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Persecuted, threatened, falsely accused and under permanent risk. This is how Berta Caceres, member of the Lenca indigenous people and leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) lives in Honduras.
Berta was interviewed by Real World Radio many times, speaking about the resistance against monoculture plantations, mining, or hydroelectric dams in Lenca territory. Berta and COPINH have faced over 30 large-scale timber companies and 49 projects to privatize rivers through dams, in a country institutionally hit by the coup d’état against Jose Manuel Zelaya on June 2009.
Friends of the Earth Latin America and the Caribbean (ATALC) together with several organizations have carried out many campaigns in solidarity with this environmental activist and her organization, in the framework of the repeated and serious human rights violations by governmental and paramilitary forces that currently rule the Honduran scenario.
Due to her unbreakable will to defend human and environmental rights, especially her resistance against the Agua Zarca dam project, Berta was awarded the Goldman Prize 2015 in Washington, US. This is one of the most important recognitions at world level for socio-environmental grassroots activists, which provides visibility to the struggles they carry out in their territories.
When receiving this award, Berta denounced the deep environmental conflict in her country and blamed Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez for his responsibility in this conflict.
“We live in a country where over 30% of the territory has been granted to mining transnational corporations, where terrible projects have been approved such as employment and economic development areas (...) a neoliberal view where energy is no longer a fundamental right for humanity", said Berta during her speech.
One of these projects is Agua Zarca, of Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese company Sinohydro, the world´s largest dam construction company. The Agua Zarca project, which would be built on the sacred Gualcarque River, was approved without prior consultation with the Lenca people, which constitutes a violation to the international treaties about the rights of indigenous people. The dam would prevent water, food and medicine from reaching Lenca communities and would violate their right to manage lands and live in a sustainable way.
Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman, grew up during the violence that flooded Central America in the 1980s. Her mother, a midwife and social activist, took care of refugees from El Salvador, teaching her children about the importance of defending those dispossessed.
Cáceres became a student activist and in 1993 she co-founded COPINH with the goal of facing the growing threats of illegal logging, defending the rights of the Lenca people and improving their living conditions.
In 2006, members of the Rio Blanco community sought help and joined COPINH. They had seen a large flow of machinery and construction equipment arrive to their town. They didn´t know what they were from, or who was behind this project. But they knew it represented an attack against the river, a spiritual place for the Lenca people. It was an act against the community, their free will and their autonomy.
With the authorization of local community members in each step of the process, Cáceres started to lead a campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. She filed lawsuits with community members during their trips to Tegucigalpa. Together with the community, Cáceres organized local assemblies, where the Rio Blanco people voted against the dam, and led a protest where the community demanded in a peaceful way their legitimate right to decide if they want the project or not.
The campaign also sought the support of the international community, submitting the case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and challenging the projects financers such as the International Financial Corporation, the private sector branch of the World Bank.
Ignoring these appeals, the national government and local authorities continued advancing with their plans. They distorted the notes of a community meeting to present a false image of complete approval to the dam and offered cash to the local community members in exchange of their signatures in documents stating their full support to the project.
In April, 2013, Cáceres organized a road blockade to prevent DESA from accessing the installations to build the dam. By using a carefully organized alert system to keep everyone informed, the Lenca people kept a strong and peaceful presence, taking turns among friends and family members for weeks at a time. During over a year, the blockade resisted against multiple clearing attempts and violent attacks by militarized security forces and Honduran armed forces.
Tomas Garcia, a Lenca leader of Rio Blanco, was shot dead during a peaceful protest outside the offices of the hydroelectric project. Others have been attacked with machetes, discredited, arrested and tortured. None of the people responsible has been punished.
Against all odds, the efforts by Caceres and the Lenca community succeeded in keeping the construction equipment outside the area where Agua Zarca would be built.
By the end of 2013, Sinohydro cancelled its contract with DESA, publically stating as a reason the permanent community resistance and the outrage after Tomas´ death. Agua Zarca was hit once again when the CFI withdrew their finance, citing as a reason the concerns over human rights violations. So far, the project has been effectively suspended.
But the death threats against Berta Cáceres have not stopped. Nevertheless she expects that the victory in Agua Zarca gives hope to the activists that struggle against irresponsible development in Honduras and Latin America.
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