Olivia Cáceres is the daughter of two Honduran indigenous leaders, Salvador Zuniga and Berta Cáceres. Her mother, Berta, was an environmental activist who was assassinated in her home on March 2, 2016 by paramilitary gunmen. Olivia is the founder of the Network of Youth Morazanistas of the West, and is the general coordinator of Coordinadora Indígena del Poder Popular de Honduras (CInPH), an indigenous youth organization which fights for land sovereignty, the preservation of identity of indigenous and black culture, food sovereignty, autonomy and self-determination of peoples and bodies.
Currently she is engaged in what she describes as the hardest battle of her life, fighting for clarification of the facts and for justice for her late mother. She is also fighting for her own survival as a human rights defender in the country with more femicide, and more murders of environmentalists and human rights defenders in the world. She and her family members face constant persecution and threats. She firmly believes that our global community has the means for building a different, more humane, and more just world in the way that we relate to other living beings, and that we should work with Mother Earth to promote respect, love, dignity, balance and harmony.
She comes from a community that has a close relationship with people in Santa Marta, a community in El Salvador with which DGH partners. Ms. Cáceres was Sunday’s keynote speaker. What follows is a translated transcript of her keynote address.
Thank you for the invitation to be here. I want to thank you on behalf of our community for your solidarity, because this is what we need. I’ve lit these candles in memory of my mother, Berta Cáceres, and of Lesbia Janeth Urquia, another activist in the group COPINH (The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) who was also recently murdered. We’re going to start with a short but famous video of Berta to introduce you to her. Please watch her acceptance speech
for the Goldman Environmental Prize
. A short excerpt from her speech:
“Let us wake up, humankind. We're out of time! We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth, militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated, demands that we take action. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits.”
Berta was assassinated March 2nd, now over 4 months ago, in the middle of the night while she was sleeping. Two months before that she had received the Goldman Environmental Prize, in addition to the Shalom Award from the Society for Justice & Peace in Germany. Several months before, she had visited one of the communities in which she worked, and received death threats. Preceding her death Berta received at least 33 death threats, in addition to threats of being raped, of her children being captured and tortured, and much, much more.
My mother was the co-founder and director of COPINH, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Tomas Membreno is now organizing this group in her absence. Today I want to talk about the history of my family, of Honduras, of the women in the Honduras, and the defenders of our land. I want to show you a little of our history with photos. Honduras abuts two oceans, is very humid, with many species of flora and fauna, and a lot of culture. There are 9 indigenous pueblos, including the the Garifuna, Lenca, Miskito, Ch’orti’, Tolupan, Pech, Sumo, etc. Honduras also has islands, including one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world, including whales and sharks. We also have many incredible rivers, including the Platano and Gualcarque. All of these riches are within our indigenous lands. For the Pueblo Lenca the rivers are sacred, they carry the spirits of young girls. As Lenca people we don’t need much to be happy. We need the rivers, earth, food. The Pueblo Garifuna is another pueblo that is matriarchal with a lot of culture and a lot of celebration. Honduras is not a poor country, we have many riches. But the people of our pueblos are exploited. The women from my pueblo work 12-15 hours every day, 365 days per year. The girls start working at age 7 as domestic workers, and often work in production plants that export products to the US & Europe. They are maltreated and make very little money. This is the other face of Honduras, corrupted by the international companies and banks. This is the untold story of Honduras. Up until now we’ve only told the white story, and not the black or brown story of the last 500 years. Here you can see pictures of some people that have suffered health consequences of these industries and companies working in these areas.
In Honduras 70% of the population now live in extreme poverty. Many people live in the trash areas to get food. Many children die of hunger. And it’s not because there’s not food, but because it’s maldistributed. And what can we expect for these children? Many of them grow up to become involved in the gangs. The extreme racism against the indigenous and black people also contribute to these outcomes. Honduras suffers from the same problem of gangs as in El Salvador, which were created in US and exported to Central America. In Honduras they call them the “cats.” It’s possible that these gang members were once young people that didn’t have family or did, but suffered from discrimination. These people are known as the ‘bad guys’ in Honduras, but we’ll see who the “bad guys” really are. For these young people, the gangs are a family. And the gangs are really a strategy for the US. The US consumes the grand majority of the drugs that are produced South of the border.
