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Remembering Berta Cáceres, Assassinated Honduras Indigenous & Environmental Leader

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Honduran indigenous and environmental organizer Berta Cáceres has been assassinated in her home in Honduras. She was one of the leading organizers for indigenous land rights in Honduras. In 1993, she co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. For years, the group faced death threats and repression as they stood up to mining and dam projects that threatened to destroy their community. Last year, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s leading environmental award. We hear Cáceres in her own words and speak to her nephew, Silvio Carrillo, and her longtime friend Beverly Bell.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Honduran indigenous and environmental organizer Berta Cáceres has been assassinated in her home. She was one of the leading organizers for indigenous land rights in Honduras. In 1993, she co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. For years, the group faced death threats and repression as they stood up to mining and dam projects that threatened to destroy their community. Last year, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s leading environmental award. In a video released by the foundation, she described how she helped organize indigenous communities in Honduras to resist a hydro dam on the Gualcarque River because it could destroy their water supply.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] In more than 150 indigenous assemblies, our community decided that it did not want that hydroelectric dam.

ROBERT REDFORD: Berta filed complaints with the Honduran government and organized peaceful protests in the nation’s capital. As her visibility increased, she became a target for the government.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] We denounced this dam and were threatened with smear campaigns, imprisonment and murder. But nobody heard our voices—until we set up a roadblock to take back control of our territory.

ROBERT REDFORD: For well over a year, the Lenca maintained the roadblock, with standing harassment and violent attacks. Tragically, Río Blanco community leader Tomás García was shot by the Honduran military at a peaceful protest.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] Seeing these men murdered, the community became indignant, forcing a confrontation. The company was told that they had to get out.

PROTESTER: [translated] We have 500 people here, and we are Río Blanco comrades. We will defend Río Blanco, and we will not let them pass.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] And that is how Sinohydro left Río Blanco. But it cost us in blood.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a profile of 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres. It was narrated by Robert Redford. In accepting the award, Cáceres vowed to continue standing up for the rights for Mother Earth and indigenous communities.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] In our worldviews, we are beings who come from the Earth, from the water and from corn. The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet. COPINH, walking alongside people struggling for their emancipation, validates this commitment to continue protecting our waters, the rivers, our shared resources and nature in general, as well as our rights as a people.

Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth, militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated, demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits.

I dedicate this award to all the rebels out there, to my mother, to the Lenca people, to Río Blanco and to the martyrs who gave their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources. Thank you very much.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Berta Cáceres speaking less than a year ago when she received the Goldman Environmental Prize. She was gunned down in her home in La Esperanza in Honduras early on Thursday. La Esperanza means “hope” in Spanish.

Today, protests demanding justice for Cáceres are scheduled from Washington, D.C., to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. On Thursday, the Goldman Environmental Foundation released a statement that read in part, quote, “We mourn the loss of an inspirational leader, and will honor her life’s work by continuing to highlight the courageous work of Goldman Prize winners like Berta. She built an incredible community of grassroots activists in Honduras, who will carry on the campaign she fought and died for.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont called Cáceres’s death a “great loss for the people of Honduras” and warned that the Honduran government’s inability to protect her would, quote, “weigh heavily” on future U.S. aid to Central America—to that Central American country.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, a report by the group Global Witness found that Honduras is one of the deadliest countries for environmentalists. According to the report, at least two people working to save the environment were killed each week in 2014. In total, the group Global Witness documented the murders of at least 116 environmental activists last year. Three-quarters of them were killed in Central and South America.

For more, we’re going to San Francisco, where we’re joined by Berta Cáceres’s nephew, Silvio Carrillo. He is a freelance video journalist in the Bay Area. And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we’re joined by Beverly Bell, longtime friend and colleague of Berta. She’s currently the coordinator of Other Worlds, a social and economic justice organization.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Silvio, our condolences. We are so utterly devastated by the death of your aunt. I know you are flying down to Honduras. Thank you for staying for this conversation. Can you talk about your—can you talk about Berta’s significance and what she was trying to do in her life?

SILVIO CARRILLO: Well, that’s—that’s a big ask. She was trying to do many things in her life. She was trying to be a mother, be a daughter, be an aunt, be a human being, respect human beings. And this is what she did every day for the indigenous people of Honduras and across Latin America. I mean, she helped coordinate indigenous solidarity networks throughout Latin America and around the world. In fact, she was always asked to speak around the world. Many people knew her throughout the world. And if you look on social media, there’s reactions from everywhere. Berta was always on the go. And, you know, she—and so now we have to be on the go. This is how it is, and she knew this was how this was going to end.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Beverly Bell, the importance of her work and the role of the Honduran government in—the current government that exists in Honduras?

