A life of resistance and repression
In 2015, Honduran activist Berta Cáceres won the Goldman Prize, the highest international honour that can be bestowed to an environmental defender. When a researcher from the prize committee came to visit her in Tegucigalpa, she asked him what would happen if she died before she received the prize money, a question no recipient had ever asked before.
Her fears were not unfounded. Cáceres was murdered on 2 March 2016, shot dead in her bungalow in La Esperanza, in the west of the Central American country.
Cáceres was the charismatic leader of COPINH, an indigenous organization that brought together the Lenca people in Honduras to defend the Gualcarque River against an internationally-funded hydroelectric dam project, Agua Zarca.
In her new book – Who Killed Berta Cáceres – journalist Nina Lakhani goes further than simply telling the story of one woman defending her community against a dam project: “she was much more than that, because she always understood local struggles in political and geopolitical terms.”
Rather, Cáceres’ fight extended beyond her small corner of the world and served as a rallying cry against neoliberal models of economic development – and the corruption and violence they propagate – more broadly.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres follows the life and death of an environmental defender who contributed to the revival of Honduras’ social movements. The investigation documents Cáceres’ involvement in the FMLN in El Salvador, her resistance against neoliberal reforms, and her protest of the 2009 coup against former president Zelaya. It delves into the details of her cold-blooded murder, and then the long and complicated trial that followed.
Untangling a Gordian knot
In the only interview that Nina Lakhani had with Cáceres at her mother’s home in 2013, the latter was clear that she was a target. She told Lakhani she knew she was vulnerable. “When they want to kill me, they will do it.”
Threats and harassment were commonplace in the years before she died. Cáceres overcame her fears, however, and continued to mobilize her community against those who sought to expropriate and destroy their land and waters, in flagrant disregard of International Labour Organization Convention 169.
Lakhani’s book meticulously unpicks a Gordian knot of corruption, impunity, and violence, to show how the struggle against the dam is deeply-rooted in historical power dynamics in Honduras.
She details the involvement of Honduran economic elites, international institutions like the World Bank Group, high-ranking politicians, violent drug traffickers and hitmen, and the US military, in shady deals that consolidate power and money in the hands of a small few.
Cáceres’ struggle for her community’s’ territory necessarily involved fighting against these powerful actors. Indeed, as an interviewee told Lakhani: “Berta was unacceptable to the elites whose power she challenged.”
Reporting with integrity
The book is written thoughtfully; Lakhani’s reporting includes the voices of a long cast of characters, from a widowed campesina woman to ousted president Manuel Zelaya, from Berta’s activist friends and colleagues, to the men accused of her murder.
She did so despite great personal risk.
In 2016, Lakhani published an article in The Guardian where she exposed that Cáceres’ name had been on the hitlist of a Honduran military unit trained by US special forces. The Honduran defence minister publicly circulated her photo, accusing her of falsely defaming the military, and the Honduran Ambassador in London officially requested a retraction of the story. The US ambassador to Honduras took steps to discredit her, particularly insofar as her story linked Cáceres’ killers to US military trainings.
In 2018, while reporting on the trial – the only foreign journalist to do so – she was falsely and publicly accused of links to known drug traffickers and paramilitary groups, and of “using journalist as a front to incite violent insurgency and assist organized crime.”
Honduras is among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and for women. This books thus serves as a testament to Lakhani’s commitment to speaking truth to power, despite the personal risks she had to run in order to do so.
What does this book tell us about environmental justice?
One thread that ran throughout the whole book, weaving together decades of history, is the question of justice.
In December 2018, a Honduran court ruled that Cáceres’ murder had been ordered by executives in DESA – the dam company she was fighting when she was killed – because of the losses the project had suffered due to COPINH’s protests.
The book ends with seven men being charged and sentenced for their involvement in her murder. Throughout the book, however, Lakhani asks us an important question about whether justice was actually served. Since Cáceres’ murder, at least twenty four other land-rights and environmental activists have been killed in Honduras. Corruption continues, corporate power is unfettered, and impunity reigns.
Importantly, the book does not focus on Cáceres in her singular identity as an environmental defender. Rather, Lakhani is clear that her position as a woman and an indigenous person was an important factor in her murder. Despite death threats and sexual harassment, Cáceres refused to be silent. In a country governed by the rules of machismo, this is not an acceptable way for a woman to behave, leading one of her closest friends to categorize her murder as a “political femicide.”
The question of justice – for environmental defenders, for women, and for indigenous people – is linked to the question of power: “truth takes courage… and real courage means fighting in despite of one’s fears.”
As they took the stand after the trial, Berta Cáceres’ daughters highlight how their mother’s struggle lives on, and how it is up to us all to continue Berta’s fight for a more truthful, just, and dignified world. In writing this book, Lakhani has meaningfully contributed to this goal.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet by Nina Lakhani (Verso, 2020), is available from 2 June.