Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres

Conversación con Blanca de la Torre

Tania Candiani. Primary colours (2015-2020)

Indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres was murdered on 2 March 2016 for her struggle against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. A member of the Lenca community, she founded the COPINH, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras in 1993. In 2015 she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a year before her murder.

We spoke with her daughter Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres (1990), also an activist and current coordinator of the COPINH.

Blanca de la Torre: Since its foundation, the COPINH, an organisation focused on the defence of the rights of the Lenca indigenous community and environmental defence, has been harassed and persecuted. Due to your mother’s and your father’s militancy in COPINH, your childhood has been marked by threats to your family and even the imprisonment of your father. How were those years for you?

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres: Those were difficult years, because I understood that their work was not a role that everyone did, and it was very difficult for me to understand why, if they were doing something good, they wanted to harm us. I asked my mother to step back from the struggle, and since she was a teacher by profession, why didn’t she practise teaching. This would also enable better economic conditions and, above all, guarantee the issue of security. But from a very young age, she was very forceful in making me understand the importance of this work and the struggle, saying that with this mindset no progress would be made in the campaigning for the rights of indigenous communities, of which we had been part for centuries. She was adamant that her sons and daughters would not be insensitive to the struggle.

Also with the public scorn that one often suffers, one learns to live with it and normalises the situation. I thought that with the murder of my mum, it was very important to take action for justice in order to prevent the recurrence of the crimes. So the aim of my struggle has also been for justice for my mother.

So I had a difficult childhood, but it was also very beautiful because we saw all the communities that are part of the Lenca people, we got to know the living conditions of boys and girls of our age, and we realised that it was indeed urgent and necessary to do something to advocate for the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples, of all those who had been forgotten and neglected.

B. de la T.: You were educated in what was known as a school of popular education, with an anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal orientation, two of the keys to changing the current paradigm. How did these political outlines shape your education? Can you tell us about what the approach was and how you think such an education influences the ecosocial crisis?

B. Z. C.: I grew up in the struggle. Two of the first workshops I took were on popular communication and mural painting, because I liked to paint. I also started to participate in the radio project, and it was very good, because when you talk about topics, you always think that they are specialised topics. The first lesson of popular communication is that we are all communicators. And we also have the capacity to build a different society based on our words and on the recognition of our knowledge and skills.

We began to learn the importance of producing collectively, of collecting the invisible stories; this was also the logic of COPINH’s struggle. To understand what we call the “system of multiple domination”, how there are multiple ways of being women, of being part of indigenous peoples, and how, because we are impoverished, we experience a special and particular kind of violence. And also what to do as peoples, to build our emancipatory project.

For me it was a way of understanding the world. The point of view from which I understand everything that happens, and all the socio-political relations, a point of view from which it is very important to understand that all these systems of oppression require territories. Be it body-territory, be it land-territory. To exert dominance and to become stronger. For us it was always very important to talk about territorial autonomy for the autonomy of our body and vice versa, to intertwine these resistances.

From a very young age, I understood that if there was a classmate of mine who was discriminated against because he or she came from an indigenous community, because he or she was poor, just as if a person was treated differently because he or she was white and had a social status, it was rooted in this same system of domination.

In this sense, the system needs the resources of the territories in order to survive, because the territories of the indigenous peoples, which have historically been safeguarded, today have and continue to have great natural wealth in the subsoil, in the rivers, in everything. And we knew that the moments we were going to face throughout history were going to be very complex; and that’s what we saw over the years.

B. de la T.: You focused on the investigation into your mother’s murder, in a country where most environmental crimes go unpunished. What was that path like?

B. Z. C.: For me, the struggle to obtain justice for my mother was a need to be consistent with her teachings. She was a person who always told me that one should not walk away or retreat from the processes, what is heroic or what makes the difference is to stay, to continue the struggles and the battles.

So, for me it also meant being coherent with the teachings that she gave us, so that those of us who today belong to the school of Berta Cáceres, do so in order that her murder would not go unpunished. The first great fear that crossed my mind when she was murdered was that her struggle would be undermined, because it wouldn’t be the first time it had happened in Honduras, nor the first time it had happened in Latin America. She always insisted, during the last years and months of her life, that if anything happened to her it would be because of that company she always pointed to, because of David Castillo, because of the Atalas…. So you’ve pretty much left us with all the elements mapped out together.

For us, the quest for justice has been a torturous one. One hopes that, when a person is murdered in these circumstances and there has been so much international support, so many denunciations, at the very least it will be a case that will be investigated to the extent that it deserves. But far from it: we had to fight, and relive the violation of our rights and be ridiculed.

