by Tory Russell
Berta Caceres, of the Lenca people whose traditional territory is in Honduras, a visionary indigenous, community and environmental leader, 2015 winner of the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize, was assassinated in her home in the earliest hours of March 3, 2016.
Berta died fighting for rights that we in Canada enjoy and expect. Here in the Yukon, we struggle with many of the same issues Berta addressed like balancing indigenous rights with corporate and extractive rights. But Berta was in Honduras where success and recognition as an activist can be deadly.
Since the 2009 military coup ousted the legitimate Zelaya government, Honduras has become the most dangerous country for both environmentalists and journalists, and has the highest murder rate in the world.
This obituary is not just about Berta; it’s about us, our roles as Canadian citizens, Canadian businesses, as elected officials. Justice for Berta will be hard won without us.
Living, breathing… embodying human and environmental rights continuously put Berta at odds with Honduran and international business interests. Canadian hydroelectric company Blue Energy is one example of many threats Berta publicly identified last year.
In 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous body of the Organization of American States, recommended precautionary measures be taken for Berta’s security. As recently as October 2015, in recognition of Berta’s fearless leadership in the face of many ongoing threats of violence, the IACHR re-iterated her need for protection.
But in Honduras, extreme impunity for extreme violence is the norm. As I write about Berta, news arrives that another activist, Nelson Garcia, has been killed, less than two weeks after Berta’s death.
Gustavo Castro, eye witness to Berta’s assassination, and also wounded in the attack, has taken refuge in the Mexican Embassy in Honduras. After giving testimony as requested, Honduran officials have denied Castro the right to travel home.
As Berta is mourned, seamlessly and simultaneously – Berta Presente! Berta Vive! (Berta is present with us! Berta lives!) – also present are the root causes Berta dedicated her life to fighting.
The origin of indigenous resistance has common elements world-wide. Occupation and exploitation are typical features.
Canadians hold multiple business interests in Honduras where for years indigenous lands and waters have been illegally expropriated from extractive, energy, and tourism industry operators (Canadian mining giant Goldcorp Inc. and tourism tycoon Randy Jorgenson are both targets of indigenous and campesino resistance to their “economic development” operations).
Canadian citizens recently elected a federal government committed to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Toward that end, transitional principles for environmental assessments were released, including that: “Indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts on their rights and interests will be accommodated.”
Those principles are meant for Canada. Meaningful consultation, prior and informed consent, were not even talked about with the projects Berta, and many others, were and are resisting in Honduras. And that is no surprise at all. In fact, it is well documented that Canadian corporations’ overseas operations often do not respect indigenous rights. What Berta was fighting is business as usual.
How does the government of Canada, and how do we as Canadian citizens, reconcile our apparent double standard when it comes to respect for indigenous rights: one standard in Canada, and none in Central America?
The assassination of Berta Caceres, an indigenous activist in Honduras, points to some big questions, including this one: does the respect of indigenous rights, necessarily, and essentially by definition, include the indigenous of all (settler) nations?
Canada’s support of the post-coup government in Honduras, despite many unresolved questions about the coup’s legal legitimacy, is a case of economic interests trumping indigenous rights, the very rights Berta dedicated her life to defending, the very rights the new Canadian government has vowed to honour.
Canada can honour the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by insisting on safe passage home for Gustavo Castro, and by calling for an independent investigation into Berta’s and Nelson’s assassinations rather than leaving it to the corruption and impunity of post-coup Honduras.
In the aftermath of the military coup he supported, Prime Minister Stephen Harper oversaw the negotiation and ratification of the Canada – Honduras Free Trade Agreement. Born of an illegitimate government, the so-called free trade deal turned out to be just another economic structure that enables Canadian profit to derive from Honduran oppression and repression.
Berta Presente! Nelson Vive!
Tory Russell lives in Whitehorse. She has followed Berta’s work since the late 90s when her brother, Grahame Russell of Rights Action, started supporting COPINH, the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras.