“Wake up humanity – there is no time left!”

The killing of Berta Caceres and the Human Rights situation in Honduras.
Berta Caceres

These are words from Berta Caceres – Honduran indigenous leader who was assassinated last week in her own home. Berta spoke these words in 2015 upon receiving the Goldman environmental award – given each year to one person from each continent for the defense of indigenous rights, particularly to land and natural resources and who builds community support through grass roots leaders to protect the environment.

Berta had spent years fighting against a project to build the Agua Zarca Dam along the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Lenca people. Under international law, indigenous people must be consulted on projects that affect their lands. They have not been- rather, they have been persecuted, deprived of land and water and murdered. The hydroelectric project would jeopardize their water resources and their livelihood. Her organization (COPINH) filed legal complaints against the project, bringing the case to the Inter American Human Rights Commission. All along the way she was threatened with death, arrested more than once. The International Human Rights Commission had ordered protective measures for her but on the day of her death she was not under the protection of Honduran Security forces.

The killing of Berta calls attention to the horrible human rights record of Honduras. More than 10,000 human rights violations (against reporters, rural leaders, lawyers, labor leaders, judges and human rights defenders) have been reported over the past 7 years. Coincidentally, President Juan Orlando Hernandez had just returned from USA to argue that his government was turning the corner in combatting violence.

Our Dominican Family Justice, Peace and Care of Creation group has been in solidarity with Berta and she with us over the years. She offered presentations on the effect of the mining industry- 30% of the land in Honduras has been handed over to mining industries from outside the country (China, USA, Canada etc). The indigenous have been rooted out of their communities leaving them with no access to water nor to a livelihood. Last year our Dominican Family group went to one group displaced in Rio Blanco. We came with food, medicine and water. They had been living in the open air for months, in peaceful protest against the company that had evicted them. We spent that day listening to their stories, their struggles, and their fears.  Berta had said she would meet with us but not there as the police watched her every move. Afterwards, we spent time with her on an out of the way road (and met the military police following us as we left)

Another time we had scheduled a dialog conversation with her in a cultural center here in SPS- she called the night before saying she had been arrested. We postponed the session but continued dialoguing with her and visiting another indigenous community (Garifunas) that had been attacked. One time, a member of our Dominican Family met Berta at a meeting and asked her, “Do you remember me?” She said, “Yes, you’re one of those Dominicans!”

Yesterday Joan and I attended her funeral along with thousands of others. The ecumenical service was led by Fr Ismael Moreno S.J. He is the Director of a radio station here run by the Jesuits and an outspoken defender of human rights who each year gives us an afternoon or evening (in dialogue form with the public) on Oscar Romero. He himself has been threatened with death frequently since the coup of 2009. Berta’s mother and four children spoke- demanding an investigation by outside persons. (The US embassy has already sent a special team to help but the government authorities are not receiving them well). A moving moment in the service was the recitation of the Our Father in many indigenous languages- there were  representatives from Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua and of course Honduras(the Lenca are the largest group here – some 300,000). A statement was read by a sister representing religious congregations in the U.S. Frequently we shouted with the others “Justicia!  Justicia!” There were many signs such as “Let the weapons be silenced and let life sing”. Meantime, a drone flew over the gathering taking pictures the whole time.

We sang and cried and hugged one another remembering some of the words of Berta- “the river is the source of our water, food, medicine and spirituality. “The river calls us” she said

And I find myself called by the readings in Leviticus over the jubilee year when lands will be returned to their original owners, slaves will be freed etc (Lev.25.) May Berta, that intelligent, sensitive, and peaceful soul who is now buried in the earth of her “pueblo”, be at peace!

Joan Williams, OP


(09 March 2016)