Two weeks ago, just after midnight on the morning of March the Third (2016), Berta Cáceres was murdered in her bed with four bullets fired from a gun (or guns). It was the day before her 45th birthday.
She was the co-founder of COPINH, the Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indigenas de Honduras (the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), and the recipient less than one year ago of the 2015 Richard and Rhoda Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership in standing against the displacement of the indigenous Lenca people in order to dam the rio Gualcarque to provide power needed for massive corporate mining projects.
While the question of whether or not to dam a river for energy needs may be complex and multi-sided, the question of whether it is right to murder a woman and mother who speaks out for her people and against the violation of human rights is not complex and it is not multi-sided at all: it is always a heinous, inexcusable, and catastrophic crime.
The Lenca people (or "Pueblo Lenca," en espanol) are the largest indigenous group in Honduras. Their way of life has been severely suppressed over the past centuries (at times with overt violence), and their original native language has been virtually eradicated and lost forever.
Nevertheless, the Lenca people have managed to hold on to many of their ancient traditions and beliefs, one of the most distinctive and widely-remarked upon in literature being the ritual of compostura, a world which signifies "mending," "fixing," or "repairing."
In Dimensions of Ritual Economy (Volume 27 in the academic series entitled Research in Economic Anthropology), edited by H. Christian Wells and Patricia A. McAnany (2008), compostura is described as follows:
Compostura, meaning literally "fix" or "repair," is a complex set of ritual performances conducted anytime someone attempts to disturb the natural landscape through various activities, such as planting or harvesting crops, hunting game, collecting firewood, or drawing water from a stream. [. . .] Regardless of the scale of the compostura, each one is conducted basically in a similar manner. The host gathers with his or her family (together referred to as the principales) and invited guests (called gente común) and erects a scaffold made of pine boughs to which one or more crosses and several sprigs of zomos (a plant that grows in trees in high altitudes) are attached. [. . .] After the altar has been prepared, the host lights the candles and burns the copal, and then asks the ancestors through prayer and chants to accept the "gifts" of chocolate, alcohol, and blood as payment and for permission to disturb their world. The work begins and alcohol is consumed, sometimes in large quantities throughout the task. [. . .] Lenca environmental worldview does not differentiate between terrestrial and celestial landscapes. The orchard, pasture, and agricultural field are cosmic realms inhabited by communal ancestors. 194 - 198.
The centrality of this aspect of the cosmological vision (or cosmovision) of the Lenca people, expressed in the understanding that there is no actual differentiation between the invisible realm of the ancestors or spirits (also referred to as los ancianos or "the ancient ones") and the terrestrial landscape through which we ourselves move in our "ordinary reality," and that what we do in the natural world impacts the supernatural world -- resulting in the need to ask permission for any disturbance of the game, the soil, the woods, or the rivers -- should make it very clear why the Pueblo Lenca was so upset when without warning or notice or explanation, strangers started to show up with construction equipment and drive it across the bean plots of the Lenca farmers, on the way to the sacred Gualcarque river, where the men with their construction machinery began to emplace concrete works in preparation of damming it up.
In explaining her leadership of opposition to the damming of the Gualcarque river without the consent of the people being displaced from the area, Berta expressed the spiritual significance of the river to the traditional vision of the cosmos and the interconnectedness of the invisible and visible realms. In the video above, she says:
Este rio tiene un importancia ancestral, espiritual, porque en ello vive el espiritu femenino desde la cosmovision del Pueblo Lenca.
Y siempre se no han senando de que son las ninas que custodian nos rios
Y este rio Gualcarque sirve para la alimentacion, y hay plantas medicinales, y he por supuesto el agua sirve para muchas poblaciones, rio abajo
Y yo creo que significa vida.
[my transcription of what she says in opening scenes of the video, which I would translate literally -- with apologies for any errors, as follows: "This river has an importance ancestral, spiritual, because in him there lives the feminine spirit of the cosmology or cosmic vision of the Pueblo Lenca. And always I know they have not heard that there are the young girls that are protect the rivers. And this river Gualquarque serves for nourishment, and there are medicinal plants, and of course the water serves many people, down-stream. And I believe that it signifies Life."]
This way of seeing and expressing the violation that was being perpetrated, in spiritual terms as well as in terms of sheer physical sustenance provided by the river, is striking and significant.
In her now-famous acceptance speech for the 2015 Goldman Economic Prize, shown in the video below, Berta says something very similar:
As I understand it, she says the following:
Gracias, Buenas Noches, Gracias a la familia Goldman.
En nuestras cosmovisiones, somos eres surgido de la tierra, el agua, y el maíz.
De los rios, somos custodianos ancestralejal cola Lenca.
Resguardados ademas por los espíritus de las niñas, que nos enseñan que dar la vida de múltiples formas por la defensa de los rios es dar la vida para el bien de la humanidad y de este planeta.
El COPINH caminando con pueblos por su emancipación, ratifica el compromiso de seguir defendo el agua, los rios, y nuestros buenos comunes y de la naturaleza.
Asi como nuestro derecho como pueblos.
Ya no hay tiempo.
