The Legacies of these Environmental Activists Live Beyond Their Deaths
🍒 The following feature appears in Issue 03 of Selva Beat. Grab your copy here. 🍒
In the middle of the night on the second of March 2016, gunmen tore into the house where Berta Cáceres was staying in Honduras, shooting and killing her.
Berta was an internationally known environmental activist who fought to protect the rights of indigenous people. Her people. The year before her death, Berta had even been awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize — an award that recognizes grassroots environmental activism around the world.
Let me tell you her story.
Berta was brought up in territory belonging to the indigenous Lenca people in Western Honduras in the 1980s when violence was widespread in neighboring El Salvador. Her mother was a midwife and social activist who willingly took in the refugees that fled into Honduras as a result of the violence, instilling in Berta at an early age a deep sense of justice and humanity.
It was this grounding that led Berta as a student to found a group named the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH). Its mission? To stand up for the rights of the indigenous in Honduras — from LGBT and women’s rights, to protesting against illegal logging, unwelcome plantations, and the presence of US military on Lenca land. What saw many members of COPINH deeply suffer however, and even lose their lives, was their concerted opposition to the attempt of private companies, namely “DESA” — a Honduran company, in developing hydroelectric dams across the country. Contracts were awarded to said private companies by the Honduran congress and without consult of the indigenous who lived on the land where they would build — a breach of international law. Four of the proposed dams Berta and the group opposed were known collectively as the Agua Zarca Dam and were to sit along the Gualcarque river in the territory inhabited by her people, the Lenca. This scale of the build would undoubtedly impact their access to water, food, and medicinal plants and, in doing so, irrevocably impact their indigenous way of life. As Lenca activist Maria Santos Dominguez says, “We were born here. It is our land and our river... If we lost the river, we’d die. We need its water to bathe, for fish, for water, for our crops and animals.”
As soon as the Lenca got wind of what was happening to their land by DESA and others they, led by Berta and COPINH, began opposing the efforts of the companies with formal votes, community meetings and organized rallies. They even took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. When these attempts were ignored they transitioned to protesting with road blockades and demonstrations. It was at this point that violence swept into their efforts and in 2013 Honduran military open fired on protesters.
This violent crackdown by the state and the unrelenting efforts of the opposition led to the main backers of DESA, the Chinese engineering company Sinohydro and an arm of the World Bank, to withdraw their support. A success of sorts by Berta and her organization but one not without the ultimate cost — three of Berta’s colleagues were violently murdered for their big-business busting attempts and Berta went into hiding soon after.
That year (2013) Berta told Al Jazeera, “The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. I want to live, there are many things I still want to do in this world, but I have never once considered giving up fighting for our territory, for a life with dignity, because our fight is legitimate. I take lots of care, but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable... When they want to kill me, they will do it.”
Berta was deeply aware of the risk she was making in standing up for her rights in a country that has been deemed the most dangerous in the world for environmental activists. Threats against her and COPINH were continuous and increasing in severity — even her children received threats. Ultimately, these threats turned to action, and Berta’s life was brought to a violent end the night before a meeting to discuss alternatives to the hydroelectric dam. Her death is one considered not only a deep loss to her beloved Lenca and comrades but internationally. Berta fought determinedly for the rights of her community and set a model for indigenous groups across the world pursuing justice against the impacts of profit hungry big-business. Berta’s death is more than that, too. It’s a loss that is shrouded in a murkiness that is increasingly characteristic of the murders of environmental defenders.
At the time of her death, the Honduran government was required to protect her. Yet on that fateful day her protection had gone AWOL; a fact the Honduran government proclaims was down to Berta not being at the place she had identified as her home. Berta’s colleague, who was nearby at the time of the shooting and who himself survived two bullets, explained that the crime scene was tampered with, affecting the evidence that could be gathered for the investigation into her death. More recently the UK’s Guardian newspaper shared the words of a legal source close to the investigation who said: “The murder of Berta Cáceres has all the characteristics of a well-planned operation designed by military intelligence, where it is absolutely normal to contract civilians as assassins.” What’s more shocking about the death of Berta is that hers isn’t a story that exists in isolation. A report produced by Global Witness in 2016 details 2015 as the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders globally. More than three were killed every week in 2015 as they bravely defended their forests, land, and rivers from big-business.
Bill Kayong was another comrade and activist who died for the efforts he made to protect his people’s land — the day after that report by Global Witness was produced. In his home in the Malaysian Borneo’s Sarawak state, Bill worked hard to protect the indigenous communities of Sarawak, known as Dayak, from the moves made by logging and palm oil companies on their traditional lands. This work centered on one community in particular — a traditional longhouse 60km south of Miri in Sungai Bekelit. In this region, longhouses are up to 100m in length and are made up of many apartments focused around a communal area. More than that, they are social units with a chief and communal lands whose history can be accounted for over centuries and under customary law.
This community had been fighting the takeover of their land to grow palm oil by Malaysian palm oil company Tung Huat; a big-business mission that, as commonly found in these stories, was state-supported. Bill helped the plight of communities in Sarawak by conducting paralegal activities to raise awareness within these communities of their rights against big-business seizing their land for palm oil or logging activities. He assisted them in filing court cases and in mobilizing protests and blockades.
Adrian Lasimbang is a Malaysian activist who told news outlet Mongabay that Bill, “was always on the frontline, making him and maybe other activists a target of companies that employ thugs or gangsters to intimidate the communities and activists alike. ”That analysis couldn’t have been more true: Bill was shot and killed on his way to work while waiting at traffic lights in Miri on the 21st of June 2016.
Sadly, Sarawak has been described as a place that is “plagued by corruption, human rights violations against indigenous communities, and environmental destruction.” All the while, longhouse communities like Sungai Bekelit and defenders like Bill are seen as the last hope for the region’s forests which are being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate to be replaced by palm oil plantations.
These stories are hard. We get it. Innocent people are being violently murdered for simply trying to protect what they love — their rights – and it’s a world away from the democratic version of activism we know here at home. Worse than that, these are stories that aren’t going away. As long as there is demand for cheap resources from our growing global population, regions with abundant natural resources are set to suffer at the hand of greedy governments and big-business. Global Witness made this clear in writing that “the environment is emerging as a new battleground for human rights.” As the global demand for products like timber and palm oil continue to rise, big-business continue to exploit land with no regard for the people that have lived there for centuries. “Communities that take a stand are finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers.”
Which is exactly why we need to tell the stories of these defenders, their people, and the lands they are fighting for. So we can make choices that leave better footprints than that of the businesses acting with profit over people in mind.
Friend of Berta, Jesuit priest and activist, Melo, told journalists of Berta, “She had a special way of making us uncomfortable... She wouldn’t leave us in peace until we were all part of the fight.” As we take in these stories and realize our part in them, may we too be uncomfortable. May we not know peace until we are all part of the fight.
Illustrations by Luchia Langley.