Conflicts over land and resources all too often turn violent in Latin America. The murder of Berta Caceres, the co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), this past week was the latest bit of sad news from that part of the world. The murder did not garner much in the way of headlines in most news outlets, seemingly being yet another victim of the internal strife that curses much of Latin America and Africa. Though the region has been less war-torn in recent years, Latin America has experienced fourteen civil wars since the end of World War II.
Much of the conflict has been connected to the distribution of land and exploitation of resources. Military take-overs have been common and added instability to an already crazed political environment. The United States has often been tied up in the complicated political messes that have ensued. In an effort to assist Latin American countries struggling with unrest, the United States has long provided military training through the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia. While perhaps initially well-intentioned when established in 1946, the SOA became a breeding ground for military leaders responsible for human rights violations and murders. The most infamous of these was the assassination of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989.
Though Caceres' murder remains clouded in uncertainty, she had received numerous death threats during her time with the COIPOH. Most recently, the activist had been fighting against the Agua Zarca Dam near Rio Blanco, Honduras that would have flooded sacred indigenous lands (that were also important agriculturally). Though the Honduran constitution required consent of local indigenous groups for projects on such lands, the project was pushed forward. With overwhelming public opposition, a group of protesters blocked the road to the dam in 2013, ultimately forcing a Chinese construction company to pull out of the project. Tomas Garcia, one of the community leaders was shot and killed during one of the peaceful protests.
Caceres would be named the Goldman Environmental Prize winner in 2015 for her work to defend the Lenca community's land. The 2013 fireworks had brought the project to a halt but a recent return to the construction work by a Dutch contractor for the Honduran government brought a new round of protest.
Altoona native Jeff Colledge, who has done extensive volunteer work in the region, spent three weeks with Caceres and her organization in 2014. Even though his time with Berta was short, he found her to be "a good person" and "extremely committed." He was also struck by the incredible beauty of the river and the surrounding countryside.
Colledge met Caceres through Beverly Bell, coordinator of Other Worlds, a social and economic justice organization. Bell has spoken out extensively since Caceres' murder, making the case that she was a game changer in a region that desperately needed change. Bell recently reflected about Berta on PBS' Democracy Now. "She was working for a wholly new form of governance in Honduras, not just a new government, but a new system whereby people had the say and the riches of the country went to benefit them instead of the tiny elite."