May 5, 2015
Eco News Network profiles environmental leaders in our new weekly series starting with one of this year’s winners of The Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman Prize honors fearless grassroots environmental activists from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands & Island Nations, North America, and South & Central America.
Berta Cáceres, La Esperanza, Honduras
In a country with growing socioeconomic inequality and human rights violations, Berta Cáceres rallied the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras and waged a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.
Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman, grew up during the violence that swept through Central America in the 1980s. She became a student activist, and in 1993, cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to address the growing threats posed to Lenca communities by illegal logging.
In 2006, community members from Rio Blanco came to COPINH asking for help. They had witnessed an influx of construction equipment coming into their town. They had no idea what the construction was for or who was behind the project. What they knew was that an aggression against the river was an act against the community, its free will, and its autonomy.
Cáceres mounted a campaign against the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project of Honduran company DESA and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro. She filed complaints with government authorities and organized a local assembly where community members formally voted against the dam. The campaign also reached out to the project’s international funders such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank.
Ignoring these appeals, the national government and the local mayor forged ahead. They doctored minutes from a community meeting to paint a false picture of unanimous approval for the dam, and offered cash to local people in exchange for their signature on documents declaring their support.
In April 2013, Cáceres organized a road blockade to prevent DESA’s access to the dam site. The Lenca people maintained a heavy but peaceful presence, and for well over a year, the blockade withstood multiple eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarized security contractors.
In late 2013, citing ongoing community resistance and outrage following the brutal killing of a community leader during a peaceful protest, Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA. Agua Zarca suffered another blow when the IFC withdrew its funding. To date, construction on the project has come effectively come to halt.
What haven’t stopped are death threats to Cáceres. Despite these risks, she maintains a public presence in order to continue her work. In a country where the odds are stacked against environmental activists, Cáceres hopes the victory in Agua Zarca will bring hope to others fighting irresponsible development.
Established in 1989 by late San Francisco civic leaders and philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman, The Goldman Environmental Prize has become the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists.
You can read more about The Goldman Environmental Prize and this year’s winners in this recent Eco News Network article. http://econewsnetwork.org/2015/04/goldman-environmental-prize-winners/
Cáceres is the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient for South and Central America. To learn more about Cáceres visit www.goldmanprize.org/berta.
Photo provided by the Goldman Environmental Prize.