Nuestras conciencias, nuestras conciencias seran sacudidas (?) por el hecho de estar solo contemplando la autodestrucción basada en la depredación capitalista, racista, y patriarcal.
El rio Gualcarque nos ha llamado. Asi como la demás que están seriamente amenazados en todo el mundo.
La madre tierra -- militarizada, cercada, envenenada, donde violan sistemáticamente derechos elementales -- nos exige actuar.
Construyamos entonces sociedades capace coexistir de manera justa, digna, y por la vida. Juntemonos, y sigamos con esperanza defendiendo y cuidando en la sangre de la tierra y de sus espiritus.
Dedico este premio a todo las rebeldias, a mi madre, al Pueblo Lenca, a Rio Blanco, al COPINH, y asi los martires por la defensa de lo naturaleza.
My translation (again, with apologies for any errors) of the above speech is as follows:
Thank you, good evening -- thank you to the family Goldman.
In our cosmology or cosmic vision, we are "surged forth" or sprouted from the land, the water, and the maíz or corn.
Of the rivers, we are the custodians of the long ancestral line of the Lenca.
Watched over, moreover, by the spirits of the young girls, who call us [with the message that] to give our lives in many forms for the defense of the rivers is to give our life for the good of humanity, and for the good of this planet.
The Council COPINH walks along with the people for emancipation, carrying out the solemn promise to defend the water, the rivers, our good communities, and nature in general.
Such is our right as the people.
We must wake up!
We must wake up, humanity!
There is no longer any time.
Our consciences, our consciences should be shaken-up [I am uncertain if I am hearing this word correctly in the original, but if so it is probably sacudidas] for the work of being focusing solely upon the self-destruction that is based upon or built upon the depredations of capitalism, racism, and patriarchalism.
The river Gualcarque has called to us. In this same manner are the rest threatened or menaced in all the world.
We have an obligation to rescue or succor.
The earth mother -- militarized, fenced-in, envenomed or poisoned, where the elemental rights are systematically violated -- urges us to get moving.
We should construct, then, societies with the capacity of coexisting in a just manner, with dignity, and for Life.
Join together, and then -- with hope and caring -- protect the blood of the earth and the spirits.
I dedicate this award to all of the rebels; to my mother; to the Pueblo Lenca; to Rio Blanco; to COPINH; and additionally to the martyrs who have defended the natural world.
This is an eloquent and moving and rousing speech. While those who have accepted (almost as a tenet of religious faith) that the word "capitalism" is identical to "freedom," "prosperity," and "goodness" may have cringed at Berta's identification of the self-destruction being wrought by the three depredations of capitalism, racism, and patriarchalism, it is quite evident that if by "capitalism" is meant the criminal murder of those who stand in the way of your dams and mines (which is exactly what happened to Berta Cáceres two weeks ago (and others in COPINH have also been murdered before and since), then this quasi-religious devotion to the term "capitalism" needs serious reconsideration.
When in previous centuries the Middle Kingdom of China did not want to trade their tea, silk and fine ceramic (now known as "china") for any western goods, and the leaders of China tried to say "no" to the foreign powers who wanted to trade the addictive products of the opium poppy for those Chinese products, the response by the outside powers who wanted "free trade" was to begin wantonly killing people in China in massive numbers using large guns mounted on boats sailing up the rivers (giving rise to the mordant term "gunboat diplomacy," as in "discussions which use massive guns throwing explosive projectiles at your towns and cities").
Obviously, upon a moment's reflection, anyone can see that this was in no way "free trade" or an example of the much-vaunted "western" devotion to the so-called "rule of law" (which some western apologists claim is a characteristic of western civilization and no other civilization on earth).
If the only way one can enjoy tea is by murdering in order to have access to the luxury of drinking tea, then there is no excuse for that kind of trade.
While we may like to think that such behavior was only common in previous centuries and that the world has moved on from such depredations, the murder of Berta Cáceres and other leaders of the resistance to the damming of the rio Gualcarque proves otherwise.
It should also be noted that the number of permits for massive mining projects, for which the rivers in question were to be dammed in order to provide energy, skyrocketed after the military coup enacted in Honduras in 2009 -- which the US at the time refused to condemn or even to label a military coup (which would have necessitated the cessation of the massive amounts of aid, coming from the tax dollars levied on the people of the United States, being sent to the government of Honduras that now consisted of a military junta that had accomplished the coup).
In the video at top, anyone can clearly see that all the Honduran military personnel supporting the damming and mining projects against the protests of the indigenous people are wearing US kevlar helmets and US-patterned camouflage fatigues and US-style load-bearing equipment (LBEs), and that they are carrying US-designed and supplied M-16 rifles, and driving in US-style HMMWVs ("hummvees"). They are also carrying their weapons in a manner that suggests US training (to anyone who knows anything about this subject), and a simple search for more information on this subject will reveal that some have found evidence which suggests that the military officers from Honduras who carried out the 2009 coup were trained in the notorious (and US-taxpayer funded) School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
This suggests a level of culpability in the coup -- and in the murder of Berta Cáceres and others since the coup took place -- among the leaders (and, by extension, the taxpayers) of the US, a level of culpability which should be investigated by the government representatives elected by the American people, who themselves are paid by the taxes of the American people and who are dispensing the money which comes from the taxes of the American people and which is then used to purchase US-made military gear such as that which is shown in the video above.