Why did they deny us the information? Why did they want to misrepresent it? Why were we even mistreated for demanding justice? Why did we start experiencing these harassment campaigns, trying to belittle our struggle? It has been a difficult road that has cost us dearly. I had to interrupt my master’s studies in Mexico. Let’s say it turned our life somewhat upside down, even though our life was somehow always linked to this struggle and to contributing to the organisation.

The absence of our mother, one of the people’s most important strategists, left a very significant void. But for us, our idea, our approach and why we have fought this struggle, is because we understand that it is not justice in itself but also for the cause, the great cause of the people, for their historical struggle, that this process also has meaning, despite what it has cost us. For us it also meant building our own path of reparation and healing, which the Honduran state has never given us.

B. de la T.: Thanks to your efforts, a precedent has been set with the sentencing of Roberto David Castillo, former Honduran military officer and executive president of the company Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA). However, Castillo was sentenced just over a year ago as a co-perpetrator, but the mastermind of the crime has yet to be identified. The fight continues: it remains to be seen who was really behind it and for justice to be served. There is no sentence yet for the remaining defendants. At what stage is that process at and when will the next steps take place?

B. Z. C.: There have been two trials, one against the seven intermediate perpetrators and one against the one who could be considered the co-perpetrator. But still these rulings, despite all of our efforts, are not final. This means that they are exposed to the possibility that there could be another court, reversing these important achievements that we have obtained as daughters, but also for COPINH as an organisation and for those who have been part of this search for justice.

We are currently campaigning for the prosecution of the masterminds, who are fully identified and linked to the board of directors of the construction company behind the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. However, we have known for a long time that they have always tried to protect them, because they are people with considerable economic power and who also have a great deal of political capital. We are still waiting for the state to take real and decisive action.

Even though we are part of the process, we have not received any information about it. We continue to campaign for their arrest and to carry out investigations to not only link the murder to the crimes in Rio Blanco and to the whole exercise of violence, but we have also found information on crimes related to corruption and money laundering….

It is also an avenue that COPINH, as a private prosecutor, and we as daughters of Berta Cáceres, are trying to develop, in the lessons they have handed down to us. There are many other trials in Latin America in which genocidal criminals are often not arrested, or are not captured for the crimes they have committed, but instead are captured for other crimes.

And well, that is the way that we, the people, have sometimes found to do justice. We are developing that philosophy. We believe it is very important to ascertain the responsibility of the state. COPINH is working on other processes to demonstrate the State’s responsibility, because the complicity of State institutions, which were often instrumentalised, were key actors in the murder of my mother, as well as other crimes.

B. de la T.: What role did the feminist campaign “Viva Berta”, which was camped in front of the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice, and social mobilisation, play?

B. Z. C.: The camp is part of this philosophy that justice does not come from these institutions that have historically been accomplices of these criminals against the people, who have also actively persecuted the communities that defend their territory. That is the philosophy of the camp: it is an exercise that is done with communities defending their rivers, denouncing hydroelectric projects, and organising themselves. We bring to light a justice system that does not arrest the masterminds, but we can cite their names and surnames, saying that they are brothers of the Atala family, of David Castillo… This is the way justice is done in countries with a high level of impunity like Honduras, where these power structures exist. In the feminist camp, the aim was to take the trial out of that space and present the voices of all the people we know and denounce the persecution that was suffered. But she also pointed out that this persecution was experienced because she was a woman, because she was a leader of an indigenous people, because she was a social activist for Honduras and not only for the Lenca people.

This is part of the justice process that brings people together, that opens the doors to those of us who struggle, to those of us who believe in justice. And also for those for whom Berta Cáceres continues to be an ethical, political and social organisational point of reference.

That is the role the camp played: taking the justice process out of a cold, racist, exclusionary place. And this is also the process that we think of, from the peoples and also from feminisms.

B. de la T.: In this sense, the fact that Berta Cáceres has become a reference point for environmental, ethical and political activism, even beyond the borders of Honduras, has led you to propose other initiatives, such as the Memorial Home (Casa de Memoria). Can you tell us more about the project?

B. Z. C.: The Memorial Home that we want to build in honour of our comrade Berta Cáceres is a project that aims to give new meaning to the place where she lived and where she was vilely murdered for her struggle in defence of the Gualcarque River, in defence of the rights of indigenous peoples and for the construction of a democratic country.

