Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Leaders’ Battle for the Planet by Nina Lakhani: A Review

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– Arpitha Kodiveri*

I. Introduction

Nina Lakhani in this riveting book stitches together a textured narrative of Honduras, a country whose political economy thrives on extraction, its hostility towards environmental defenders, and the heavily militarised security forces that guard these development projects. The book brings to life the perils that Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist, faced in fighting for the rights of the Lenca Indigenous people. It traces Berta’s fascinating journey from being part of an armed rebellion in Salvador to being inspired by her Mother Austra Florez’s work as a social activist and mid-wife.

The important contribution the book makes is to bring to light the systemic economic and political aspects that contribute to the killing of an environmental defender. In the backdrop of Honduras’s volatile political structure, Lakhani highlights the salient moments which transformed the economic and legal priorities of the nation. The pro-business state machinery has compromised its ability to secure the rights of Indigenous communities. The book diligently chronicles the neo-liberal opening up of Honduras’s economy and the desire of the United States to gain control over its resources.

Berta Cáceres’s death in the book is framed not merely as an event of her killing by men but located it in the discomfort experienced by the neo-liberal state by her articulation of dissent. Her efforts to mobilize against the Agua Zerca hydro-electric dam project and other extractive projects over Lenca land posed difficult questions to the pro-business National party government that had licensed these projects.

As an environmental lawyer and legal researcher who has been following environmental justice movements in India, I could see many parallels to the threats faced by environmental defenders. While the book focuses on the life and death of Berta Cáceres it tells the larger story of environmental defenders in political economies that quell dissent. My review of this book will focus on the legal questions of the rights of environmental defenders and using examples from India I unpack the challenges with provisions like the right to free, prior, and informed consent which is designed to enable inclusion of citizens in decision-making.

II. Why Draw Parallels?

India according to the survey conducted by frontline defenders in 2018 on the deaths of environmental defenders ranked third with twenty-three deaths. Environmental defenders in India remain at risk of murder and criminalization.[1] As Berta Cáceres’s journey as an environmental defender in Honduras tells us, the risks faced by environmental defenders are the questions they pose to the economic paradigm of extraction and land grabbing.

India, like Honduras experienced the neoliberal opening of the economy in 1991. Atul Kohli in his book democracy and development in India alerts us to the making of a pro-business Indian state. The pro-business Indian state is formed by a narrow alliance between the business elite and the ruling class which was forged during Indira Gandhi’s government but cemented with neo-liberal reforms. This experience of a shift in economic systems in both countries created a sense of hegemony of economic priorities in isolation of environment and rights considerations. This political economy configures the arena in which environmental defenders operate.[2]

India has seen the adoption of rights-based legislations like the recognition of the rights of forest-dwellers under the Forest Rights Act,2006, or the rights of landholders under the Land Acquisition Act,2013.[3] Despite this progressive legal framework, it has not adopted any law to protect the rights of environmental defenders. Through a closer examination of the parallels of the dangers faced by environmental defenders in Honduras and India, I aim to highlight the salience of this issue in the Indian context.[4]

A book review is very often written as an appreciation or critique of the argument and its significance. In this book review, I attempt to use it as an opportunity to begin deliberations on the question of environmental defenders in India and the world over. The book reads as an invitation to begin a conversation on this pertinent subject. I wanted to begin this conversation with parallels in India in mind.

III. The Parallels with India

 The book through stellar investigative journalism sketches the sinister web of actors who contributed to the killing of Berta Cáceres, what emerges is a tale that is all too familiar in the Indian context too- The suppression of dissent and critique of development models through the criminalization of environmental defenders and in dire instances their murder.[5] In reporting on the deaths of environmental defenders the layer that is often missed out is the political economy of extraction which this book brings to the fore.

In India too, examples abound of excessive violence used by law enforcement in quelling protests by Adivasi and other communities defending their rights over land, such as the killing of thirteen protestors who were alerting the state of the unregulated pollution by Vedanta’s Tuticorin copper smelter plant or the death of twelve Adivasis in Kalinganagar as they protested the acquisition of land.[6]

Apart from the use of violence by law enforcement, the book speaks to the involvement of mercenaries with a background in military intelligence in forming part of the security force that guards these development projects. In India, a similar development has occurred with the formation of the Industrial Security Force.[7] In Odisha, a security force has been recruited and trained by extractive industries for protecting their projects.[8] Things turned violent in Vedanta’s Lanjigarh plant where a protestor was killed by a member of the Odisha security force. The state in its pro-business avatar is offering security services at a price to generate revenue. As an Adivasi in Lanjigarh when asked about this stated, “The state is making money in policing us, our rights are violated, and they make a profit in doing that in so many ways. I feel unsafe as I protest with the industrial security force around.”[9]

In the book, several instances are mentioned where Berta felt unsafe and threatened because of her activism. This resonates with the experiences of Adivasi activists on the ground, like Soni Sori in Chhattisgarh or Kuni Sikaka in Odisha.

