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Nina Lakhani on COP28 & Charges Against Alleged Mastermind Behind Berta Cáceres Murder

Web ExclusiveDecember 18, 2023
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Watch Part 2 of our interview with The Guardian's senior climate reporter Nina Lakhani, who covered COP28. She also discusses news she broke during the summit: Honduran authorities have issued an arrest warrant for the suspected mastermind of the 2016 murder of Indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres. Lakhani is the author of the book Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender's Battle for the Planet.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We’re continuing with Part 2 of our conversation with Nina Lakhani. She’s the senior climate justice reporter for The Guardian US. She was just covering the U.N. climate summit in Dubai, where we were. We actually shared a wall between our offices. And while the climate summit was happening, news came down about the mastermind of the killer of Berta Cáceres. Nina Lakhani is the author of Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet.

This month, Honduran authorities issued an arrest warrant for the suspected mastermind of the 2016 murder of the Indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres in her home. Daniel Atala Midence is the former financial manager of the hydroelectric company DESA — Berta Cáceres assassinated as she led the fight against DESA’s massive hydroelectric dam on a river in southwestern Honduras that’s sacred to the Lenca people. Last year, David Castillo, a former U.S.-trained Honduran military officer and businessman, was sentenced to over 22 years for his role in ordering and planning Berta’s assassination.

We have spoken to a number of Berta Cáceres’s family members, but, Nina, you wrote the book on her murder. And if you can first tell us about, as we started in Part 1 of this conversation, the significance of Midence being — there an arrest warrant being for him, and then fit it into the U.N. climate summit, when we got the news?

NINA LAKHANI: Yeah, sure. I mean, so, Daniel Atala Midence, you know, like you said, he was the financial manager. So, him and David Castillo, who was the president of DESA, they basically ran the company, the day-to-day operations. And what I know — what we learned from the two murder trials that we’ve had so far is that, you know, they were sort of — you know, they were the ones that were intricately involved in all the day-to-day decisions. And that included Atala Midence. He was the one that would authorize payments to informants, like insiders in the — people in the Rio Blanco and the Lenca community, who were basically informing the security managers and the security sort of chiefs, who were also U.S.-trained, former U.S.-trained ex-military officers, about Berta’s whereabouts. And that included in the run-up to her being murdered in March 2016. And so, you know, he was very much involved in all the sort of — everything that went on.

And what we learned in Castillo’s trial is that he was actually called as a witness by the family’s lawyers, and the court accepted him as a witness. And then, at the very wire, at the very last minute, he was forced to turn up, but he was excused from giving testimony, because the state prosecutors admitted that he was actually under investigation himself. So that he didn’t, I guess, implicate himself by giving evidence, the judges have recused him.

So, you know, several years later, you know, this arrest warrant really comes out of the blue. I mean, we’ve heard nothing from the prosecutor’s office, from the Attorney General’s Office at all. And then it dropped. And actually, it dropped the day before the Honduran president, Xiomara Castro, was at COP. And so, I managed to actually get into a room where she was giving a speech about, you know, carbon markets and Honduras’s sort of embracing of carbon markets, and I managed to ask her, you know, about the arrest and say, you know — and because she, at the end of her speech, she actually quoted something that Berta had said, part of Berta’s speech when she won the Goldman Prize back in 2015. And I asked her to comment, you know, because it’s such a significant step, but she just refused. She wouldn’t comment at all. And it was really, really disappointing.

And I think — you know, I think it is a big step. It’s like, you know, he’s the most, I guess — Daniel Atala is the most powerful, politically powerful, person to have been, you know, charged so far. His dad and his uncles were the majority shareholders. They’re part of like the big — one of the most powerful oligarch families in the country. So it really is a big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Nina, I want to go to Berta Cáceres in her own words in 2015, when she won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We are 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.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Berta Cáceres in her own words in 2015, when she won the Goldman Prize. She would be assassinated a year later. And so, Nina Lakhani, you wrote the book on her murder. You’re now talking about Midence, the majority owner of DESA, the dam she was taking on. I’m a little confused. President Xiomara Castro came to the U.N. climate summit. Can you talk about the new president’s or the new regime in Honduras’ approach to the environment and environmental defenders? She was seen, as she rose to power, as on the more progressive side?

