Berta Cáceres, an outspoken environmental activist and leader of the indigenous Lenca people in Honduras, was assassinated in early March. One of her colleagues was also killed two weeks later.
After some dawdling and several irregularities, five men were arrested for the crime. The accused are associated with Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), the construction firm at the center of a long struggle with the Lenca people over a proposal to build four hyrodelectric dams along the Gualcarque River. Some of the defendants are retired or active Armed Forces officers.
Berta’s death catalyzed a movement in Honduras. Because she traveled and was relatively well-known outside Honduras — I met her a few years ago, and several of us from PAN were present when she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco in 2015 — it was hoped that her high profile would offer her some protection. But, in a world where two environmental or land rights campaigners are killed every week, perhaps that was too much to expect.
As Rights Action’s Annie Bird told NPR, “People see that if they can kill Berta in this way, they can kill anyone who’s working for the same causes she was working for.”
Those of us who think that we are protected by laws and customs can turn a bilnd eye, or see and choose not to act when others are under attack. Not caring because the targets of oppression are far away — or not readily visible, or different from the norm, or because that’s how things are — makes for a smaller and meaner world for all of us.
Martin Niemöller’s famous quote has nearly become a cliché: “They came first for the Socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a Socialist . . . then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” In a time where fear-mongering politicians and pundits have taken center stage, we must make the extra effort to stand in solidarity with vulnerable people around the world and in our own communities.
This week, after the terrible mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be in solidarity with other people. We can’t just sit in our comfortable little issue silos. Instead, we are called on to make the links between Honduras and the U.S., between the Lenca people and other indigenous peoples, between multinational power in the Global North and its impacts in the Global South, and between community-based leaders in different parts of the world — especially women of color — who are fighting against enormous odds.
How can we stand — and act — in solidarity alongside people who are suffering from unfairness and inequality? It would be easy for us at PAN to talk about pesticides and farming methods in a very narrow way, staying in our lane, as some would say. Instead, we practice talking openly about the social and historical context of our work.
Since our founding more than 30 years ago, we’ve been attentive to how power imbalances lead to environmental injustices. We are guided by the spirit behind the Jemez Principles as we build a network strong enough to transform food and farming.
The stirring words of civil rights activist Ella Baker, later turned into a moving song by Sweet Honey in the Rock, have been nudging me all week: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” We have to act, again and again, and find resourceful ways to be allies, witnesses and partners for those who need our help — just as we expect others to do for us.
It’s the choice Berta and so many others made every day.
Unfortunately, each week seems to bring more opportunities to show up for each other across distances and differences. As we honor Berta Cáceres with an international day of solidarity, please join me and many around the world in demanding justice for her.