Hundreds of indigenous Hondurans and peasants march on August 17, 2016 in Tegucigalpa in Tegucigalpa demanding justice for the murder of indigenous environementalist Berta Caceres last July. (ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)

The remarkable life and legacy of indigenous leader Berta Cáceras

Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres fought for the Lenca people's right to live on their sacred land



Nina Lakhani
June 21, 2020 2:00PM (UTC)

Adapted from Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender's Battle for the Planet by Nina Lakhani, published by Verso Books.

Quebec City, April 2001 — Every head of state from the Americas, except Fidel Castro, was in Quebec City for negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposed duty-free zone stretching from Canada to Chile, excluding Cuba. Although it was lauded as revolutionary by big business, many believed the neoliberal FTAA (ALCA in Spanish) would only intensify poverty and inequality across the region and threaten the survival of rural and indigenous communities. It was a crisp spring day and Berta Cáceras was there wrapped up, pumped and ready to resist on behalf of the Lencas, her indigenous group.

Tens of thousands of spirited protesters armed with drums, flutes, confetti and canny banners had descended on the picturesque French colonial city in eastern Canada, determined to force the continent's leaders to pay attention. Amid the colorful crowd were indigenous leaders, environmental groups, trade unions, students, fringe political parties and anti-poverty campaigners, all ready for open debate and direct action. A giant catapult was being winched up to launch teddy bears towards the summit site, in contrast to the secretive negotiations taking place inside. 

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Berta was with the Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro. They had travelled to Quebec up the east coast as part of a speaking tour organized by Rights Action, a not-for-profit group investigating the impact of North American trade, economic and security policies in Central America. "Berta's family history and early experiences fostered a clear local-to-global perspective," said Rights Action's Grahame Russell. "She understood that free trade agreements were just the latest repackaged tool of repression, a new twist on the same exploitative economic model imposed on Central America for hundreds of years." 

Berta told audiences in Toronto and Montreal: "Free trade deals are legal tools to impose a model that advocates taking control over the planet's natural resources for profit." She went on: "I don't accept a system that must destroy some in order to thrive. Cutting down forests our ancestors protected for centuries cannot be called development . . . we need to fight this oppressive political and economic model together. This is our problem."

Details were already emerging about the Plan Panama Puebla (PPP), a US-inspired Mexican brainchild, soon to be launched as the missing development piece of the neo-liberal jigsaw puzzle. It was extolled as the mother of all development projects, tackling poverty by opening up the "backward" Mesoamerican region to the global market. The two central pillars of PPP were transport infrastructure – a network of highways, dry canals and ports to speed up the movement of freely traded products – and energy liberalization: specifically, an increased capacity to generate energy by constructing dozens of dams and gas and oil pipelines, and then transport it further and faster by connecting the region's energy grids from North America to Colombia (a sort of NAFTACAFTA energy grid).

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The multibillion-dollar, mainly publicly funded, project promoted and depended on a momentous shift of the region's economy, from small-scale farming to agro-industry and manufacturing, and expanding private control over natural resources. It included the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which sounds like a good thing – a mammoth protected nature reserve – but in reality involved patenting the genetic codes of plants and animals in the second biggest bank of bio-genetic resources in the world. Why? To provide essential raw material for biotechnologies that could revolutionize medicines and food production, but without sharing economic benefits with local people. You could call it corporate bio-piracy.

PPP enthusiasts such as the Mexican president, Vicente Fox, considered this the only way to lift rural communities out of entrenched poverty. However, the Zapatistas and the Convergence of Movements of the Peoples of the Americas (COMPA) – the fledgling regional coalition where Berta and Gustavo first met – saw PPP as a poverty plan masquerading as development, which would force thousands of rural families to migrate to overcrowded cities or north to the US. Auctioning off rivers, seabeds, fertile plains and forests to the private sector threatened to raze or prohibit access to vast swathes of the ancestral land and natural resources that define the economic, social and cultural survival of countless rural and indigenous peoples.

In Honduras, Berta warned back in 2001 that PPP would be a death sentence for the Lenca people, and the Agua Zarca dam turned out to be a perfect example of this.

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Berta was right: it was the PPP that killed her, according to Annie Bird.

