To Defend the Environment, Support Social Movements Like Berta Cáceres and COPINH

Berta Cáceres. Courtesy of the Goldman Prize

Berta Cáceres. Courtesy of the Goldman Prize

By Jeff Conant
BERKELEY, California, Apr 20 2015 (IPS)

The 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America has been awarded to Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Honduran woman who co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as COPINH.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the events that earned Cáceres the prize it is this: to defend the environment, we must support the social movements.COPINH’s leadership has made it a driving force in preserving the country’s cultural and environmental heritage – and earned it the ire of loggers, dam-builders, palm oil interests, and others whose wealth depends on the depredation of the natural world and its defenders.

Like many nations rich in natural resources, Honduras, in the heart of Central America, is a country plagued by a resource curse. Its rich forests invite exploitation by logging interests; its mineral wealth is sought by mining interests; its rushing rivers invite big dams, and its fertile coastal plains are ideal for the industrial cultivation of agricultural commodities like palm oil, bananas, and beef.

Honduras is also the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. The violence is largely linked to organised crime and to a political oligarchy that maintains much of the country’s wealth and power in a few hands. With the country’s rich resources at stake, environmental defenders are frequently targeted by these interests as well.

Some of the best preserved areas of the country fall within the territories of the Lenca indigenous people, who have built their culture around the land, forests and rivers that have supported them for millennia.

In 1993, following the 500th anniversary of Colombus’ “discovery of America,” at a moment when Indigenous Peoples across the Americas began to form national and international federations to reclaim their sovereignty, Lenca territory gave birth to COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras.

In the 22 years since, COPINH’s leadership in the country’s popular struggles has made it a driving force in preserving the country’s cultural and environmental heritage – and earned it the ire of loggers, dam-builders, palm oil interests, and others whose wealth depends on the depredation of the natural world and its defenders.

Since the early 1990’s, COPINH has forced the cancellation of dozens of  logging operations; they have created several protected forest areas; have developed municipal forest management plans and secured over 100 collective land titles for indigenous communities, in some cases encompassing entire municipalities.

Most recently, in the accomplishment that won Berta Caceres, one of COPINH’s founders, the Goldman Environmental Prize, they successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder, the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, to pull out of the construction of a complex of large dams known as Agua Zarca.

Berta became a national figure in Honduras in 2009 when she emerged as a leader in the movement demanding the re-founding of Honduras and drafting of a new constitution. The movement gained the support of then-president Manuel Zelaya, who proposed a national referendum to consider the question.

But the day the referendum was scheduled to take place, Jun. 28, 2009, the military intervened.  They surrounded and opened fire on the president’s house, broke down his door and escorted him to a former U.S. military base where a waiting plane flew him out of the country.

The United Nations and every other country in the Western Hemisphere (except Honduras itself) publicly condemned the military-led coup as illegal. Every country in the region, except the United States, withdrew their ambassadors from Honduras. All EU ambassadors were withdrawn from the country.

With the democratically-elected president deposed, Honduras descended into increasing violence that continues to this day. But the coup also gave birth to a national resistance movement that continues to fight for a new constitution.  Within the movement, Berta and COPINH have devoted themselves to a vision of a new Honduran society built from the bottom up.

Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has witnessed a huge increase in megaprojects that would displace the Lenca and other indigenous communities. Almost 30 percent of the country’s land is earmarked for mining concessions; this in turns creates a demand for cheap energy to power the future mining operations.

To meet this need, the government approved hundreds of dam projects. Among them is the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project of Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer. Slated for construction on the Gualcarque River, Agua Zarca was pushed through without consulting the Lencas—and would cut off the supply of water, food and medicine to hundreds of Lenca familes.

COPINH began fighting the dams in 2006, using every means at their disposal: they brought the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, lodged appeals against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank which agreed to finance the dams, and engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to stop the construction.

In April 2013, Cáceres organised a road blockade to prevent DESA’s access to the dam site. For over a year, the Lenca people maintained a heavy but peaceful presence, rotating out friends and family members for weeks at a time, withstanding multiple eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarised security contractors and the Honduran armed forces.

The same year, Tomás Garcia, a community leader from Rio Blanco and a member of COPINH, was shot and killed during a peaceful protest at the dam office. Others have been attacked with machetes, imprisoned and tortured. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

In late 2013, citing ongoing community resistance and outrage following Garcia’s death, Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA. Agua Zarca suffered another blow when the IFC withdrew its funding, citing concerns about human rights violations. To date, construction on the project has come to a halt.

The Prize will bring COPINH and Honduras much-needed attention from the international community, as the grab for the region’s resources is increasing.

“This award, and the international attention it brings comes at a challenging time for us,” Berta told a small crowd gathered to welcome her to California, where the first of two prize ceremonies will take place.

“The situation in Honduras is getting worse. When I am in Washington later this week to meet with U.S. government officials, the President of Honduras will be in the very next room hoping to obtain more than one billion dollars for a series of mega-projects being advanced by the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the United States — projects that further threaten to put our natural resources into private hands through mines, dams and large wind projects.

“This is accompanied by the further militarisation of the country, including new ultra-modern military bases they are installing right now.”

Around the world, the frontlines of environmental defence are peopled by bold and visionary social movements like COPINH and by grassroots community organizers like Berta Cáceres.

“In order to fight the onslaught of dams, mines, and the privatisation of all of our natural resources, we need international solidarity,” Berta told her supporters in the U.S. “When we receive your solidarity, we feel surrounded by your energy, your hope, your conviction, that together we can construct societies with dignity, with life, with rebellion, with justice, and above all, with joy.”

