Rio Blanco, Honduras – Berta Caceres, 42, is anxious to get on the road before nightfall. Caceres, a leader of the indigenous Lenca people in western Honduras, has been forced into a precarious fugitive existence amid a battle over a controversial hydroelectric dam.
She has received countless threats of sexual violence, kidnappings and death directed not only herself, but also at her 81-year-old mother and four children – who have been forced to leave Honduras as a result.
Caceres takes several precautions. She rarely spends more than a night in the same place and never travels alone, but even then, she knows moving around risks yet another dangerous pursuit by armed men. Caceres rarely communicates on the telephone or makes public appearances. However, she told Al Jazeera that while she is vigilant and resolute, she remains scared.
“The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. I want to live, there are many things I still want to do in this world but I have never once considered giving-up fighting for our territory, for a life with dignity, because our fight is legitimate. I take lots of care but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable… when they want to kill me, they will do it.”
The threats, she told Al Jazeera at her home in the pine-covered mountains of La Esperanza, are from private security guards working for the dam company, as well as the police and army protecting the project.
Privatisation and violence
The Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Rio Blanco has become what some observers consider a David versus Goliath battle for water in Honduras where the government is selling off the country’s rivers and other natural resources to the highest bidders.
It is pitting the indigenous population against powerful, internationally financed companies who are allied with the government. Since a coup d’etat in June 2009, many community leaders, union activists, human rights workers, journalists and lawyers say they faced increased repression.
In September 2010, the post-coup nationalist government awarded 47 hydroelectric dam concessions in just one law, without consulting the indigenous and campesino communities which rely on the rivers for food and water.
It was part of a tsunami of pro-business laws passed by the National Congress led by Juan Orlando Hernandez, who last month became the country’s president in an election marred by allegations of fraud and intimidation. He is a staunch supporter of foreign investments in dams, mining, tourism and oil.
The Agua Zarca dam concession was sold to the Honduran company DESA (Dessarollos Energeticos SA). Sinohydro Corporation, the Chinese giant and the world’s largest hydropower construction company, was contracted to build the dam.
The finances are complicated and not fully transparent but the Atala family, one of Honduras’ richest and politically most influential oligarchies which supported the June 2009 coup, backs DESA.
There are also a myriad of international private and public investors, including a loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration – which has capital investment from the US government and other countries from outside the region.
Documentation and rights
Government records support the Lenca community’s collective ownership of the Rio Blanco land. Lenca territory and culture are also protected by the legally binding International Labour Rights Organisation’s Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Convention (ILO 169) which mandates governments to protect the land and natural resources of indigenous peoples, and prevent forced displacements.
The convention, ratified by Honduras in 1994, means its 100,000 Lenca people have a legal right to be consulted over projects in their territory, and a right to say no.
The vast majority of the Rio Blanco community are against privatisation of the Gualcarque River, where four interconnected dams are planned, which the Lencas have relied upon for fishing, drinking, washing and bathing for thousands of years. Families grow maize, rice, beans, yucca, oranges and coffee on the fertile land irrigated by the river.
They fear environmental destruction, water shortages and losing the spiritual connection between the community and its ancestral territory. A small number of families, who believe the dam will bring much needed development, jobs and public services to the isolated community, are supportive.
Francisco “Chico” Gonzalez, a local leader in Rio Blanco which is a three hour drive from La Esperanza, was among 15 people who came to talk to Al Jazeera last month.
“Two DESA people came to see us in January 2011, we told them we didn’t want to sell the river. We then told the Mayor we didn’t want to sell, we cannot survive without the river, it is sacred to us. But they didn’t respect what we said, our territory was illegally sold and one day the machinery just appeared.”
In March 2013, the community awoke to “no entry” signs and armed security guards stopping them from using the water. This was the tipping-point.
The Rio Blanco community, supported by the indigenous coalition COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations) – for which Caceres is a coordinator – have maintained a road block since April stopping construction of the dam.
This defiance has come at a price. Within weeks the Honduran Army’s First Battalion of Engineers and national police poured in and the soldiers’ set-up base in the DESA encampment. Protestors were forcibly removed, but kept coming back.
The community describe a campaign of intimidation in which DESA’s private security guards, led by retired Air Force Lieutenant Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, regularly patrol with the police and army – an allegation they both deny.
On July 15, between 200 to 300 community members gathered to march to the DESA compound and demand talks. Without any warning, one soldier began firing live ammunition.
We will forever keep fighting for our land because we have nowhere else to go, nowhere else to grow maize and beans and yucca to live.
Tomas Garcia, a vocal opponent of the dam, was shot three times at close range. He died instantly His son Alan Garcia, 17, survived a bullet to the chest.
Garcia, a solemn young man who now works the land with his father’s machete, told Al Jazeera: “We were protesting peacefully but they killed my father. Our lives are so much worse without him, I want the soldier to face the full weight of the law because he didn’t kill an animal; he killed a human.”
He added: “We will forever keep fighting for our land because we have nowhere else to go, nowhere else to grow maize and beans and yucca to live.”
According to the villagers, DESA and Sinohydro employees left within hours of the shooting, leaving behind the security forces to guard the huge encampment and expensive machinery.
They say the intimidation continues. Gonzalez told Al Jazeera that on November 1 police ransacked his house and told his 17-year-old son they were going to kill his father.
The community fears life will get much worse over the next four years as the National Party, who returned to power in last month’s elections, were elected on a pro-business, mano duro (iron fist) manifesto.
Police officers at a checkpoint a kilometre outside the village told Al Jazeera they never patrolled with DESA security, denied intimidating the Rio Blanco community and said they had been posted here since September 2013 to keep the peace between warring villages.
Neither DESA nor Sinohydro responded to Al Jazeera’s questions.
For Caceres the stakes are high.
She, and two other COPINH leaders, have been charged with “usurpation, coercion and continued damages” for allegedly inciting others to block the road at Rio Blanco. Caceres is also facing charges of carrying an unlicensed gun which she says was planted by soldiers at a checkpoint.
Amnesty International said they will consider her a prisoner of conscious if jailed.
Nancy Tapias Torrado from Amnesty International said defending human rights in Honduras has become a “life-threatening activity”. “It is clear that Bertha Caceres is being harassed to stop her from defending the rights of the Lenca people.”
Caceres added: “It’s a very difficult situation. I cannot freely walk on my territory or swim in the sacred river sacred and I am separated from my children because of the threats. I cannot live peace, I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped. But I do not want to leave my country; I refuse to go into exile. I am a human rights fighter and I will not give up this fight.”