If corporations are "persons" who are allowed to give campaign donations in elections under the Constitutional protection of free speech (a contentious topic, since corporations are not really "persons" except as a legal fiction), then those corporate "persons" should be held accountable if they are in any way accomplices to murder or involved in a conspiracy to commit murder -- and they should face the possibility of being completely dissolved if it can be proven that any officials in the banks or mining companies had any prior knowledge regarding the commission of such crimes as the murder of Berta Cáceres (rather than the usual process of just paying a few millions of dollars to the families of the victims if the corporations are forced to do so in order to quiet public opinion, which they are happy to do if it allows them to then move on and make billions or tens of billions after that). Any actual persons who are implicated in such crimes should of course face criminal charges as well.
If the persons who carried out the military coup in Honduras were trained in the School of the Americas, then it too should be dissolved and disbanded -- and any US military officers who know they were responsible for such training should consider making apologies to the families of persons murdered by the junta that perpetrated that coup, whether murdered in 2009 or in the years since then.
But now to return to the eloquent vision of the brave Berta Cáceres -- it is extremely striking that she is expressing what appears to be a Lenca understanding that the rivers are guarded by the spirits of young girls, and that she sees that the destruction of the river that is sacred to the Lenca actually calls to all of us with the message that "in the same manner are the rest threatened or menaced in all the world."
In other words, whatever mentality is threatening the destruction of the Gualcarque (a mentality which in fact goes beyond the specific banks and mining companies and even individual persons who were working to destroy the specific river in Honduras) is the same mentality which in fact threatens all the rest of the rivers in all the world -- and indeed, not just the rivers but everyone and everything.
Because in the Lenca wisdom which Berta Cáceres is communicating and which motivated her to act, the spirits which are associated with the rivers are the feminine spirits and the spirits of young girls -- and it should be clear to anyone upon only a moment of reflection that without women there will not be any human life on earth for very much longer.
And what is most striking to me is the fact that while this specific identification of the spiritual aspect of the river with the espiritus of women and young girls may seem completely alien or incomprehensible to those of us who were not raised in the Pueblo Lenca, in point of fact the ancient myths of Greece associate the spirit of the rivers with goddesses and young maidens time and time again.
We can see this association with the encounter of Odysseus with the princess Nausicaa and her other maidens-in-waiting in the Odyssey. We can see it in the description of the goddess Aphrodite and her attendant Graces, who wash her and anoint her in her sacred grove in Cyprus. And we can certainly see it in the famous episode of Actaeon and the goddess Artemis, in which the young hunter Actaeon accidentally stumbles across the goddess Artemis and her attendant Nymphs, when the goddess is bathing in her sacred grotto in the valley which Ovid calls Gargaphie.
In all of these cases (and there are others), the ancient Greek myths specifically associate rivers with goddesses and with young maidens.
The celestial reasons for this association are discussed in some length in my most recent book, Star Myths of the World and how to interpret them, Volume Two.
But it should be quite clear from the fact that Artemis is the goddess who presides over every child's birth that the very preservation and continuation of the human race is connected to the espiritu feminino expressed by the Lenca tradition which is specifically associated with the river in the Lenca cosmovision -- and in the ancient Greek cosmovisionas well.
In the story of Actaeon, the results suggest that the one who violates or breaches the sacred boundaries of the river, and desecrates (even unintentionally) the sacred place of the goddess and her divine maidens, will lose his humanity, and be reduced to the condition of an animal, a beast -- losing contact with the spiritual world of the Infinite, which would certainly seem to be a situation that would have serious spiritual ramifications.
This is another reason why the message proclaimed by Berta Cáceres is so urgent, and so powerful. The ancient myths, even from around the world, suggest that to miss what she is saying is to risk being turned into brute beasts (our behavior on a large scale seems to suggest that this may have already happened, and Berta's murder certainly seems to confirm this dire assessment).
The fact that this very same understanding, preserved in the Pueblo Lenca all the way on the other side of the world, was also present among the sacred stories of the myths of ancient Greece, suggests that we have somehow become disconnected -- dangerously disconnected -- from something we once knew, and which once helped us to observe the proper respect for the rivers and the forests and the spirit world that flows through every aspect of this world.
In the scholarly journal description of the compostura quoted above, we see that the "Lenca environmental worldview does not differentiate between terrestrial and celestial landscapes." There is no clear barrier between the two worlds, between the spirit-realm of the ancianos and the ordinary realm where we do our business or grow our food-crops or trade our goods and services.
The world around us was known to be connected to and interpenetrated by the Infinite Realm, everywhere and at all times.
This is the vision which infuses the mythology of ancient Greece, and indeed the myths and sacred traditions of virtually every culture on the planet.
Somewhere, "western civilization" became disconnected from this vision and this understanding.
Berta Cáceres urgently calls to us that we need to wake up. There is no longer any time to ignore this issue or politely pretend that it does not exist.
We should construct societies which can coexist with each other in a just manner, with dignity, and for Life.