Here you can see the military and the current president of Honduras. In 2009 the country went backwards horribly, and despite the great resistance to the coup d'etat, including from the indigenous and peasants of Honduras, now the militarization is even worse. The government has approved ‘anti-terrorist laws’ and are fighting wars “against drugs and terrorists.” But really they're not fighting against the drug trade, because the drug trade owns the country. The war is really against the indigenous people and the peasants who are resisting having their land taken from them. Here are some photos of many women activists that have been murdered in this struggle, Margarita Murillo (assassinated 2 yrs ago), Lesbia Janeth Urqui (murdered only 2 weeks ago), Vanessa Zepeda (woman union leader and journalist). My mother is just one of hundreds of women who have been assassinated in Honduras for defending the land. The story of Honduras is very violent, sad, and painful. But our pueblo is very strong, and we have fought hard. We are trying hard to reconstruct hope. Here is a photo of the people from COPINH. All of these people have been criminalized. The hope is still strong although many have been assassinated, and we know that they are capable of killing anyone, regardless of your status. We have an advisory council of elders that help guide the people that direct our organization.
Berta had a huge international profile, not only in Honduras. This is a picture of my grandmother that has demanded an independent commission to investigate the death of my mother. This is a moment when the pueblo of Honduras is trying to create a new way of life. It’s important for us to know how are these murders being financed? And how are these plants being constructed in Honduras? From the taxes you pay here in the US. I believe that the people in the US have no idea that their money is going toward these deaths and destruction. We believe that development should not happen to exploit our pueblos or our lifes. For this reason, we are determined to keep these “developments” out of our lands. It’s not ours. It’s forced on us. It does not exist in our philosophy of life. Right now, this is not just a reality for Honduras, but for all of the pueblos of Latin America and even the Latino communities here and in the US and Canada. This is the war now. For water, for natural resources. All of central america has water. The pueblos of Guatemala, Ecuador, México, are all suffering the same fights. Some are more aggressive or less. But Honduras is a very strategic place for this war, as it’s an entryway to South America. It has one of the biggest military bases in the world, and is one of the most militarized country. We must remember that the war is against us, the people. We’re thinking, who’s going to be next. Journalists. Lawyers. Powerful companies align with the narcos and the government.
I’m not thinking of leaving Honduras any time soon. I feel like a tree planted in my land, with deep roots. We think that the situation in Honduras is going to get worse and it has much to do with the US, because our country is basically an extension of the US. All of the politicians of the US have much to do with what happens in all of Central America.
We invite you to call your senators and support the proposed Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act
. The objective is to stop sending US dollars to Honduras to support military operations and training, including weapons, which we know is funding the militarization of the country. Right now the US gives fifty million dollars to Honduras to buy arms, planes, etc. which are currently being used against the people, not the drug cartel. Honduras is a place where death squads are real. Our government is so corrupt that now it’s not even convenient for the US anymore. Some of these names include the Rosa family, Callejas family, Lobo family, etc. We’re are trying to make a social movement. There have been 3 major events that have led to this destabilization and the first was the Coup d'etat in 2009. You can’t move a leaf without the embassy of the US knowing. It’s located within the presidential palace.
The Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act will be a big blow against the Honduran government. Before killing her there were many different stages of trying to destroy her, but they did not succeed. As many activists say in the US, Berta did not die, she multiplied.
There have been actions of solidarity all over the world, including in Europe. Many have supported the movement for an independent investigation of the death of my mother, but Honduras will not permit it. We are petitioning UNESCO to make the Gualcarque River, for which my mother fought, a heritage site. This would certainly halt the Agua Zarca project.
My family continues to denounce the government and demand justice for my mother. I’m the oldest daughter of 4 kids. In the world of Central America, Honduras is considered one of the poorest, and the young people have suffered the most. In the Lenca pueblo many children die under the age of 5. Women have many children and don’t have the right to abortion regardless of the situation. Women are forced to give birth after rape, even by a family member. As doctors, it’s important for you to know that Honduras has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. Honduras needs more than just charity. Health has to do with everything. In a place where the companies have all the power, the people will never be healthy. As we saw yesterday, everything has to do with health. As my mother would say, we have to wake up, there’s no more time! Without happiness, our pueblos would not survive. We have to continue constructing a new world. The local, community transformation everywhere is what will create change. We have to fight together, collectively. It’s for the future generations everywhere. We have to retake this fight.