New Books | Who Killed Berta Cáceres?

Before she was murdered, the indigenous activist helped the Lenca people in Honduras fight a hydroelectric dam project that would destroy the community.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (Verso, 2020) by Nina Lakhani. 

The counterinsurgency state

Río Blanco, April 2013

Dressed in her customary getup of slacks, plaid shirt and wide-rimmed sombrero, Berta Cáceres stood on top of a small grassy mound shaded by an ancient oak tree to address the crowd of men, women and children who’d walked miles from across Río Blanco to discuss the dam. “No one expected the Lenca people to stand up against this powerful monster,” she proclaimed, “and yet we indigenous people have been resisting for over 520 years, ever since the Spanish invasion. Seventy million people were killed across the continent for our natural resources, and this colonialism isn’t over. But we have power, compañeros, and that is why we still exist.”

Río Blanco is a collection of 13 campesino or subsistence farming communities scattered across hilly, pine-forested terrain in the department of Intibucá, a predominantly Lenca region in south-west Honduras. Here, extended families work long days, farming maize, beans, fruit, vegetables and coffee on modest plots of communal land which are mostly accessible only on foot or horseback. Chickens and scraggy dogs dart in and out of every house. Some families also raise cattle, pigs and ducks to eat, not to sell, as there are few paved roads or transport links connecting the communities with market towns. Since being given the land by a former president in the 1940s, these communities have largely been ignored by successive governments – despite election promises to deliver basic health and education services and paved roads. With few public services, the communities rely on the Gualcarque River, which flows north to south, skirting the edge of Río Blanco. The sacred river is a source of spiritual and physical nourishment for the Lenca people. It provides fish to eat, water for their animals to drink, traditional medicinal plants, and fun: with no electricity, let alone internet, the children flock to the river to play and swim. The communities live in harmony with the river and with each other. Or at least they used to.

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The pro-business National Party government licensed the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in 2010, ignoring the legal requirement for formal consultation before sanctioning projects on indigenous territory. Not only that, the environmental licences and lucrative energy contracts were signed off at breakneck speed without proper oversight, suggesting foul play by a gaggle of public officials and company executives. In Honduras this wasn’t unusual: the Gualcarque River was sold off as part of a package of dam concessions involving dozens of waterways across the country in the aftermath of the 2009 coup – orchestrated by the country’s right-wing business, religious, political and military elites to oust the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. Not just dams: mines, tourist developments, biofuel projects and logging concessions were rushed through Congress with no consultation, environmental impact studies or oversight, many destined for indigenous lands. The process was rigged against communities; the question was how high did the corruption go. 

The hydroelectric project would dissect the sacred river and divert the water away from local needs, generating electricity to be sold to the national energy company (ENEE). The Lenca people knew that without the river, there could be no life in Río Blanco.

That’s why, a few days before Berta’s visit, community members had set up a human barricade blocking road access to the Gualcarque in a last-ditch effort to stop construction going ahead. 

Berta addressed the crowd that April day just a stone’s throw from the makeshift roadblock, which was manned in shifts by families utterly fed up with being treated like intruders on their own land. The blue and white flag of Honduras hung between two wooden posts obstructing the gravel through-way. The community had first sought help from  the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) several years earlier. Berta and other COPINH leaders helped them petition local and national authorities, the dam building company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and its construction contractor, the Chinese energy giant Sinohydro, making it crystal clear that they did not want the river they relied upon for food, water, medicines and spiritual nourishment to be dammed. Lavish promises by DESA to build roads and schools turned out to be empty. The people held meetings, voted, marched on Congress and launched judicial complaints against government agencies and officials. 

But the mayor of Intibucá, Martiniano Domínguez, claimed resistance was futile. The dam was backed by the president, he said, and they should be grateful to DESA, which promised jobs and development for the neglected community. Domínguez green-lighted construction in late 2011, after falsely claiming that most locals favoured the dam. A crooked consultation deed – filled with the names and signatures of people overtly against the dam, and others who couldn’t read or write – was used as proof of community support to shore up permit applications and investments. When heavy machinery rolled in, cables connecting a solar panel to the school’s internet and computer servers were destroyed, fertile communal land was invaded, and maize and bean crops on the riverbank were ruined, while well-trodden walking paths were blocked off. Signposts appeared around the construction site: “Prohibited: Do Not Enter the Water”. For many, this humiliation was the last straw. 

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Berta only found out later, perhaps too late, that the dam project was backed by members of one of the country’s most powerful clans, the Atalas, and that the president of DESA and its head of security were US-trained former Honduran military officers, schooled in counterinsurgency. This doctrine had long been used across Latin America to divide and conquer communities resisting neo-liberal expansion. But Berta grew up during the Dirty War, and by the time of her address at El Roble she had 20 years of community struggle under her belt. She understood the risks of opposing big business interests, and wanted to make sure the people of Río Blanco understood them too. 

“Are you sure you want to fight this project? Because it will be tough,” she told them from the grassy mound beneath the oak tree. “I will fight alongside you until the end, but are you, the community, prepared – for this is a struggle that will take years, not days?” A sea of hands rose into the air as the crowd voted to fight the dam. 

Standing nearby was the figure of Francisco “Chico” Javier Sánchez, a squat, moustachioed community leader in a black cowboy hat. “Berta warned us that opposing the dam would mean threats, violence, deaths, divisions, persecution, infiltrators, militarisation, police, sicarios, and that everything would be done to break us. COPINH was ready to support us in peaceful protests and actions, but it had to be our decision, the community’s, because it was us who would suffer the consequences. We were totally ignorant, but she was very clear. Everything she told us that day came true, and worse.” 

Three years later, five Río Blanco residents were dead, and so was Berta Cáceres.

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