If the world is to make strides toward reducing the destructive environmental and social impacts that too often accompany economic development, we need to do all we can to recognise and support the peasant farmers, Indigenous Peoples, and social movements who daily put their lives on the line to stem the tide of destruction.

Learn more about Berta Cáceres and COPINH in this video celebrating her Goldman Prize award.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Opinion: Pillar of Neoliberal Thinking is Vacillating

In this column, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, argues that the latest figures from the IMF only confirm what many citizens already know – that the economic situation is worsening. However, he notes, what is new that there are now signs that the IMF has woken up to reality, indicating that “an important pillar of neoliberal thinking is vacillating”.

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Apr 20 2015 (IPS)

This month’s World Economic Outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) only confirms that consequences of the collapse of the financial system, which started six years ago, are serious. And they are accentuated by the aging of the population, not only in Europe but also in Asia, the slowing of productivity and weak private investment.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

Average growth before the financial crisis in 2008 was around 2.4 percent. It fell to 1.3 percent between 2008 and 2014 and now the estimates are that it will stabilise at 1.6 percent until 2020, in what economists call the “new normal”. In other words, “normality” is now unemployment, anaemic growth and, obviously, a difficult political climate.

For the emerging countries, the overall picture does not look much better. It is expected that potential growth is expected to decline further, from an average of about 6.5 percent between 2008 and 2014 to 5.2 percent during the period 2015-2020.

The case of China is the best example. Growth is expected to fall from an average 8.3 percent in the last 10 years to somewhere around 6.8 percent. The result is that the Chinese contraction has worsened the balance of exports of raw materials everywhere.

The crisis is especially strong in Latin America, and in Brazil the fall in exports has contributed to worsening the country’s serious crisis and increasing the unpopularity of President Dilma Rousseff, already high because of economic mismanagement and the Petrobras scandal.“Progressive parties were able to build their success during economic expansion but the Left has not developed much economic science on what to do in period of crisis”

This, by the way, opens up a reflection which is fundamental. From Marx to Keynes, redistribution theories were all basically built on stable or expanding economies.

Progressive parties were able to build their success during economic expansion but the Left has not developed much economic science on what to do in period of crisis. What it tends to do is mimic the receipts and proposals from the Right and, when the crisis is over, it has lost its identity and has declined in the eyes of the electorate.

From this perspective, the situation in Europe is exemplary. All those right-wing xenophobic parties which have sprouted up – even in countries long held to be models of democracy such as the Nordic countries – have developed since 2008, the beginning of the financial crisis. In the same period of time, all progressive parties have lost weight and credibility. And now that the IMF sees some improvement in the European economy, it is not the traditional progressive parties that are the beneficiaries.

The term that the IMF gives to the current economic moment is “new mediocrity” – which is a franker way of saying “new normal” – and it observes that in the coming five years, we will face serious problems for public policies like fiscal sustainability and job creation.

In fact, every day, the macroeconomic figures, which have become the best way to hide social realities, are becoming less and less realistic if we go back to microeconomics as we have done during the last 50 years.

The best example is the United Kingdom, which is the champion of liberalism. Each year it has cut public spending and now claims to have growth in employment, with 600,000 new jobs in the last year. The only problem is that if you look into the structure of those jobs, you will find that the large majority are part-time or underpaid, and employment in the public sector is at its lowest since 1999.

A clear indicator is the number of people who visit the food banks created to meet the needs of the indigent. In the world’s sixth largest economy, their numbers have grown from 20,000 before the crisis seven years ago to over one million last year. And the same has happened all over Europe, albeit to a lesser extent in the Nordic countries.

U.K. economists have published studies on how austerity has affected growth. According to the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, established by the U.K. government, austerity blocked economic growth by one percent between 2011 and 2012. But, according to Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University, the figure is actually about five percent (or 100 billion pounds).

In other words, fiscal austerity reduces growth, and this creates large deficits which call for more fiscal austerity. It is a trap that Nobel laureate Keynesian economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have described in detail to no avail. We are all following the “liberal order” of Germany, which think its reality should be the norm and that deviations should be punished.

Now, while we can all agree that much of this is obvious to the average citizen in terms of its impact on everyday life, what is important and new is that the IMF, the fiscal guardian which has imposed the Washington Consensus (basically a formula of austerity plus free market at any cost) all over the Third World with tragic results, has woken up to reality.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that the IMF is becoming a progressive organisation, but there are signs that an important pillar of neoliberal thinking is vacillating.

Of course, those responsible for the global crisis – bankers – have come out with impunity. The world has exacted over three trillion dollars from its citizens to put banks back on their feet. The over 140 billion dollars in fines that banks have paid since the beginning of the crisis is the quantitative measure of illegal and criminal activities.

The United Nations calculates that the financial crisis has created at least 200 million new poor, several hundred millions of unemployed, and many more precarious jobs, especially for young people. And, yet, nobody has paid, while prisons are full of people who are there for minor theft, the social impact of which is infinitesimal by comparison.

In 2014, James Morgan, the boss of Morgan Stanley, cashed in 22.5 million dollars, Lloyd Blanfein, the boss of Goldman Sachs, 24 million, James Dimon, the boss of J.P. Morgan, 20 million. The most exploited of all, Brian Moynihan of the Bank of America, a paltry 13 million. Nobody stops the growth of bankers.

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.