BEVERLY BELL: There’s no way to overstate the importance of Berta’s work. She was working very closely, actually, with the democratically elected President Mel Zelaya to work to, quote, “refound” democracy. And she was doing this in the same way that Berta did everything, which was through grassroots mobilization of workers, of women, of, significantly, indigenous people and campesinos, which is the population that was represented in the organization that she founded some 20 years ago. She was working for a wholly new form of governance in Honduras, not just a new government, but a new system whereby people had the say and the riches of the country went to benefit them instead of the tiny elite.

And it was for this, actually, that Mel Zelaya, who was very close to those demanding land reform and these rights and this refounding, as they called it, of democracy—it was in large part for this that he was ousted—and, I must add, with the very, very close help of the U.S. government. And Berta continued to work for that change for true participatory democracy that empowered women, that empowered LGBQ individuals, that empowered those who have always been left on the margins, excluded from political processes and from economic benefits. And it was for that reason, in part, that she was assassinated by the government and by the—


BEVERLY BELL: —no doubt, with the backing of the transnational corporations that she and the group that she ran were opposing.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2013, Berta Cáceres spoke to Democracy Now!

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] The population today, those who have been in resistance who are from the LIBRE party, are challenging the repressive apparatus, with the absence of the construction of real power from the communities, but now these people are voting enthusiastically for the LIBRE party, that we hope will be distinct from the other political parties. This scenario is playing out in all the regions of Honduras—in Zacate Grande, Garifuna communities, campesino sectors, women, feminists, artists, journalists and indigenous communities. We all know how these people have been hard hit, especially the journalists, LGBTQ community and indigenous communities. This is all part of what they’ve done to create a climate of fear. Here, there’s a policy of the state to instill terror and political persecution. This is to punish the Honduran people so that people don’t opt for the other way and look for changes to the political economic situation and the militarization.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Berta Cáceres in 2013, interviewed by Andalusia Knoll. Silvio Carrillo, you covered, for Al Jazeera, the coup in 2009 in Honduras. And talk about how what happened then, the ouster of the democratically elected leader, Zelaya, the president—how that has set the tone for what’s happening, the murders that are taking place today in Honduras.

SILVIO CARRILLO: Well, it set a precedent for chaos, that the U.S. was, apparently, very willing to accept. They didn’t like Zelaya—they thought he was too allied with Chávez—and didn’t overly support the coup, but did not denounce it, either. I mean, Barack Obama was asked about it in the White House, and he says, “This coup is not legal.” Well, of course it’s not legal. No coup is legal. That’s the whole—that’s by definition. That’s what a coup is. It is illegal. And they did nothing to help the situation in Honduras. The Congress was hemming and hawing. Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson, the State Department spokespersons were—didn’t even know what to say. It was an embarrassment. And they were barely—they weren’t even called out on it. And it was a shameful, shameful exhibition by the U.S.

And in Honduras, on the ground, it was complete chaos when Zelaya tried to fly back in. I was there when the military shot a boy in the head. They killed him. And I followed the family back to their hometown, where they buried him and where they mourned their loss. And there was no justice for the boy. They never figured out who shot him. But we—I mean, it was quite clear it was a military gun that fired the bullet that went into his head. The autopsy for the boy was conducted by the government officials, and no one was there to oversee that, just like Berta’s autopsy last night. There was a request from the family to have an independent forensics expert there, and they denied it. So you know, it’s just a culture of obfuscation when these things happen. And that’s what’s going to—sadly, that’s what it’s going to continue to be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Beverly Bell, we only have about a minute or so left. There was a group of gunmen, supposedly, that broke into her home and killed her. And initial reports from the police was that it was probably robbery. Your sense of whether this was a definitely targeted assassination that was occurring here?

BEVERLY BELL: This was a targeted assassination. Berta Cáceres received so many death threats, it would be impossible to count them. She lived under constant knowledge, as her nephew said, that she would be assassinated. We all knew it. I began writing her eulogy several years ago. This is not a woman who was to die of old age. She was absolutely assassinated.

And I would like to point out that the single witness to the crime, Gustavo Castro, from Chiapas, Mexico, continues to be held by the government. I just spoke to his wife a few moments ago, and they have not yet released him, they say, for questioning now, more than 24 hours later. So this is a tremendous concern that this man be allowed to leave and to go back home safely to Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the coup, Silvio. We just have 20 seconds. But at the time, Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state and was very involved in what was happening in Honduras.

BEVERLY BELL: Well, you know, I don’t know what she was involved in. She was involved in—you know, Lanny Davis was also involved in getting payments from the Honduran government, and he’s very closely allied to Hillary Clinton. This is why this was never a clear-cut—it was never called an outright putsch, to say—for them to say it was a coup. And they backed off of that. And they didn’t know what to do. It was a very confusing situation for them. But I think it’s pretty clear now, in hindsight, what they should have done.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Silvio Carrillo, the nephew of—the nephew, and Beverly Bell, the close friend of Berta Cáceres.

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