Berta is Still Here, ¡Berta Presente!

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When she was working, they say, she had fire in her eyes. Fire that moved people.

But just as quickly as her activist rage turned on, she could turn it off. Go back to being the loving mother, sister, and daughter that she was. That Berta still is, today, in spirit. 

 A photo of Berta, on display in front of First Presbyterian the evening of the vigil.

A photo of Berta, on display in front of First Presbyterian the evening of the vigil.

On the evening of March 18th, roughly 200 people convened at Oakland’s First Presbyterian Church for a vigil honoring a heroine taken from us three weeks ago. It quickly became clear, though, that she will never really go. 

Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores grew famous for defending indigenous communities in Honduras against destructive “development” projects. Threats to her life were commonplace. Yet in April 2015, Berta stood before a beaming crowd at the San Francisco Opera House as she accepted the world’s highest honor in grassroots environmental activism, a Goldman Environmental Prize, which sometimes has the effect of a metaphorical bulletproof vest. All Goldman winners work under oppressive social and political conditions, and there is hope that shining the spotlight on these activists will lessen the risk of violence they endure.

This time it wasn’t enough. 

In the early hours of March 3rd, gunmen broke down Berta’s front door, opening fire on her and Gustavo Castro, a Mexican activist with whom she was visiting. Berta died in Gustavo’s arms.  

The death of an environmental activist, especially in Latin America, is not new news. Nor is the impunity characterizing the response of the government of the country which it occurs. Last year, reports The Guardian, nineteen activists were killed in the Brazilian state of Pará. “All of those responsible for the killings are free.” In Berta’s own Honduras, over 100 environmental and human rights activists have been murdered in the past four years.

I didn’t know much about Berta, but when I heard of her assassination, I became furious, more so than I would have expected. In the aftermath, I realized this anger was mostly fear. My minded kept drifting to the Indian, Thai, Cambodian, Basotho, Mozambican, and Mexican activists I chased around for the year following my graduation from college as a Watson fellow – heroes I came to know and befriend. I thought about the imprisonment, beatings, and torture many of them had faced. And I thought about the silenced communities they’re fighting for. I pictured their families living with constant threat and uncertainty. 

“Everyone knows Berta,” said a long-time friend of Berta’s and fellow COPINH (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras) activist, at the vigil. If they are willing to do this to her, who is safe? No one.”

Berta receiving the Goldman Prize in April 2015.

Berta receiving the Goldman Prize in April 2015.

To feel discouraged is legitimate. But that’s not the route I’ve chosen. And this weekend made it clear that I am not alone. 

When my friend Andrew and I took our seats at First Presbyterian that Friday evening, the organizers asked us to move closer to the front; they wanted to create a sense of intimacy among the crowd of thirty or so that had gathered. By time the leader of a traditional opening ceremony directed us to about-face, the room was packed.   

Berta’s nephew recounted his most recent visit with her, his reverence for her palpable and humbling. A Goldman Prize official described the day he “got to know Berta”: eleven hours into pushing their truck through unforgiving Honduran mud, she was smiling and joking with him and her fellow COPINH members – “cheke!” Honduran slang for “cool!” was her catch phrase. A former COPINH activist who now lives in the Bay Area spoke of the intrepid woman she fought alongside until she and her husband moved their family from Honduras out of fear for their lives. 

Many who offered words seemed to catch themselves in error: this was not an occasion for the past tense. Their aunt and friend would never die. 

And neither would the leader. The next afternoon, I sat with a group of International Rivers staff and supporters on the grass at El Cerrito park, munching on sandwiches after spending the morning clearing invasive species from the banks of Cerrito Creek. It was a somewhat cathartic exercise in life-giving after the week’s events. We discussed International Rivers’ goals and successes, as well as those of Friends of Five Creeks (which graciously facilitated the event). And Margaret Daly, this year’s International Day of Action for Rivers coordinator, told us about the photos, videos, and songs that more than 140 groups, from Pakistan to Mozambique to Brazil, shared from their celebrations of this year’s occasion. Berta’s photo was the centerpiece of many.

Bargny Waterkeeper Alliance in Senegal demonstrates for the International Day of Action for Rivers, with several individuals holding photos of Berta.

Bargny Waterkeeper Alliance in Senegal demonstrates for the International Day of Action for Rivers, with several individuals holding photos of Berta.

An unusually resilient spirit has invited unusual consequence: on March 16th, 64 members of Congress presented John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew with a letter urging a number of actions aimed at combatting human rights abuses in Honduras. On the same day, two of the three financial institutions backing the dam Berta fought hardest against suspended activities in the country, “shocked” by Berta’s death and the murder of yet another COPINH activist on March 15th. Berta’s assassination, and the global, dire development crises it brings to the fore, has received in-depth coverage from virtually ever major media outlet. (Here is one particularly good piece.) Never have I had so many friends and family reach out to ask about a “destructive dam project” they’d read about in the news. This is a fire that’s not going out anytime soon. 

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of Berta’s murder was the timing of it. International Women’s Day was March 8th. The International Day of Action for Rivers was March 14th. Berta was murdered on March 3rd. And while it sends chills down my spine to ponder whether this was purposeful, or just plain stupid, one thing is clear. When they buried Berta, they didn’t know she was a seed. 

Gus Greenstein is a former International Rivers intern. He blogs, and tweets @GusGreenstein.