’ murder is shocking, but it does mean that we can do something about it. We, ordinary citizens of the West, and of the world, have power – political power, but also consumer power. Don’t buy from companies who are committing human rights violations and environmental destruction. There are better ones. Ethical Consumer ranks companies according to ethical criteria you can choose – look up any product on there to find the most ethical provider. With the Buycott app you can scan barcodes and see what corporation owns that brand and its record. Don’t give them money, and expose what they do (on their social media, on yours, to your friends, whatever floats your boat).Disinvest in banks that fund these companies. Barclays Bank was the subject of protests earlier this month for its funding of AngloAmerican, the corporation involved in the environmental destruction and community displacement in Colombia’s El Cerrejon mine.
We have political power: we do not have to stand for this. Lobby your representatives at the national and international level, make them aware of this issue. Many of these companies are British – we have the power to hold them accountable for what they do abroad. A court judgment in the Hague recently ruled that Shell can be held liable for oils spills in Nigeria. Activism is successful: if you can and want to, donate or support or participate. Activist group BP or not BP played a huge part in the end of the sponsorship deal between and the Tate announced a couple of days ago.Support grassroots movements that fight for environmental and human rights protection – whether it’s just by keeping abreast and raising awareness or donating time or money.
Berta Cáceres’s death was a tragic and unsurprising demonstration of the power of state and corporate interests – let’s use it as a catalyst for us realising we have power to hold them to account too.