At the anti-capitalist gathering in downtown Quebec City, people had had enough of talking. It was time for direct action. But the summit organizers were determined to shield political leaders from the deafening crowds branded as anarchists by Canadian intelligence. A three-metre-high concrete and wire partition was erected around Parliament Hill as a first line of defence. Hundreds of riot cops unleashed a wave of brutality the protesters weren't prepared for. Tear gas engulfed the city in dense, eye-stinging smoke. So much of it was fired that it seeped into the summit hall, forcing delegates to take cover. Berta and Gustavo stood in front of parliament facing the impenetrable chain of riot cops, among protesters drumming and singing. It struck Berta that the demonstration was too far back. "¡Hermano! Let's get closer. Vamos," she shouted, grinning at Gustavo, grabbing one end of the blue and white Honduran flag. Gustavo seized the other end and they rushed forward into a cold jet of water from a cannon behind police lines. They were pushed back and soaked, the flag went flying. But Berta jumped up and yelled, "Let's go again." This time, blinding tear gas forced the pair back. But they surged forward again and again, recalled Gustavo. "That was Berta. Always tenacious and always willing to put herself in the middle of every act of resistance. She never lost that energy."

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* * *

COPINH — in English, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras — was founded as a grassroots organization, and managed to stay true to its roots partly because Berta was never power-hungry. Whenever possible, everywhere she went, busloads of COPINH members went with her, meaning she and the organization evolved together. At one anti-FTAA meeting in Cuba, Gustavo and Berta were invited as speakers and put up in a fancy Havana hotel. Berta preferred the cheaper digs with the rest of the COPINH faction. "COPINH was never a closed shop," recalls Alba Marconi, who worked alongside Berta for over a decade. "For Berta, sharing ideas and experiences was fundamental to ensure COPINH was a true grass-roots organization where the power and energy came from its base."

Berta's early years were filled with Cold War drama and meeting the guerrillas seeking sanctuary at her family home. She grew up looking beyond borders, and in COPINH connected the dots between far-flung boardrooms and parliaments and everyday struggles in Lenca communities. Berta wasn't an avid reader or particularly academic: bearing four children at a young age and launching a new organization made university impossible, and her children agree that studying wasn't her thing. But she was an avid learner, an insatiable sponge, who evolved through experiences and through the people she met and debated with late into the night. Her ability to cite community struggles in Kurdistan, Brazil, Guatemala or Canada to explain big issues like capitalism, militarization and patriarchy was impressive. "I always remember Berta," said Gustavo, "with an open notebook under her arm and a pen in her hand, taking constant notes, absorbing everything, and encouraging COPINH colleagues to learn and grow alongside her."

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Convergence of Movements of the Peoples of the Americas (COMPA)

Berta first met Gustavo Castro in 2000, at a three-day event in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial city in the Mexican state of Chiapas (site of the Zapatista uprising that six years earlier had inspired COPINH). It was a ground-breaking confluence of diverse movements from across the Americas and Caribbean, with the aim of formulating a unified political strategy. No easy task, but COMPA united as an anti-capitalist coalition at a time when identifying as such still carried the risk of being branded as communist. Berta, then twenty-nine, was assigned a high-profile role alongside Gustavo to draft the coalition's message of intent. The six agreed objectives were struggle for gender equality, indigenous rights and sustainable rural development, and against the FTAA, militarization, and external debt and structural adjustment policies imposed by international banks under the Washington Consensus.

Berta demonstrated intelligence, sharp analysis and political know-how beyond her years, alongside an indomitable 'yes we can' attitude. 'Berta helped make Honduras visible,' said Gustavo. "Until then, its social movements, political struggles and resistance were largely unknown to the rest of the region."

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COMPA served as a bridge connecting communities across the continent during six intense years of resistance. The collective produced educational radio soaps, worksheets, books, and videos about PPP, biodiversity and free trade which Berta took back to her base in Honduras. COPINH travelled to Guatemala, where Canadian mines were already polluting water sources and displacing communities; Guatemalans gave workshops in La Esperanza on genetic modification and crop diversity. This fluid exchange of ideas and experiences across borders was pioneering. Over time, the central themes evolved through spin-offs such as the COMPA women's collective where gender equality developed into a broader anti-patriarchal model that Berta sought to integrate into COPINH.

Berta and Salvador separated around 2000, but continued to lead the organization together. In its second decade, COPINH's national profile declined as the indigenous struggle consolidated on the back of important wins. But its international profile grew as it evolved into an organization whose struggle identified with the anti-globalization movement opposed to the neo-liberal economic model. Berta's involvement in COMPA helped her develop a deeper, more structural understanding of the role of international financial institutions and free trade agreements in local land struggles, forced migration, biodiversity and natural resources. COMPA's six original objectives remained central to Berta's struggle to the end.

