Our Program Officer for South and Central America, Ryan Mack (pictured above on the right) shares his memories of meeting 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres (center) who was murdered by intruders in the early hours of Thursday March 3rd, 2016. Ryan visited Berta in her home of La Esperanza, Honduras in early 2015 to learn more about the woman behind a campaign that pressured one of the world’s largest dam builders to leave an area sacred to the indigenous Lenca people:
Thursday, March 3, 2016 was a gray, rainy day in San Francisco. I awoke to the news that Berta Cáceres, an indigenous environmental human rights defender, had been shot dead in her sleep. I’d barely known Berta for a year, but, like many people, she had a profound impact on my resolve to give a voice to those struggling to defend their most basic human rights.
The first time I met Berta was on a similarly gray day in January 2015 in her hometown of La Esperanza, a relatively quiet city in western Honduras.
The rains began as we left La Esperanza and continued into the mountains. It wasn’t long after leaving the pavement that the first vehicle got stuck. Soon, everyone was out in ankle-deep mud pushing. Once one vehicle was liberated from the muck, another got stuck. What should have been a two to three hour drive turned into a 10 hour ordeal of pushing and pulling cars through the mud. Despite being soaked to the bone and covered by mud, people remained in remarkably good spirits. It really was an incredible show of teamwork and effort. This is how I first got to know Berta and the organization she co-founded; the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).
My first in-person conversations with Berta took place between bouts of pushing stuck vehicles through the mud. She spoke with such clarity and passion. The piercing intensity in her eyes was something that caught my attention immediately. Yet, with the flip of a switch, the fierce passion in her eyes could be replaced by warmth and a disarming laugh. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, pushing cars up muddy roads for 10 hours is really no big deal when every other day the lives of your friends and family are being threatened.
I’ve never met someone so dedicated. While sliding around muddy roads, Berta would be on calls coordinating gatherings, protests and meetings in any number of communities.
That night we went to bed late, crawling into our sleeping bags still caked with mud. The sun had set long ago – but there was no sign of Berta. And the next morning she was gone well before sunrise. Someone said she’d come in during the night and slept for a few hours.
In Río Blanco, we witnessed the mobilization of a community coming together to organize, cook, and support each other as they had during the yearlong standoff against DESA and Sinohydro. It was also immediately clear that Berta was highly respected in the community.
I can still visualize her sitting on the banks of the Gualcarque River. First, chatting amicably with local children, then joined by local leaders and friends, sharing a good story or two. She stayed there a while after they had left, just looking at the river, intently but peacefully.
Four days later, a busload of COPINH supporters was stopped on the road about two hours from Río Blanco by local police and supporters of the Agua Zarca dam. Amidst burning tires and a local mob, they were forced off the bus. COPINH members were told that they were “looking for Berta.”
Berta was visibly nervous the next day. I spent the morning on the outskirts of town taking advantage of intermittent cell coverage to call the US Embassy in Honduras, and my office in San Francisco so that they might contact the US State Department. Everyone was on edge, but mostly frightened for Berta. What if Berta had been on that bus?
The next morning we received news that the mob and roadblock that had stopped people the night before was still in place. Unfortunately, there is only one road in and out of Rio Blanco, which meant we too would need to pass by this same roadblock. Berta mentioned to me that she might leave on foot, walking five hours over the mountains. But that wasn’t necessarily a safer option. I had finally managed to get the US Embassy to call the Honduran National Police who would escort us across the roadblock. It wasn’t ideal, but ultimately Berta got in the car and we started down the road.
After pushing our way through the mud once again, we arrived at the roadblock. However, police told us they couldn’t force the dam supporters to disperse. Soon, a mob began to gather and things weren’t looking good. They began asking for Berta. The film crew and I hopped out of the first car; Vicente, the cameraman, began filming, and Will was snapping photos. I frantically dialed the embassy, but this time there was no one to take my call.
Police and locals closed in on the second car, where Berta was seated. The back window opened and someone said, “No, that’s not her.” Up went the window and minutes later the chain link came down. My heart was pounding as our convoy advanced through the roadblock. I didn’t really understand what had happened, but I just knew we’d somehow managed to sneak by the roadblock.
That night, we headed out to grab some food. We stopped by to see if we could bring something for Berta. “Just a cold beer,” she’d said with a tired smile. I teased her about using her “magical powers” to get by the roadblock. Really, we were just lucky.
But this type of harassment was—and is—part of the daily struggle for Berta and members of COPINH. One year later, Berta, COPINH, and nearly 200 community members and activists were not so fortunate. They were forced off their buses by the Honduran military and police while mobilizing a peaceful protest against the Agua Zarca dam. They were forced to walk nearly five miles through an area notorious for paramilitary death squads, while allies around the globe pressured the Honduran government in outrage.
Two weeks later, Berta Cáceres was shot in the head while she slept in her hometown of La Esperanza.
The Lenca believe that the Gualcarque River is guarded by female spirits. I have no doubt that the spirit of Berta Cáceres will continue to watch over the Gualcarque River and Río Blanco.
Activists sometimes get a bad rap for just “being against something” and not promoting alternatives. But Berta had a vision for community schools, gender equality, LGBTQ rights and health clinics for Lenca communities. But, “in Honduras,” she’d told me, “there is so much we’re up against that we don’t often get a chance to work on what we want to.” Her time was consumed by the daily onslaught of destructive projects being proposed in Honduras, with no prior consultation of local communities.
The Agua Zarca dam is just the tip of the iceberg. It was ‘bulk-approved’ in a law that gave the green light to 47 dams in Honduras, with the explicit goal of harnessing the country’s rivers to provide energy for the mining industry. Thirty percent of Honduras’ territory has been granted to mining companies without the consent from those who will impacted.
Currently, the Dutch Development Bank (FMO), the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, and the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation Ltd. (FinnFund) are funding the Agua Zarca project to the tune of $44.4 million.
Berta’s death should not be in vain. You can join COPINH and call on the FMO to immediately pull all financial backing of the Agua Zarca Dam. Pressuring the largest investor to pull out of the dam will encourage other backers to divest.
To support their call for justice in Honduras you can donate to COPINH via their trusted partner, Rights Action (scroll to the bottom of the page). This fund will also support Berta’s family at this difficult time.