NINA LAKHANI: I mean, that’s why — obviously, Xiomara Castro is the wife of the former president, Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in a 2009 coup. I mean, yes, the LIBRE party is very much considered more progressive. It’s certainly not, you know, mired in the same scandals and controversies around narco, you know, drug trafficking and arms trafficking, as the National Party, which was in power after the coup until she came in, you know, a couple of years ago.

But really, in terms of environmental defenders, this has been an absolutely terrible year in Honduras. You know, more than 10 campesino leaders — you know, I think a dozen, in fact, campesino leaders have been murdered in El Bajo Aguán region over land disputes with the African palm conglomerates. Other Indigenous and rural leaders have also been assassinated this year. The killing has not stopped — right? — because impunity hasn’t stopped.

And so, I was also reporting — I did a story from Honduras this year. I’m sure your viewers will remember the terrible case of the 43 migrants that were killed in the fire in the migrant detention center in Juárez, on the border of — in Mexico on the border of the U.S., back in March. Well, one of those survivors was a young man from a place called Cedeño in Honduras, which is disappearing because of sea level rise. I’ve reported back there in 2019. Since then, another 200 to 300 meters of land have disappeared because the sea level is rising. And he was a climate refugee that was caught up in this absolute nightmare and has been left with, like, long-term brain impacts and his loss of use of one hand.

And I say that because there are some improvements in terms of some, you know, small projects that the government is trying to do. They’re certainly embracing carbon markets wholeheartedly. But really, on a day-to-day basis, I think people are incredibly disappointed, you know, with Xiomara Castro and her party. I mean, I think the crackdown and removal of civil liberties in prisons, but also for protests and other things, have made people really worried at the sort of mano dura, the sort of iron fist strategy that they’re taking, as well. Is it as bad as it was under the National Party? No. But it’s still been — there’s been very little progress around land rights and environmental rights since they came to power.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the threats to Indigenous and environmental leaders around the world? I mean, the U.N. COP, the climate summit, is a global gathering. But the kind of threats that people face fighting for the environment, taking on large projects like DESA?

NINA LAKHANI: I mean, yeah, I mean, in fact, just two days before COP got underway, a Peruvian Amazonian leader was assassinated, someone who had been fighting for land rights for his community for a long time and had received threats as a result of those — of that work. I mean, you know, the world — you know, as resources get tighter, as water scarcity increases, and as just the sort of — you know, the unchecked expansion of extractive industries, mining, including, you know, mining for critical minerals that are being — that are needed for electrification, things like lithium and cobalt and so forth, are all going ahead in communities without consultation, without, you know, proper information, especially — you know, Indigenous people have a right to be consulted. They have a right to information. They have a right to say no. And that type of consultation, that sort of comes under the ILO 169 treaty, is just not happening.

And so, I think what many people would say is that if — you know, if clean energy projects and mining for critical minerals needed for electric cars and other electrification for the transition is — needed for the transition just go ahead and are imposed in the same way that fossil fuel projects are imposed, then they pose the same existential threat to Indigenous people, to Indigenous peoples’ lands, to their water sources. Nothing really changes for them, because they don’t stand to benefit, because if business carries on the way that — as usual, when really these projects are imposed and they’re carried out for the benefit of, you know, international companies and investors, and for consumers, like us, you know, then, really, where’s the benefit, you know, for Indigenous people and rural people? You know, they get their land contaminated, their land taken away. Water, scarce water, is used up to extract minerals or oil, you know, or whatever resource there is, and they don’t benefit at all. They’re the ones that are on the sort of brunt of the harms, you know, that go hand in hand, when business is carried out without any — you know, without any sort of respect for human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Nina Lakhani, if COP28 was a big win for Big Oil, I’m wondering two things: What most shocked you, going to this climate summit, you know, passing in the hallways constantly the more than 2,400 oil lobbyists, as you said, far outweighing the number of Indigenous people? But what most shocked you, but also what gave you the most hope?

NINA LAKHANI: So, I think, you know, the shocking thing is — you know, I think I feel like I sound like a broken record with this, because it sort of goes in every story that I write, and I’m constantly, you know, talking about this with my colleagues, is that, you know, there was a — you know, the fossil fuel sort of capture of COP and industry capture of COP isn’t new. The reason that we still need to have a COP and the reason, you know, that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise is because this process has been captured by people in the fossil fuel industry and others, you know, and banks and others that make money from this expansion from the beginning. This year, it was particularly blatant and huge, right? And that may well — a lot has to do with the fact that COP was being run by the executive of an oil and gas company.