Every conflict in Latin America is, at its heart, about land. Why? Because the distribution of land is directly linked to the distribution of wealth. In Honduras, both are scandalously unequal. This is the most unequal country in Latin America, with the most regressive tax system, and the gap between the richest few and the poor majority keeps growing. Over two-thirds of the population live in poverty. While big cities are marked by gang violence and precarious employment and living conditions, the great majority of the poor are landless peasant farmers and indigenous or Afro-descendant Garifuna and Miskitu peoples. The most arable plains are in the hands of a few: approximately 70 per cent of farmers hold only 10 per cent of land in small plots, while 1 per cent of farmers hold 25 per cent in massive estates. Redressing land inequalities was a central issue for Berta and COPINH, and that meant taking on the country's elites.

The Elites

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Las élites, las familias, la oligarquía, los turcos . . . catch-all terms used interchangeably for the small group of transnational families whose vast wealth and political power allow them to influence, some would say dictate, public policies to benefit their economic interests. The origin and trajectory of the Honduran elite are unique in the region. These ten or so families played only a supporting role during the first half of the twentieth century, when Honduras was subservient to US capital and geopolitical objectives. Back then, local landowning elites – who got rich and powerful primarily from timber, cattle, cotton and sugar plantations, and mining – were still the biggest cojones in town, yet they were in fact the poorest and politically weakest rural elites in Central America. So, in the 1990s, unlike their peers in Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduran landowners found themselves outwitted and unable to evolve fast enough to take advantage of globalization and international capital. Instead, waiting in the wings was the incipient bourgeoisie, composed largely of Christian Palestinians (mostly from Bethlehem) and eastern European Jews.

The ethnic mix of this elite class – most with surnames like Kattán, Canahuati, Násser, Kafati, Atala, Larach and Facussé – is the result of the liberal migration policies of the late nineteenth century. With the Ottoman Empire in decline, there was a wave of migration of Christian Palestinians to Central America, and a handful of families settled in Honduras during the 1870s and 1880s, when the liberal government was trying to attract immigrants with knowledge of modern agricultural techniques to jump-start the economy. Most came via Turkey, where they sought refuge first with Turkish passports, hence the umbrella term "turcos" for them all. But the new arrivals rejected generous farming incentives in favor of commerce, to slowly establish themselves as the new merchant class. Initially, they jostled for market position in the shadow of Americans who controlled trade through general stores stocked with cheap merchandise arriving on empty banana cargo ships. But the Arabs brought knowledge of external markets lacking among local landowners, and quickly applied commercial rules (buy cheap, sell dear) to the import-export market. The traders accumulated wealth independent of politics, until the late 1980s and early 1990s when structural adjustment policies – free-market privatization programs favoring big business – were imposed by international financiers to guarantee loans and debt payments (aka the Washington Consensus). This sparked a massive transfer of state wealth to the private sector, and opened up unparalleled access to global markets, credit and political power for the transnational merchant elites. Soon they were acting not unlike the banana companies, running Honduras like a collection of private fiefdoms and 'counselling' presidents, ambassadors and the military.

The main gold-rush industries to emerge were manufacturing in the maquilas, African palm oil for biofuels and processed food, and coastal tourism. Then, armed with their new capacity to amass capital, the elites smartly diversified, opening banks, newspapers and meat processing plants, as well as investing heavily in energy projects and mines. The locally prominent landowners didn't miss out entirely on the benefits of globalization: by positioning themselves as the bridge between international investors and new transnational elites, they became the boots on the ground, so to speak, in both business and politics. This economic and power shift happened hot on the heels of the US-backed counterinsurgency war which alleged military and business interests determined to protect the status quo. The most formidable manifestation of this symbiotic relationship was the anti-communist, some say fascist, Association for the Progress of Honduras (APROH), founded in 1983. This club, joined by most major Honduran industrialists, promoted deregulation, free trade and a ruthless response to social movements demanding better wages and conditions. APROH's founding president was General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, commander of Battalion 3-16.

Since then, the rural poverty generated by land inequality has been compounded by climate change and natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch in 1998; rising food prices; systematic land grabs by agribusiness and tourism developers; and shocking levels of violence perpetrated by state security services and private militias contracted by organized criminal gangs, corrupt politicians and seemingly reputable businesses, at times all working together.

