At the People’s Climate March last Saturday, tens of thousands of activists flooded the streets of the nation’s capital to tell the government that another world is possible. Their rallying cry was climate justice—a concept that links the values of a fair economy, equitable distribution of earth’s resources, and respect for the sanctity of nature as it ties into our essential human rights.
While Earth Day is associated with an older, more elite environmental movement, the 2014 People’s Climate March and its successor last weekend intentionally foregrounded the frontline communities bearing the brunt of global climate change: indigenous peoples, workers, youth, and marginalized groups of all backgrounds living in threatened environments and seeking global justice.
At the Washington, D.C. march, Neery Carrillo stood at the crossroads of these social and ecological struggles. Carrillo is the sister of renowned Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated near her home about a year ago, and is now pressing Congress to launch an inquest into Cáceres’s death. Carillo, who migrated to the United States in the early 1970s, is working with other international activists to expose the corporate and political forces that had long brutalized Cáceres’s indigenous Lenca community before killing her as well.
At the time, Cáceres—gunned down while sheltering in the city of La Esperanza—had garnered international accolades for leading a campaign against a destructive dam project that threatened ancestral Lenca lands. Although eight have already been apprehended by Honduran authorities, international advocates are seeking accountability, in Carillo’s words, for “the intellectual killers . . . they’re the ones that killed her, that pulled the gun on her.” As with many other activists murdered for defending environmental justice, the real death blow was struck by Honduras’s overarching regime of impunity for those ruthlessly exploiting the land and those who live by it.
Cáceres died in the midst of an aggressive conflict between the corporation behind the dam and the community. But her fight dates back to the the 1990s when, as a student activist, she began to link humanitarian struggles with her people’s native ecology in her political work.
Her death was perhaps as foreseeable as her environmental ethos was foresighted. As the leader of the grassroots human rights group Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), Cáceres was Honduras’s most visible opponent of anti-environmental business interests and their government allies, and had received more than thirty death threats linked to her campaign before she was murdered; as a result, she was supposedly under state protection at the time. The government’s role and potential complicity in her death remains unclear, but her death follows a pattern of savage inequality abetted by lawlessness throughout the country. This climate of impunity has resulted in twin crises: the terrorizing of indigenous groups like the Lenca, as well as mass migration o tens of thousands of rural and urban refugees fleeing mass violence, sexual assault, and other rights abuses at the hands of both the state and organized criminals.
An investigation into Cáceres’s death revealed earlier this year that her murders appear to be linked to U.S.-trained military intelligence forces. Her murderers were, according to court documents, part of a deep, disturbing legacy of U.S. military intervention in Central American politics, promoting reactionary regimes as allies first against communism and then in the war on drugs. The same authoritarian rulers have violently undermined many social movements, from organized laborers to, in Cáceres’s case, the growing movement for indigenous land and ecological rights. This January, Isidro Baldenegro López, a farmer-activist in the Tarahumara community of the northern Sierra Madre in Mexico—and another winner of the Goldman Prize, for his work defending an impoverished rural community against illegal logging—was shot dead at the home of a family member. According to international monitors, of the 185 environmental activists killed in 2015 worldwide, one third were indigenous, and more than half were in Latin America. Since 2010, 123 activists have been killed in Honduras alone.
The violence against environmentalists, as well as toward other community and labor activists across Latin America, is intertwined with the forces that the Trump administration is empowering north of the border. His deeply anti-environmental policies, hardline immigration enforcement, and coddling of multinational companies are fueling the exploitation of workers and ecosystems not just at home but abroad. The dramatic influx of Central American migrants to the U.S. border stems in large part from the systemic political and social destabilization of the region, including the impunity accorded to extractive industries preying on impoverished, disenfranchised communities.
At the ceremony for the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015—a public accolade that perhaps tragically sealed her fate as a target—Cáceres spoke of the role of the environment in her homeland as integral to her identity:
The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet. COPINH, walking alongside people struggling for their emancipation, validates this commitment to continue protecting our waters, the rivers, our shared resources and nature in general, as well as our rights as a people.
Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! . . . Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life.
At the climate march, her voice carried forth, buoyed by the living voices of communities speaking out for environmental justice: activists representing unions, indigenous tribes, fishermen, firefighters and nurses, and poor urban and rural communities, walking alongside scientists, who had the weekend before also gathered for anti-Trump, pro-science demonstrations. Many belong a global justice coalition that would return to the frontlines again at the May Day protests the following Monday. And every day, ordinary working people, like the girls Cáceres honored in her speech, give their lives to defend their environments and communities.
Long after the events of the Climate March and May Day have passed, women migrants from Latin America will continue sowing seeds of optimism in their adopted homelands every workday: for example, through worker cooperatives like the Bronx’s Si Se Puede!, one of several “women-run, women-owned,” environmentally friendly housecleaning enterprises established across the country in recent years. Materially, these women possess little, just as indigenous communities under siege possess nothing but their land. But as a few dozen self-organized Latina migrants reclaiming their labor power and setting a new environmental standard in their industry, their day-to-day efforts mark a form of economic and ecological emancipation.
As climate change forces us to link the destruction of our atmosphere, economic exploitation, and corporate impunity, refugee and indigenous communities are building a common movement across borders. While migrant women fight for the right to live and work in their resettled homelands, the communities they left behind fight for the right to remain. Whether marching in urban streets or along ancestral riverbeds, they’re defending their rightful homes.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor to Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.