But I think that the thing that surprises me most is that how — how countries like the U.S. and Norway and Canada and the U.K. are so successful in painting the Arab states and the Gulf countries and others as the villains, right? That, you know, it’s these petrostates that they like to blame. There is no bigger petrostate in the world than the United States of America. Right? You know, if we’re talking about quantities of oil and gas expansion, the biggest villains are the U.S. and, you know, the other sort of — and the umbrella group of countries, like Canada and Australia, the EU. They’re the ones that are expanding and benefiting from oil and gas. And it just — that’s what shocks me, is just how good they’ve been at painting themselves as the good guys, as climate champions, when really they’re the ones — when you follow the negotiations, they’re the ones in the back rooms blocking any recognition of equity, any move to have climate finance be fair. They’re the ones that are blocking that, you know. And yeah, I find that just — it’s so two-faced. It’s so hypocritical, you know? And that, I find — is it surprising that the chief executive of an oil company is trying to do oil deals at COP? Not really. You know, I mean, it’s terrible, yeah, but it’s not really surprising, you know? It’s shocking, and we should be shocked at the fact, that all the parties, all the countries allowed for the UAE and voted for the UAE, you know, to — accepted the UAE as a president, but also that they go there saying one thing and actually doing the other, right?

You know, the U.S. is very, very keen to have everybody phase out coal. So is the U.K. Why? Because we’ve extracted all of our coal. We don’t need, we don’t care about coal anymore, because most of it’s gone. You know, we care about oil and gas. That’s why it did not want any more strong language than the transition away from, you know, and it’s so watered down. Is it historic? It’s something, but it’s by nowhere near enough. And honestly, I think it really could be the nail in the coffin for 1.5, for keeping, you know, global heating at 1.5 above industrial levels. I just don’t think it’s anywhere near enough.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the fossil fuel lobbyists, there’s no specific mention of meat or livestock in the COP28 delegation.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s despite the fact that meat and dairy consumption are responsible for around 14-and-a-half percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. COP28 had three times as many delegates representing the meat and dairy industry as last year’s climate summit.

NINA LAKHANI: Yeah. I mean, that, again, right? So this is another historic achievement that we’ve all been told to applaud, that there was a Food and Agriculture Day at COP. And there was some good — there was some good language and good agreements, decent agreements, on, you know, some new money around climate adaptation for agriculture and food systems. But there’s absolutely nothing at all about tackling the fact, as you say, that industrialized farming, particularly livestock and beef and dairy, but industrialized farming generally, is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases, to global heating. They just got away absolutely scot-free. And this is why I feel very — I don’t know — jaded with the term, use of the term “historic.”

Another historic thing, that there was a Health Day, absolutely wild. It was the first time climate action and health have been considered together at a COP. And that, again, you know, was sort of, you know, applauded as historic. But in that sort of nonbinding agreement that was signed by, I think, a hundred or so countries, there is no mention of fossil fuels. I mean, the impact of fossil fuels on health, I mean, 5 million deaths a year are linked to pollution from the extraction and production of fossil fuels — absolutely no mention of that at all.

You know, and you just think, it’s 2023. I was listening to Berta’s words there when you played them. That’s eight years ago, more than eight years ago. Like, nothing’s changed. You know, like, I mean, really, in terms of action, has any — would she say anything different now? I really don’t think she would. And honestly, it makes — when I hear her, and when I’m just coming back from COP, it just makes me realize how much we miss, you know, the sharp sort of political analysis that she had — right? — you know, and why the knowledge and the sort of analysis from Indigenous leaders is so important. It’s, you know, by framing the situation and the solutions and the problems in a very different way than most of our political leaders seem capable or seem willing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And what gave you the most hope at the U.N. climate summit? I mean, there was so much wrong, also the — 


AMY GOODMAN: — suppression of, you know, political dissent. Climate leaders —


AMY GOODMAN: — talked about how they were spending all their time making sure people weren’t debadged who wore Palestine lanyards or held up flags. They’re not allowed to hold up flags of countries, so they would hold up flags of watermelon, for example, around protesting in support of Gaza or a ceasefire now. You had the climate justice advocates. You had those who were trying to raise the names of political prisoners held by the United Arab Emirates.