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Paradoxically, it was this complex set of harsh conditions which sparked new grassroots social and political movements like COPINH and campesino collectives challenging land distribution in the Bajo Aguán. This pitted the campesinos against feudal king and political heavyweight Miguel Facussé Barjum.

Facussé trained as an aeronautical engineer in Indiana, in the American Midwest, and started his career by converting war planes into commercial carriers, but he built his fortune and notoriety through Dinant Chemicals. In the 1980s, during the Contra years, he served as chief economic adviser to the Liberal president Roberto Suazo Córdova and vice-president of APROH;  he even endorsed selling off Honduras to foreign investors to resolve its fiscal woes. This was Facussé's breakthrough decade, a time when political connections and capitalist instinct helped him take lucrative advantage of a controversial debt restructuring programme. This, and other economic policies blueprinted in the Facussé Memorandum, acted as a springboard to convert the evolving merchant class into a cash-rich globally oriented agro-industrial bourgeoisie, perfectly positioned for foreign investors.

But Miguel Facussé was no political ideologue. He believed in making money, and that is what drew him to the fertile Bajo Aguán.The Bajo Aguán was dominated by banana plantations in the first half of the twentieth century, but the population and crop production nosedived in 1974 after Hurricane Fifi destroyed everything, including the railway, and the fruit moguls abandoned the region. Fifi accelerated major agrarian reforms designed by military dictator General López Arellano, who used public funds and post-hurricane international aid to rebuild the region and entice landless peasants to farm uncultivated plains in exchange for community land titles. The general became an unlikely campesino hero, sanctioning technical and financial support to more than 4,000 farming families organized into eighty-four cooperatives. It paid off: by the 1980s the lower Aguán valley was one of the most diverse crop regions in Honduras, known as the grain basket of Central America. But the glory days were short-lived thanks to the imposition of inedible, invasive African palms.

The lofty palm species was aggressively promoted from the early 1990s by World Bank–funded modernization programmes. The palms were lauded as the ultimate cash crop which would finally lift peasant farmers out of poverty. Then the official line changed: campesinos were no longer capable of farming palms, because they were too tall and required machinery to extract the fruit and oil. Technical assistance and credit from the government plummeted just as global prices crashed, a devastating combination which asphyxiated the farmers. This wasn't down to Lady Luck: the plan was always to let the cooperatives fail, affirmed campesino leader Yoni Rivas. Waiting in the wings to pounce was Facussé.

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Agrarian law prohibits collective or ejidal legal titles from being sold or mortgaged without permission from the National Agrarian Institute (INA). To circumvent this inconvenience, President Callejas approved a municipal law in 1993 which allowed local governments to sell land titles for a period of three months only. This they did via hundreds of small trans-actions benefiting a handful of powerful businessmen, who had woken up to the profit potential of exporting palm oil for biofuels and processed food. The sales were rushed through with total disregard for ejidal and ancestral land titles owned by Garifuna communities. How did they get the deeds? Some campesinos sold up for the money, but far more were duped or intimidated into signing over the land. The wannabe palm magnates made alliances with local politicians to convince cooperative leaders that there was no hope of competing with modernization, so best to sell up and move on. To deal with those who couldn't be convinced, the cooperatives were infiltrated and divided, and secret meetings known as misas negras (black masses) were convened under menacing military supervision. And if that failed, stubborn campesino leaders were tortured, abducted and killed, starting with the president and treasurer of the San Isidro cooperative in 1990. In other words, good old-fashioned corporate counterinsurgency.

Thousands of campesino families were evicted: they went from being landowners to pawns on their own land – a starting gun for a protracted bloody struggle that has yet to end. Facussé was the biggest beneficiary, gaining control over large swathes of Aguán and beyond for industrial palm oil production. The other major winners were the Salvadoran Reynaldo Canales and the Nicaraguan-born René Morales, whose legal affairs were handled by lawyer Roberto Pacheco Reyes, who later became the secretary of the Agua Zarca dam company, DESA. The three men rapidly acquired the majority of the cooperatives and began importing unregulated armed private security guards to work alongside the military to protect their interests. This toxic mix of ambition, political connections, bullish tactics and military alliances helped turned the Aguán into one of the deadliest parts of the country. The violence was fuelled by the West's drive for "clean energy." The big fat clean energy lie. But as always, it's about the land.

Then the coup happened.

Adapted from Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender's Battle for the Planet by Nina Lakhani, out through Verso Books. 


Nina Lakhani

MORE FROM Nina Lakhani


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Berta Cáceras Capitalism Ecology Environmentalism Excerpts Honduras

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