In March 2016, armed men stormed into the home of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres and murdered her in her bedroom. The murder took place after years of threats against Cáceres and their strong grassroots activism. Just a year earlier, she had received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award for leading a successful campaign against the construction of four large dams in the Lenca indigenous area – a project in which the Chinese company Sinohydro and the International Finance Corp. companies were involved in collaboration with a Honduran.
Honduras remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activism. Most murders go unpunished, but seven men were convicted of murdering Cáceres in November 2018. Army officers were among the fighters, and two had received military training in the United States. Guardian US correspondent for environmental justice, Nina Lakhani, has covered Cáceres & # 39; grassroots movement in the region for years and was the only foreign journalist to be present in the process.
Lakhani puts Cáceres & # 39; life and death at the center of her new book "Who Killed Berta Cáceres?" Dams, death squads and an indigenous defender's battle for the planet. She spoke to Foreign Policy about Cáceres’s activist training, the experience of reporting on the trial of her murderers as a foreign reporter, and questions that are still open on this case.
This interview was edited for the sake of length and clarity.
Foreign policy: At what point in your coverage of Berta Cáceres did you realize that this could be a book?
Nina Lakhani: I probably spent another Friday evening reviewing a story about Berta. It was a story we were about to publish that her name was on a [military] hit list, I think. I never wanted to write a book, but I thought, "Maybe I should. It's one of those stories – someone else will come along and do it. "
When I wrote these stories, there was such a reaction. I got a lot of annoyance; There have been many attempts to discredit me. The heat has appeared somehow. As a journalist, you immediately think, "There are a lot of people who don't want this information to come out." The seeds were really planted here. It started out as an idea of an investigation into her death, but I pretty quickly realized that you needed to understand who she was and where she came from and what time she grew up in and to understand why she was killed in a political adult in.
To understand their life and death, one has to understand the context: the geopolitical context, the global economic context, the military context, the social context, all of these things. Neither her life nor her death occurred in a vacuum. I tried to use her story as an arch to tell this more comprehensive story of Honduras. There aren't really that many books written in English about Honduras. It is a difficult place to get a grip on. It's complicated, it's dangerous.
It is by no means the full story of Honduras, but it does provide a historical context about what is happening today.
FP: When was the first time you reported in Honduras?
NL: I chose the elections in November 2013. The idea was to cover these elections, which were really the first real elections since the 2009 coup. I stayed two weeks and then I met Berta and interviewed her the only time. And then I did a few things in the Aguán [river valley] where Campesinos were killed at the time – involved in this land conflict with these palm barons. I remember thinking that as a reporter, I had never really been afraid. It is militarized only until it stops. I was told not to stay in the same hotel for more than one night as there are military and police spies everywhere. After three nights we run out of accommodation.
FP: How did the environment in which Cáceres grew up shape your activism?
NL: She was born in 1971. She grew up when the Cold War representative began in Latin America. The civil war in Guatemala was underway, and social uprisings occurred in Guatemala and neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua. Her mother, maternal grandmother and maternal grandfather were all involved in social struggles in Honduras. Many activists, guerrillas and thinkers from the region would come to the family home. It became a hot spot for people to rest, debate and discuss tactics. She grew up in this environment and heard people talk about local things, but in a global context. I think it really defined it to the end, which made it really exceptional.
On a more personal level, her mother was a nurse and midwife. She would accompany her mother to rural outposts to help poor women – mostly indigenous Lenca women – give birth. These were villages that were completely abandoned by the state. There was no basic care: no roads, no lights, no running water, no health care, no education. I think it was very important for them to see only the massive inequalities and in particular how strong the impact on women was.
And then, when she was very young, she went to El Salvador to go to war – she and her partner at the time, who later co-founded her organization [the Council of Honduran People's and Indigenous Organizations]. She wasn't a fighter, but she was there for more than a year. It was clear to them that people were not taking arms because of their political ideology, but because they were hungry and desperate. They were fighting really deep inequalities.
What they wanted to do when they returned to Honduras was [something that did not include weapons]. So they came back and started their organization.
FP: Was there anything that surprised you after years of reporting when you started looking for the book?
NL: This applies to all of my reports in the region, but I think like in Honduras and the region – including the United States – political power is the second layer of power. It is the business elites who control everything. In the case of Honduras, they control the banks, the media, retail and everything. And they control the courts, the judicial system, the politicians – because they give them good or bad press and put money in their campaigns or not. In Honduras, it is so obvious that the vast majority of laws have been written to promote this status quo. You can say that in many countries, but how awesome it was [surprised me]. Just like the really deep impunity and corruption.
And as a woman who reports somewhere like Honduras, about everyday misogyny, machismo, if you just walk down the street, you have to think about it. Honduras is not unique in this regard, but it is particularly difficult.