We must give her a new meaning – as has been done in many parts of Latin America – because of the importance of her words, her actions and her example for our continent. It allows us to talk extensively about who she was and to enable other people who did not know her directly in her work, in her struggle, to understand all the aspects of her political project: the struggles of indigenous peoples, of women, of impoverished peoples against all those oppressions that attack and violate them.

The idea is for it to be a place of remembrance, a place to recall the words and to exhibit some of her personal belongings that are symbolic and that we, as daughters and sons of Berta Cáceres, have preserved. The idea is to make them available to more people, and to be able to have videos and exhibit artistic expressions that have been created – of which there are many – in different parts of the world. In short, by bringing the message back, others can continue to learn from her example.

B. de la T.: You reveal how the state and companies operate in collusion when granting concessions of territories that should be protected for the common social good. Most of these are corrupt projects, which not only damage the integrity of communities and all surrounding ecosystems, but represent a global threat at a time of climate crisis. How can we face this threat at a time as fragile as this?

B. Z. C.: We and COPINH are fully aware that we are living through a climate crisis, at a global level. We believe that the contribution we can make in this process is in the defence of public assets, which must be combined with the exercise of the rights of indigenous communities. Constitutions such as that of Honduras said that the territories of indigenous peoples were uninhabited territories, where there was no one; they were barbaric territories. And that has been the philosophy under which it has operated. That is why, for us, it is very important to recognise not only in Honduras, but throughout the world, the territorial rights and all the rights of indigenous communities, who have historically been protectors of common goods and of nature.

It is also very important for us to make visible the economic relations that are at the heart of the plundering of the territories, where there are international investors who finance the dispossession of indigenous communities and where, for example, European industry and banking played a fundamental role, and there has been talk of binding treaties between companies and human rights, but what we want is for these same rights that apply to Europe to be applied here, because we are sure that it would not be permitted to give money, for example, from the people of Holland to a project that has been accused of the murder of indigenous comrades. For example, when the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) moved in, community leader Tomás García had already been murdered by a military officer who happened to be part of DESA’s staff. This was proven in a historical trial, which is also very significant.

We know that there are international economic relations and dynamics that finance and make the materialisation of these murderous, criminal and plundering projects possible. In this sense, it is very important for us to analyse these international dynamics.

We know that the people who have safeguarded nature cannot take responsibility for climate change if the countries that are the polluters are not doing so as well. They consume excessively, and perpetuate an economic dynamic in the world that has been unjust, unequal and that has sacrificed nature.

Those are part, shall we say, of our thoughts on how to deal with these threats. Our work is to defend our territories, our forests, our rivers, our mountains, our subsoils and also to question those false ecological dynamics that are based on business and not really on honest and sincere concern about how to save human life; because nature, as we know, is going to continue, is going to mutate, is going to transform. But then again, so is human life. And so, let it be a world where we, the people who have cared for nature the most, are sacrificed the least!

B. de la T.: You have also led a campaign to support a bill in the US to suspend military support to Honduras until serious action is taken against the murder of activists in your country. Where are we on this issue?

B. Z. C.: Currently, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act in Honduras is still in force in the United States. And despite the fact that Honduras has undergone a change of government, we believe that historically it is the army that has played a role which has nothing to do with guaranteeing territorial rights or the interests of our own country, but which has played the role of violating its own people and, in the case of the indigenous communities, of trying to subjugate them through the use of violence. But more than that, it has become an entity seriously questioned for its active involvement in human rights violations, with links to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. And this is related to the murder of my mum: five of the people who have already been prosecuted were active military personnel or were militarily trained in the army. And that is not a coincidence. It is making a clear argument for the role and function that armies are fulfilling: that of practically training paramilitaries and murderers who are committing gross human rights violations. In this sense, we continue to campaign to ensure that, as long as criminals and military personnel related to human rights violations are not brought to justice – not only in the case of our mother, but also in the case, for example, of peasant leaders in Bajo Aguan who have been fighting for their land – the United States does not continue to provide funding to Honduras, because this has resulted in further violence. Our idea is to continue to raise our voices with the strength of this very important campaign, to also exert political pressure and to rethink the function of armies and the military and what kind of training is being given, which ends up in the use of violence.

B. de la T.: In 2017 you assumed the same position your mother held, general coordinator of the COPINH, from where you continue that struggle, especially against the development of extractivist mega-projects that threaten the Lenca community and their entire ecosystem. Shortly after taking office you suffered an assassination attempt. Is there an ongoing investigation? Have you suffered any more attempts since then? Do you live in fear?

