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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Berta Cáceres

Honduran Indigenous Rights Activist and Environmental Martyr

Zachary Gianotti was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

“In our world-views, we are beings who come from the Earth, the water, and the corn.” - Berta Cáceres in her Goldman Prize acceptance speech [12]

Berta Cáceres was an internationally recognized, award winning, Honduran environmental and civil rights activist who was assassinated in March 2016. Cáceres dedicated her life to fighting injustices that occurred in Honduras, a nation notorious for its human and environmental rights violations [1]. Born into humanitarian activism, Cáceres’ fame came from the environmental issues that coincided with her civil rights fight. Cáceres’ final fight was against an illegal damming project in western Honduras that harmed the Lenca people, an indigenous group of the region. The struggle over the dam is not over, and neither is the unrest caused by the assassination of Cáceres.

Berta Cáceres was born in 1971 in La Esperanza, Honduras to Berta Flores, a midwife and social activist who taught her children the importance of standing up for human rights by caring for refugees from El Salvador [2]. This started Cáceres’ life-long devotion of fighting for civil rights. Cáceres went on to study education at the university where she also co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993 [3]. Her group started out by standing up against illegal logging and transgressions against the Lenca people. A lot of her fights were directly against the Honduran government and large Honduran corporations, making her unpopular amongst the country’s elite [4]. In 2006, a group of Lenca people saw construction equipment arrive on their land and asked Cáceres to investigate why this had happened. Cáceres discovered that the Honduran government had approved a plan to build a dam on the Gualcarque River that the Lenca people viewed as a spiritual center and was key for their farming livelihood. Building a dam without local consent or knowledge is illegal by international law [4]. Cáceres embarked on this fight against the large Chinese and Honduran companies with letters and cease and desist pleas. Cáceres and COPINH elevated their fight with peaceful protests in the Capital and at the construction site. When the companies showed no sign of stopping they occupied the construction site in 2013. The intrepidity of these acts were heightened in a new political climate after a military coup occurred in 2009, resulting in a new government lead by the US backed coup instigators[5]. The new government not only had the political backing of the United States but they also had monetary and military support. Vast sums of money and military aid came down from the US to help the new regime. The dam construction site was previously guarded by private contractors but they were not allowed to be militarized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). To bypass this, the new government sent American trained soldiers to guard the dam construction. [4]

It was around this time that Cáceres was starting to gain international attention. She was well known in the human rights and environmental rights world for a while, as early as 2009 IACHR called for her protection saying that she was on their list of people under threat because of the 2009 coup d’etat [6].  In 2015, after a decade of fighting the dam project, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize, an award that is widely considered the most prestigious an activist can receive in the field of environmental activism [7]. Less than a year later she was killed.

Honduras has been long considered inhospitable to environmentalists. In 2015 Global Witness ranked Honduras as the most dangerous place for an environmental activist to live as it had the highest number of killings of “environmental and land defenders” per capita [8]. The IACHR has admonished the actions of the Honduran government, especially in relation to their activists. Honduras seems to be such a hotbed for environmental and human rights violations because of the oligarchical nature of the nation, where the ruling class has close ties to the corporations that commit many of these atrocities [9,10,4]. The United States in the past has done little more than shake their finger at the Honduran government, speaking out against their human rights record in statements while continually sending them financial and military aid [9,10].

Cáceres was murdered in March of 2016. She always knew that death was a realistic consequence of her work. The day before her assassination her friend Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican environmental activist, arrived to help look for power alternatives to the dam project. He was staying at her house when he heard a loud bang and her shout “who is there?” There were four gunmen, one of whom shot Soto twice and the others shot Cáceres multiple times. She did not die instantly but called out to Gustavo. She died in his arms. [4]

Her death has been met with international uproar from foreign nations to human rights groups and environmental rights groups. The US ambassador to Honduras called for immediate action and investigation of her death, a death that was originally classified as a robbery gone wrong. Amnesty International, IACHR, and some U.S. government officials called for an international investigation that could be just and impartial. The Honduran government refused point blank, saying they could find justice, and solve the murder case. A few months after her death five men were arrested [9]. Two had worked for the company constructing the dam she opposed and one was an active military member [4]. Members of COPINH and others have called for further investigations to look for the masterminds of her death, not just who pulled the trigger. Recently, a former US trained soldier told the Guardian that he had seen Berta Cáceres’ name on a hit list given out months before her assassination [9].

The fight for the dam is not over. Some of Cáceres’ fellow activists have said that in her death Berta has not been destroyed, she has multiplied, showing the strength of her movement and the determination of COPINH to continue the fight [10]. Her death has resulted in some proposed sanctions, intended to transform the nation. The United States House of Representatives has proposed a bill  called the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act, which calls to stop aid to Honduras until there is a monumental change in their human rights situation [11]. The land rights of indigenous peoples lie at the crossroads of human rights and environmentalism, a place that Cáceres found herself and fought for until her last days.

“Our Mother Earth - militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated - demands that we take action.” - [12]


[1] Guevara-Rosas, Erika, “Honduras still a death trap for environmental activists six months after Berta Cáceres’ slaying” Amnesty International:

[2] “Honduran Indigenous Leader Berta Cáceres Assassinated, Won Goldman Environmental Prize”

[3] Orellana, Xiomara, “Berta Cáceres, un Ícono Étnico que les dio Voz a los Indígenos” La Pensa:

[4] “Honduras: Blood and the Water” Aljazeera News:

[5] Montagne, Renee and Annie Bird, “Honduran Indigenous Rights leader, Berta Cáceres, is Murdered” NPR:

[6] “IACHR Condemns the Killing of Berta Cáceres in Honduras” Organization of American States:

[7] Berta Cáceres, 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient:

[8] “How Many More?” Global Witness:

[9] Lakhani, Nina, “Berta Cáceres's name was on Honduran military hitlist, says former soldier” The Gaurdian:

[10] “Slain Activist Berta Cáceres' Daughter: US Military Aid Has Fueled Repression & Violence in Honduras”

[11] “Rep. Johnson introduces ‘The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act’ “ The Desk of Rep. Hank Johnson

[12] Cáceres, Berta, “Berta Caceres acceptance speech, 2015 Goldman Prize ceremony” Youtube:

[13] Leiva, Noe, “Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres murdered, family says” The Tico Times:

Thumbnail photo sources:

environment, hero