NINA LAKHANI: I mean, yeah, I mean, you know, those protests in which — were calling for a ceasefire now and, you know, trying to make the link between — to try and put a spotlight on the utter environmental catastrophe that is being — you know, that’s carried out in Gaza at the same time as in parallel to the genocide in Gaza, right? That, you know, water, food, agriculture, it’s all been purposefully targeted. And that message of there is no climate justice without human rights was absolutely sort of suppressed by the UNFCCC, which is responding to the countries that — you know, within the framework. And people weren’t allowed to mention Israel, never mind hold up a flag. It was just unbelievable.

And what gave me hope, I mean, talking to Indigenous peoples and learning from them is always hopeful, because I don’t — it tells me, it teaches me that we have the solutions. You know, there are ways to fix this that don’t involve huge, you know, expensive technologies that are going to leave everyone else behind.

But honestly, this year, I think it was — I attended a press conference and interviewed a bunch of kids that were there with UNICEF. And a young 14- — a 14-year-old boy from Colombia, called Francisco, he used his five minutes that he had in that — so, you know, it was one of those half-an-hour press conferences. And there was like four kids, one kid from the DRC, Francisco from Colombia, a 13-year-old girl from Madagascar and a 13-year-old girl from Libya. And they — I mean, just the compassion and the sort of clarity with which they spoke was so inspiring. And so, like, it may — you know, you just think it’s not that hard. If you really want to fix this, it’s not that hard. And Francisco took his five minutes to raise questions which the adults just were refusing to do or were unable to do. He just said, “How can rich countries keep telling us there is no money for climate finance, when there is enough money to send all these weapons to bomb and to kill Palestinians in Gaza? How can that be true? How can there be money for tanks and bullets, when there is no money for climate adaptation?”

And I just thought, you know, it’s so obvious. And like two days later, you know, the Biden administration, the U.S. vetoed the U.N. Security Council sort of ceasefire by a vote, and then, you know, bypassed Congress to authorize the sale of all that weaponry to Israel. And I just thought, I mean, it’s just not true, right? You’re making a choice. You’re making a choice that the destruction of a land and a people, you have the money for that, we have the money for that, but we don’t have the money to tackle the climate crisis. And that is like, the kids know it. The kids can tell you that. And that gave me hope, you know. But it’s just like, it’s so — yeah, it’s so frustrating, you know, when you just think it’s just time is running out, as Berta said eight years ago. Time is running out, you know? But the kids, yeah, they spoke with more clarity and more compassion, really, than most of the political leaders that I heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Nina, let’s end with the words of Francisco, Francisco Vera, 14 years old, from Colombia.

FRANCISCO VERA: The climate change is not just changing the environment, the planet. It’s also changing the children life. No? So, it’s an important moment to make also a call to continue our actions against climate crisis and against the planetarian crisis as the Committee on Children Rights has mentioned, no? It is a triple crisis: the pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and the climate crisis. No? So, there are like many, many lines to take action, no? We have adaptation. We have mitigation. We have also loss and damage, the finance that is so important. But, for example, on adaptation, and in general in all of them, I would say that it’s so important that states can include and integrate effectively and correctly that lines — no? — in their national policies, programs and plans, no? For example, I could participate in Brasília on September at the National — at the Brazilian National Adaptation Plan with Marina Silva, minister of environment of this country, and give also the perspective from children, no? We need that process of making policies include the children — no? — not just in a consultive way, also in a participative way.

AMY GOODMAN: Francisco Vera, 14 years old, from Colombia, speaking at the U.N. climate summit. And we’ll also link to Nina Lakhani’s piece, “Young people’s plea to Cop28: 'World leaders owe it to future generations.'” Nina Lakhani, I want to thank you so much for your work and being with us today, senior climate justice reporter for The Guardian US, who was in Dubai for the COP28 climate summit. We’ll also link to her latest piece, “Indigenous people and climate justice groups say Cop28 was 'business as usual,'” as well as all the other pieces she wrote during COP28. Nina Lakhani is also author of Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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