 The book forces us to think about the hostile environment produced by the respective governments in their urgency to push extractive projects. Environmental defenders like Berta are voices that tell us to revisit our economic priorities given what is at stake, from cultural loss to Indigenous communities to climate change and environmental destruction

IV. A note on Inclusion and dissent

In the afterword to this poignant book, Nina Lakhani states, “At the heart of most conflicts over land and resources is the failure to obtain free, prior and informed consent from communities before mega projects are sanctioned.” The ability of the law to enable the inclusion of these voices of dissent has been limiting. The requirement of free, prior, and informed consent in most countries whether it is Honduras, Philippines, or India has been symbolic and never influences the decision taken by the state.[10]

This limitation of the law is part of the design of the procedural requirement; both in international law and in the domestic law of Honduras or India, the pro-business state retains the discretionary power on whether or not to go ahead with the project even if communities withhold consent. Whether consent translates into a veto right has been debated and contested the world over.[11]

In India, the Niyamgiri judgment was an instance where the requirement of consent was inclusive of the right to veto as the gram sabha or village assembly was asked to decide whether mining could begin in the hills.[12] The Gram Sabha’s of twelve villages in the Niyamgiri hills unanimously voted against it and mining was not permitted in the area.  However, ever since there have been very few cases where communities have succeeded in defending their rights over their traditional lands by exercising the right to veto. The law, as the death of Berta Cáceres, also shows us, is effective to the extent that it is earnestly implemented.

The gap within the law in both contexts is the lack of provisions protecting environmental defenders. Environmental defenders, as a report by the UN Special Rapporteur, is titled are risking their today for our tomorrow. These defenders are on the frontline questioning the necessity of destructive projects, and in doing so, they are protecting the interests of future generations who will adversely suffer from the impacts of these projects.

The report provides for a framework of legal intervention to protect the rights of environmental defenders which includes protecting their right to freedom of expression, assembly, and more salience to doing away with provisions that criminalize them. We are yet to find an example of effective legislative steps being taken to protect the rights of environmental defenders.

The role of law, thus, is pertinent yet it needs progressive reform in incorporating protective legislation for the rights of environmental defenders. It needs to move beyond the symbolic implementation of the consent requirement to one that earnestly engages with dissent and the demands of local communities.

V. Conclusion

This timely book is a reminder of the networks of nexus between the state and business that contribute to a hostile environment for environmental defenders to articulate their dissent. Dissent by environmental defenders is often policed, disciplined, and, at times, subjected to dire consequences like the loss of life. With the looming challenge of climate change and its associated impact, the question this book urges us to ask is how can we punish communities and defenders who are on the frontline challenging development with the interest to protect our collective future?


*Arpitha Kodiveri is a doctoral researcher and Hans Kelsen Fellow at the European University Institute, working on environmental justice issues.

[1] Report on the Global Analysis of Front Line Defenders available at <https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/global_analysis_2018.pdf> last accessed on July 31 2020.

[2] Atul Kohli, Democracy and Development in India (Oxford University Press,2010) and Atul Kohli, Christophe Jeffrelot and Kanta Murali Eds Business and Politics in India (Oxford University Press,2019)

[3] Arpitha Kodiveri,’ Changing Terrain of Environmental Citizenship in India’s Forests’ Socio-Legal Review (2016)

[4] Joan Martinez-Alier, Frederico Demaria, Leah Temper and Mariana Walter,’ Changing Social Metabolism and Environmental Conflicts in India and South America’ Journal of Political Ecology, Vol 23, Iss 1, Pp 467-491 (2016)

[5] UNEP policy on environmental defenders available at <https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22769/UN%20Environment%20Policy%20on%20Environmental%20Defenders_08.02.18Clean.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>

[6] Minati Dash,’ Rights- based legislation in Practice: A view from Southern Odisha’ in Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Alf Gunvald Nielsen Eds Social Movements and the State in India (Palgrave Macmillan 2016)

[7] Ibid 5.

[8]  Odisha Industrial Security Force Act 2012 <http://govtpress.odisha.gov.in/pdf/2012/2034.pdf> accessed 13 July 2020.

[9] Interview conducted by the author in Lanjigarh in July ,2018.

[10] Stephen Young, Indigenous People, Consent and Rights (Routledge, 2019)

[11] Chitrangada Choudhury & Aniket Aga (2019): Manufacturing Consent: Mining, Bureaucratic Sabotage, and the Forest Rights Act in India, Capitalism Nature Socialism, DOI: 10.1080/10455752.2019.1594326.

[12] Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd v Ministry of Environment and Forests WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO. 180 OF 2011.

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