“We Will Win This Fight, the River Told Me So”

 

Every once in a while the Holy Spirit moves in a particular way, and breathes a particular life energy into a particular person. Then a child is born with a measure of fire, a weight of love and the determination to use that holy power to defend the little ones of the Earth, and the Earth herself. Bertha Caceres was such a person.

I am heading to La Esperanza. Before dawn in Azacualpa I say goodbye to my new friends and slip out to catch a little bus. Below us the morning sun breaks upon the red earth of the hideous goldmine. On the bus everyone stares at me and they start to talk about my interview on the local television station last night. I smile and wish I could disappear. In Santa Rosa Copan I wander around, find good coffee, and a little bench to enjoy the morning, and then rush off to catch another bus, and another bus, and travel further into the heart of Honduras. I am going into Lenca territory, into the conflicted lands where the fight is thick between communities and the violent invasive heavy powers of big business, with their mega-earth destroying projects, always with the backing of a compliant, complicit state.

I am hardly the one to write about Berta Caceres, or her group, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras — COPINH. I never knew her. Several of my beloved friends knew her, loved her, worked closely with her, but this is my first time in Honduras.  My friends and colleagues have given me a sense of Berta’s power, and what she has done. I know I must go to La Esperanza. The rivers Berta loved snake along beside us, and the hills shine green. Sailing in to La Esperanza I notice fresh murals on the walls, not yet finished, with her face.

Berta was murdered on the 2nd of March when armed men burst into her home and shot her. The world shook and cried. The Rio Gualcarque shuddered, and stopped running just for a second to catch her breath. The men in the Agua Zarco offices, planning the dam, danced and laughed and clapped their hands.

I arrive and take a taxi to the park. And phone the COPINH offices. Someone is coming to get me. I find my way to a little family pension, and Lilian, of the women’s commission of COPINH , comes to rescue me. We walk through town, and she begins to tell me her stories, her Berta stories, and at the offices, others gather, and I hear testimony after testimony of what Berta had done. How she set people on fire, drew people in, challenged them, healed them, overturned centuries of insanity, of patriarchy, of racism of colonialism and hetero-normalism, of violence and of destruction. They show me her office, untouched, left as it was the day she died, except for a small altar, to her, to the martyrs.

I never knew Berta, but here I am knowing her and loving her, and seeing her and hearing her. The grief is unbearable, fierce longing for the return to life of this woman, the agony and fury at her loss, the shock, the frozen hearts, the disbelief. Three men have been picked up and charged, army men, related to the Agua Zarco hydroelectric dam that COPINH is resisting, but none of the higher ups. None of the men who ordered this murder have anything to worry about, it seems.

After Berta and others founded COPINH in 1992, the fight was on to protect her people’s forests, the ancestral inheritance of the Lenca.  After initial successes in driving the forest companies out, COPINH turned towards bigger monsters.

In the mid 1990s renewed predatory economic practices were spreading all over the globe. Mega-mines and mega-dams — projects with no interest what-so-ever in communities or people, and even less in the Earth herself.  COPINH, and Berta, took on company and state, in defense of the rivers, and earth.

It was to be a tremendous fight. Over 100 environmental protectors and community activists have been killed in Honduras since 2010. And now, of course Berta. After her death Padre Melo, a long time ally, said they simply had to kill her. There was no way to make her turn away from her path. She was the company’s greatest enemy. People listened to her.

We talk all afternoon and into the evening and then the women walk me home.  We pass by Berta’s dream, a huge house with seven apartments, and three big meeting rooms. It is the Women’s Centre for Healing and Justice. It is as yet unfinished, Berta’s pickup  is still parked in the drive. We walk up the hill in the dark to go home. There isn’t much more to say, but to know that between us, between our organizations, there are bonds of friendship, strengthened now, and that we will continue along this way together.

In the morning, a friend takes me out to visit the cemetery. Berta rests over by the wall, in an unfinished tomb, covered in flowers. I arrange mine in a shared vase, and sit for a while, talking to Berta, praying, promising myself never to surrender.

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