B. Z. C.: The attack I lived through, I don’t remember what year it was, I think it was in 2017… it was recent. There was a partial investigation, as there was also a lot of international denunciation and the authorities responded to this pressure to some extent. I was never informed as to how the process ended up. However, the perpetrator of this incident was identified and attempts were made to absolve him of any responsibility. He was arrested and shortly after being questioned, he was released. After that, I had no further information and I have not suffered any more attacks like this one.

However, what we have suffered are very aggressive smear campaigns, calling into question or questioning the reasons why we are carrying out this struggle for justice.

We are clear about the level of impunity and the level of aggression and violence in our country, where nothing, let’s say, makes us safe or protected. However, we are fully aware of this and of the fact that this element of political persecution makes our lives somewhat hectic, which, one might say, cannot be considered normal. But we do not have fear at the centre of our work, because this work cannot be done if you are afraid. You can’t live in fear all the time. That’s unhealthy, isn’t it? But hey, we are aware of that. We try to take care of ourselves, especially as a group. The Honduran state continues to be inefficient in safeguarding our lives. But we are committed to this collective care and also to working on our fears, our fears within our organisational spaces, so that it is never fear that takes precedence.

B. de la T.: What is the difference with regard to women’s leadership at the forefront of this type of initiative? Are the risks greater?

B. Z. C.: What we have seen is that the leadership from women is much more complex, as it is experienced with a series of very strong challenges, from all sides. In that sense, we are a much more vulnerable sector and more likely to suffer aggressions of all kinds. The greatest risks that have been experienced, in general, are threats to families, to physical integrity, sexual aggression or sexual harassment, which is very common.

The major smear campaigns are also linked to women’s status. These are part of the risks: the permanent threats to life and the violation of their private and working spaces.

B. de la T.: What are your main goals? What projects represent the main threat to your community at the moment?

B. Z. C.: Well, with regard to the main goals of my struggle, logically, the first is to contribute to justice for the Lenca people through comprehensive justice for my mother’s cause. That would be one. The other is to get the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Rio Blanco cancelled.

Also to ensure that the State of Honduras recognises the territories that are ancestral and historical lands of the communities of the Lenca people, and to contribute to strengthening their autonomy, and to respect them, as well as recognising the rights of the communities of the people.

Agua Zarca still represents the main threat to my community at the moment. A project that continues to be under concession despite the fact that my mother was murdered, despite all the denunciations, despite the fact that there are people from this company who have been imprisoned. But that concession is still in force and there are many more concessions for hydroelectric projects on our territory: 51 concessions were granted during the State coup and many of them are still under threat, and the communities are still fighting to have them cancelled.

B. de la T.: What role have women played historically in safeguarding the sovereignty of indigenous peoples’ territories?

B. Z. C.: Among the Lenca people, women have been responsible for promoting culture and spirituality, which is the central element in the defence of the territories through different ceremonies, the transmission of culture and the management of spiritual processes.

In addition, they have played a very strong leadership role in defending the land so that, as the women themselves say, the new generations have a place to live and learn about the value of the land. And well, also in organising the communities and addressing the emotional and social problems that each of them suffers, trying to solve them. Also participating in popular communication processes, which are very important in COPINH, through its community radio stations.

B. de la T.: Indigenous communities have worldviews that are closely linked to the earth and they tend not to differentiate very much between living and non-living, human and non-human beings, but perceive the planet as a holistic, living and interconnected whole. What is it like in the case of the Lenca community? How can we include that worldview in a Western paradigm that has colonised territories, bodies, and cultures?

B. Z. C.: For the Lenca people, their worldview and relationship with the earth and all living elements is based on placing the value of the earth at the centre. That is why our main ceremony is a payment in gratitude to the Earth, for all that it gives us, including food, water, animals and everything else. It tends to be a much more respectful relationship with life and diversity, recognising its importance also in safeguarding our own survival. In our worldview there is also a strong value of common goods, such as rivers, where sacred spirits also live; or the mountains, where these spirits speak out if Mother Earth is mistreated, if the appropriate ceremonies have not been carried out. In our worldview there are also the naguals, which are the animals with which we have a symbiotic relationship because, if we sometimes harm animals, we can also harm a person or ourselves without knowing it. This is part of this relationship with living beings and animals, with life, with water and with all the elements that are part of nature.

