Protecting the River

Berta Cáceres

One evening in May 2013, Berta Cáceres—a mother of four and indigenous leader—was driving home after a long day of strategy meetings with other community leaders. The road curved through the beautiful mountainous area, full of trees and rivers, that they had been organising to protect. Rounding a corner, Berta was stopped by a military patrol. They asked her and her traveling companion to get out and step away from the car while they searched it. A few minutes later, they ‘found’ a gun in the trunk. Berta knew she had been framed and she knew why. The soldiers put her in their patrol car, took all her belongings and confiscated the vehicle. She was under unofficial, illegal arrest.

During the sixty-minute drive in the military vehicle, Berta wondered what would happen to her. Would she disappear, like many other human rights defenders, and never be found?

Berta recognized the patrol car as one from the battalion guarding the Chinese transnational corporation SYNOHIDRO/DESA—a group that wanted to build a dam on the Rio Blanco in indigenous people’s territory. Like all indigenous people, according to provision 169 of the ILO Convention, the Lenca community has the legal right to be consulted on any development within their territories but that had not happened here.

If built, this dam would impact the river flow, blocking access for seven communities that depend on the water. Dam construction threatened long-term changes in chemical composition and oxygen levels, with harmful consequences for the quality of water used by other communities.

Denied consultation, the community took action, occupying the access road to the river and bringing construction to a halt. Alongside Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina from the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Berta is a leader involved in organizing and supporting this human rights struggle.

The call

Once JASS Mesoamerica received a call from Berta, they knew that she was in danger of being killed or disappeared while in the hands of the military forces. They had to act fast to mobilize their networks within and outside Honduras. They asked their contacts to make calls to Honduran government offices demanding that she be handed over to the proper authorities.

“We knew that if our team and allies in the U.S. called with their gringo accents, the government would pay attention,” say the JASS team.

Once they knew that she was going to be legally charged—like more than 360 women prosecuted for defending their territory and their rights—JASS launched an urgent action to demand her immediate release. Alongside COPINH, JASS called on allies to denounce what was happening to Berta in social media all over the world.

The case

On September 12, 2013, Berta, Tomás, and Aureliano were charged with illegal seizure of land and with coercion and damage to the DESA Corporation. As with similar events in Guatemala and Mexico, “the government's goal is to decapitate the movement, putting its leaders in jail so that the corporations can continue their extractions unimpeded,” said Beverly Bell, of Other Worlds. Activists like Berta, Tomás, and Aureliano are targeted for their leadership in organizing against the dam and demanding that the Lenca people have a say in the development and use of their land. As the community continued to protest, federal forces were sent in to ‘protect’ the hydroelectric plant, following a regional pattern of using the police and military to defend corporate interests.

Berta’s case is a vivid example of the criminalization of citizen activists and human rights defenders across Mexico and Central America. The story also demonstrates the power of local and local-to-global networks. Many organizations connected to Honduras and to COPINH in particular went into high gear to respond to the situation, mobilizing global action and coordinating closely to sustain pressure from all angles. Over 150 international and Latin American organizations responded, along with others that JASS leans on for pressure on global and US policymakers. Stalwart allies included Other Worlds, Grassroots International, Sisters of Mercy, Rights Action, and Economic Policy Institute.

The network

The Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative was born in 2010, in response to the scale and unpredictability of violence against activists and women activists in particular. To create regionally relevant strategies, JASS reached out to close partners: AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development), Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad-Oaxaca (Mexico), Colectiva Feminista de El Salvador, Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM), and Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos, Guatemala (UDEFEGUA).

Being a part of this network provides Berta with a sense of belonging and collective power because she meets activists who share similar struggles. The network acts as a safety net in emergency cases, for example by helping raise legal fees for activists and relocating them when necessary.

“I wouldn’t be here, alive, without the support from the national network and the Initiative, the collectivity that surrounds me, gives me security.” Berta Cáceres

As a co-coordinator of this regional Initiative and of national networksin Honduras and Mexico, JASS Mesoamerica accompanies and supports women defenders like Berta Cáceres through dangerous situations that result from their human rights work. Likewise, through these networks, JASS fosters coordination, solidarity, and joint advocacy among activists within countries, across borders, and internationally, to strengthen their demand for justice and community control in development decisions.

The outcome

After just two days, Berta was released from prison and cleared of all charges. Instead of hiding and fearing for her life, she can now travel out of the country.

Berta’s case spotlighted the unjust arrests and imprisonment of human rights defenders. By amplifying public outcry from near and far, the defender networks brought attention to indigenous peoples’ struggles against transnational corporations. They underlined the government’s unwillingness or inability to respect and protect the rights of indigenous communities.

In spite of the criminalization they’d like to charge us with, we need to nurture hope in ourselves as women – the belief that we are capable, and that it’s possible to take action on behalf of our people. There has been demoralization and mistakes have been made, but I believe that we have to find a way to unleash our creative energy, our ingenuity, vitality, and joy in a struggle that is difficult and that forces us to take on powerful interests. I truly believe that it’s possible.” Berta Cáceres

Because of the efforts of Berta and her community, DESA temporarily stopped the dam project. This story is one of courage and hope. The spirit of the river and what it stands for—from a cooling swim to the means of life—inspired these communities to fight for its protection.