"May Berta's death and Gustavo's current suffering not be in vain"

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By Sergio Ferrari

Q: What is the memory, the image, that remains of Berta Cáceres murdered on March 3 in Honduras?

Philipp Gerber: Berta broke with the stereotypes of activist of a cause. She was much more than a leader in her organization. He mobilized frontally against the coup in Honduras in 2009. He denounced the presence of United States military bases in his country. She moved with great ease both in feminist networks and in international lobbying, always facing "capitalist, racist and patriarchal power", as she used to say.

But, and that made it so special, despite its awards and international visibility, it never stopped being in the territory, living with the people, participating in local demonstrations.

Just ten days before his murder, he led a demonstration - which was harshly repressed - against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, considering it an attack on the Lenca indigenous people. His organization, the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), won the first fight against this project since after four years the World Bank and a Chinese construction company withdrew in 2013, arguing the obstacle posed by local resistance. .

But now development funds come from the Netherlands and Finland, accompanied by actions to mitigate the environmental impact of USAID (United States Agency for Development). And by all means they want to implement that project arguing that now, supposedly, it * will be clean *.

Berta is the fourth COPINH militant assassinated in this new cycle of the project. She feared –as well as her organization- that Agua Zarca would mean the entry of megaprojects to the Lenca people's region, where after the 2009 military coup the new Government gave a large part of the territory in concession to implement 17 hydroelectric projects and a similar amount of mining projects.

Q: You have worked in Mexico for years, in the same region as Gustavo Castro, who was wounded in the same attack in which Berta Cáceres lost her life. What is the profile of the Friends of the Earth / Mexico coordinator?

A: I have known him very well since the early 1990s. Gustavo is a long-standing human rights activist and defender. He has lived in Chiapas for 20 years, focusing on defending territories against the invasion of megaprojects.

Lately, his work and that of the social movement networks in Mesoamerica has focused on energy projects (hydroelectric, wind, fracking) and mining. Gustavo is an activist with a modest attitude, with a calm voice, but who always insists on defending human rights and denouncing the attacks by companies and authorities against the predominantly indigenous territories. As a result of these processes of resistance and gradual awareness in recent months, many communities declared themselves “mining-free territories”.

Q: Gustavo Castro, according to public information, has been experiencing a very particular situation since March 3. Do you have more direct information on the current state of this Mexican human rights defender?

PG: I have first-hand information. Gustavo is experiencing a distressing "retention" situation in Honduras. All this, after the psychological trauma caused by having miraculously saved his life in the same attack in which Berta was murdered.

Q: Could you give us more precise elements ...?

PG: For Gustavo it is an extreme situation, because not only did he see Berta die in his arms, but later, as a surviving victim of the attack, he suffered mistreatment from the Honduran authorities. In the hours and days after the attack, the authorities have applied cruel and inhuman treatment by forcing him to stay awake during prolonged interrogations to those who have subjected him, making him testify before different instances. Access to water and food has been restricted.

One of the Mexican partners of the Swiss International Doctor is the Collective Against Torture and Impunity. In a press release, said organization underlines that: "The lack of medical and psychological care, avoiding sleep and submitting to prolonged and exhaustive interrogations, are comparable to methods of torture and ill-treatment." For his part, the Honduran doctor Juan Almendares pointed out that the environmental leader "is not only the victim of an attack but also a victim of psychological torture and the perverse cruelty of the legal system in this country."

Q: And the security situation in Honduras?

PG: We know that Gustavo feels insecure and fears that his life is in danger. And this with good reason, because the murderers of Berta Cáceres gave him up for dead, after a bullet grazed his ear.

No one can assure that the failed assassins cannot try again to fulfill their purpose and attack, now, the only eyewitness to the murder of Berta Cáceres. Gustavo collaborated from the beginning with the authorities to help clarify the crime, but also criticized the mistreatment to which he was subjected. And he denounced the insistence of the authorities to try to build a scenario so that the political murder appears as a crime of passion or personal.

The authorities extended the immigration alert that prevents him from leaving Honduras to return to Mexico for 30 days.

Having survived an attack by sheer luck and feeling that their safety is threatened constitutes, according to international law, an inhumane situation. It has nothing to do with the elementary treatment that a victim of extreme violence deserves.

Q: Could this attack on March 3 cause a new public awareness of the issues that Berta Cáceres and Gustavo Castro denounced?

PG: Hope so. May this sacrifice not be in vain. They denounce an interventionist policy of large transnational companies and world financial institutions that promote these mega-projects, which mean the same imposition and violation of rights from Patagonia to Sonora, throughout the entire continent.

Despite the beautiful discourse of “green” development and the participation of the affected population, the reality on the ground is different. These megaprojects mean dispossession, exile, corruption, criminalization of protest, disruption of the social fabric, violence and forced migration.

The eco-territorial turn of the Latin American social movement is a reaction to this attack. And although there are examples of successful resistance, the discursive pressure on the supposed need for this so-called "green development" also increases. For example, in the recent Paris Agreement on Climate Change, at the end of last year, this business painted in green appears very strong.

Companies want to consume green energy, our social capital, our retirement savings in the North have to be invested in green infrastructure, while, in reality, communities have to hand over their territories, their rivers and their forests for this purpose.

Q: A final thought ...

PG: Berta's violent death is not the first of a Mesoamerican activist, but the great echo of her murder must serve to demand a change in policies. It cannot be that with our taxes that we pay as Swiss, European, and Northern developed citizens; with our savings; with "our" companies; community defenders are killed.

We are no longer in the 1980s, where, for example, in neighboring Guatemala dams were implemented with financing from Swiss banks at the cost of massacres of the indigenous population.

If a public policy creates a lot of social tension, the minimum is to stop along the way, suspend it and review the conditions.

Throughout Latin America there is a worrying criminalization of social protest in the context of mobilization against companies, as has just been confirmed by the Human Rights Observatory of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). And there is no clear regularization of the right to consultation and consent of the affected population. And to be clear, consent means that the population can also say NO to a project. Because the current consultation processes are often a mere simulation, they are one more procedure in the design of projects and multinational interests.

Latin American Summary

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