FP: In your opinion, how did this culture of Machism shape what happened to Berta Cáceres – not just her murder but also her treatment that led to it?
NL: I think that was an essential part of the context in which she lived and in which she died: machismo and racism. You see in the telephone evidence that was found in the murder investigation, only the occasional racism with which the indigenous peoples were constantly described. The idea for this economically powerful group that a woman and an indigenous woman could interrupt their plan and project – regardless of the allegations of corruption – was simply unacceptable.
The fact that they decided to kill them in their house, in their bedroom, in their pajamas – it was a real one: “We can do what we want with you. We are more powerful and can dominate you. “The state's case should have been framed in terms of gender and racist murder, but it wasn't.
FP: What was your experience as a foreign journalist in the negotiation?
NL: I attended the negotiation every day and worked closely with the people involved in the negotiation. In Latin America they have a legal system that is largely based on the Spanish legal system. There are no juries. You can have private prosecution carried out at the same time as the prosecutor. Her family was recognized and identified as a victim and collected a case that would be very different from the state case. At the last minute, they were excluded from the process to prevent this from happening.
It was really difficult. The trial was scheduled to start in September 2018 and was then suspended on the first day as the victim's lawyers requested the three judges to be reused. As I was writing this story, there was a press release from a wrong group on social networks that we believe has connections to military intelligence that claims that I am a violent insurgent and that I am involved in the organization of crimes not a journalist and declares me a persona non grata. And then maybe another 10 days later, who called me a terrorist, was released.
I stayed in Honduras because we were wondering if the process would start again. This time itself was incredibly difficult because the risk had increased massively for me.
Legal proceedings without juries are not particularly interesting because prosecutors do not have to provide convincing arguments. It is very document based. The state's case was based on the phone data. The family's lawyers had been expelled. [The family] boycotted the trial. So sometimes there were about six of us in the most emblematic process in modern Honduran history. I was the only foreign journalist to report on it.
I had interviewed seven of the eight suspects in prison. You knew who I was. The Attorney General would not speak to me. The spokesman accused me of working with groups with a dark agenda. It was hostile. It was uncomfortable. And my security situation meant that I was going back and forth between the court and where I was and trying to change my transportation route every day. It was an intense experience. There was a kind of strategy to harass and intimidate.
FP: You mentioned several times in the book different parts of Berta Cáceres' legacy. What would you say is your legacy after four years in Honduras and worldwide?
NL: There are definitely such layers. I think their work to revive and recognize the Lenca people and the indigenous people of Honduras that was forgotten until the mid-1990s. I think the rights that she fought for and that make her people proud again will last for generations, in my opinion.
We know Berta because she won the Goldman Prize and was an international face. But she didn't make decisions from above. Wherever she went, she took people from her community and group with her. It wasn't about her going to this or that conference. With all the knowledge she absorbed, she would share everything and help everyone understand what was happening in her corner of the world in a regional and global context. There are very few people who are able to do this.
Even when she won the Goldman Prize, she didn't immediately accept it. It had never taken anyone as long to accept it as she did because she consulted everyone. She wanted a consensus that the community believed that this would benefit the cause and the movement. This ability to really connect the dots is, in my opinion, something that people have learned from and will continue to learn from.
FP: This really expresses in the book that she was a unique leader.
NL: Her murder was no exception as many leaders in Honduras were killed off Berta and many have been killed since then. But her life was extraordinary and they killed her because she was so extraordinary. Her ability to unite, her savagery, her intelligence – she has never waged a local struggle without placing it in a wider context. And that was dangerous. If you have all of these international interests in resource projects – with which indigenous peoples around the world are facing – their ability to really understand this as an expression of the neoliberal model has made them dangerous in my opinion. She was targeted and killed because she was so extraordinary.
FP: How do you feel about the future of environmental activism in Honduras and in the region?
NL: The title of my book "Who Killed Berta Cáceres?" Is a question with many unanswered elements. I think the fight for justice will be lengthy and will require political changes both here in the United States and in Honduras. The social movement has regrouped and is strengthening again. Your children and your community have reorganized. You won't let that go and we shouldn't let it go.
By exposing the family to law enforcement, the decision was made – I don't know at what level – to go that far. There is no one who can say hand in heart when looking at the evidence that the prosecutor has fully followed the evidence. There are many other levels of it. The murder must be seen as the grand finale of several years of criminal and repressive action against her and her community. There are still many unanswered questions.
Nina Lakhani, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and the Battle of an Indigenous Defender for the Planet, Verso, 320 Pages, $ 27, June 2020 https://www.versobooks.com/books/3180-who-killed-berta-caceres