I think it is difficult to answer the question of how to include it as part of the Western paradigm, because we are living in a time of cultural homogenisation, and even the indigenous peoples themselves are being affected and we are seeing how our cultures and many of our fundamental values are being lost. I believe that the great battle is also for diversity in every sense: including diversity and respect for different worldviews and the protection of these cultures, because we know that this cultural modernisation that comes from the paradigm of capitalism is also putting an end to these cultural expressions. I think the important thing is not to replicate the same culture for all peoples, because each people has its own worldview and, if we look, also its own stories and legends. Something that is very important is to recognise in all peoples – even the white and colonising peoples – is their cultural background, their beliefs. Recover them, give them value and see how they can be replicated in future generations. Surely this would also have a positive impact on understanding life and relationships with nature.

B. de la T.: What role do you think art and culture can play in the construction of this new narrative, in building a new worldview?

B. Z. C.: I think the role of art and culture is very important because we, for example, without our culture would not fight for the Earth and everything we believe in. The essence of our defence of the commons has to do with the fact that we believe in other ways of relating to the Earth and in other ways of being, and in this sense, we believe that even in the face of all the violence, in the face of the loss of social paradigms, art has the function of talking about these other ways of being, but also of healing all the violence that we, the people, have already gone through. I believe that the central role of the defence of life has to do precisely with the cultural heritage that we the people have: our wisdom, our values, our other ways of being and existing on Earth, which are often not understood by the big international banks or by businessmen who only see nature as an object of exploitation and profit.

B. de la T.: You have met other women who are passionate defenders of ecosystems and indigenous rights, in other states as well. What role have women played in other indigenous communities and how have you seen their roles change?

B. Z. C.: Well, I think the role of women has been strengthened: their political leadership has been the result of different efforts and processes of justice, including at the national level. I think that today this role is stronger and we are living in a better situation, which is also a product of the struggles that have been made to generate alternative living conditions for women. Another very important factor is that, in the face of violence and in the most difficult moments that our organisation has endured among our people, it has been the women who have sustained the organisational process in these difficult times. Also those that have sustained us emotionally, those that have strengthened us from the spiritualities of our peoples. These exercises of healing, of justice, of collective leadership, have allowed us to continue to this day. For example, I have been allowed to continue coordinating our organisation.

B. de la T.: It has been proven that the consequences of the environmental and climate crisis fall disproportionately on women. How have you experienced them and how do you experience them in your own community?

B. Z. C.: The Lenca people are made up of a very large number of communities. It is relatively diverse, and relatively large. There have been many examples of corporate violence, of state violence, but on a personal level they are also experienced in different ways. It is very common for women who fight for their territories to have their families threatened and their families harmed in order to weaken them and attack them to such an extent that they are practically paralysed in the face of such situations.

A very important aspect of the environmental crisis is that, for women who are responsible for safeguarding communal territories, it has become a very complicated exercise. In addition to the emotional effects that are experienced over the long term, it means living through permanent episodes of violence, which is also closely related to violence and sexual harassment – which is very important to make visible and denounce even when it happens in our own internal spaces and is not directly related to companies or external actors – as well as to the internal oppression that is experienced within each of the communities. Here, we still have a situation that has been set up in a very complicated way, which we are trying to resolve through the various routes for achieving justice, but which are not easy. It is not easy to rebuild social or family fabrics when they have been broken by so many situations like these.

B. de la T.: Berta Cáceres has become a symbol of ecofeminisms, which analyse the interweaving of violence and oppression against women, and the violence and oppression of ecosystems. How did being a woman affect your mother’s struggle for environmental justice?

B. Z. C.: Negatively. For my mother, the struggle for the defence of the territories meant living under immense political persecution, living with threats and constantly in fear of being murdered. She even talked to the organisation, to us, about what we should do if she was killed, how we should continue the struggle.

It cost her her life. The last years of her life were very difficult and, in spite of this, she led this struggle with great enthusiasm and joyfully, because she was sure that there was such a great strength in the communities of the Lenca people that, no matter what happened, this struggle would be victorious. Some of us had to leave the country because of that situation, being somewhat physically separated. Many sacrifices are also made at the level of interpersonal relationships with families, with much public questioning. I think that what she also taught us is that, in the face of adversity, we have to put our best face forward and, as we say here, turn the tables. Turning a difficult constitution into an opportunity. And from there, we can also continue to challenge those who oppress us, and to do so with courage and joy!

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres – Biography

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres (1990) is a Honduran social activist. Since May 2017, she has been the general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH). From this position, she leads the social and environmental struggle against the installation of mega-projects that threaten the economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of the Lenca people. She is the daughter of the social activist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016.

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