Para Los Mártires (For the Martyrs) – A Lenca Woman’s Fatal Fight for Environmental Justice

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Berta Cáceres.

By Gabe Sanders.

From the start, she spoke with passion and a sense of urgency.  She was accepting the largest award for grassroots environmental activists in the world, and yet she seemed apathetic toward the esteem.  Zeroed in on her cause, she admonished the audience – “¡Despertemos! Despertemos, humanidad.  Ya no hay tiempo” (Let us wake up!  Let us wake up, humankind.  We are out of time).[1] She concluded her speech by dedicating the award to los mártires (or martyrs), who had given their lives defending the environment.  Little did she know that less than one year later, her name would be added to the list of martyrs.  That name was Berta Cáceres.

Berta Cáceres was born into the peaceful and vibrant culture of the Lenca people – indigenous occupants of southwestern Honduras – on March 4, 1971.  During her early life, Cáceres’ character was molded by the boundless courage and compassion of the Lenca women that surrounded her.  She watched her mother, Austra Lopez, advocate for the civil rights of disenfranchised natives as mayor of La Esperanza, then governor of the Department of Intibucá.  Lopez was also a midwife who cared for Salvadoran refugees and would call on “Bertita” to retrieve medical equipment or assist with treatment of the ill on a daily basis.[2] This environment compelled Cáceres to strive for academic excellence and engage in social activism throughout her teenage years.

At the age of 22, while pursuing a degree in education, Cáceres took it upon herself to combat the devastating impact of illegal logging operations on Honduran indigenous communities by co-founding Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH, or National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras).[3] This organization initially sought to prevent deforestation, which threatened the natural resources, shelter, and land of Lenca peoples.  As COPINH’s membership expanded, so too did its mission statement.  Very quickly, Cáceres’ coalition became equipped in “providing education, inspiring leadership, and offering a badly needed platform for expression” to poor Lenca Hondurans.[4] With Lenca women in the vanguard, COPINH led marches demanding the right to self-govern as indigenous peoples and built support for political candidates.  Then, after a successful COPINH-backed presidential campaign in 2006, the surge in Honduran elite resistance to Cáceres’ cause was bolstered by foreign involvement and lack thereof.

The United States (US) had set up military bases on Lenca land, despite Cáceres and others’ vehement opposition; but, when the Lenca people desperately needed US assistance, they came up empty-handed.  Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president whose candidacy had been supported by COPINH, would frequently consult Cáceres and other Lenca leaders before making policy decisions.  Though Zelaya was viewed by some – including Cáceres – as overly driven by power and attention, his willingness to give audience to indigenous activists spurred some of his greatest achievements.  He provided free education to Honduran children, raised the nationwide minimum wage by 60%, and afforded poor farmers much-needed subsidies.[5] This was how COPINH was able to champion laws and change that assisted the rural indigent.  Unfortunately, Zelaya’s attempts to garner public support for the writing of a new constitution sparked outrage among Honduran business elite, political opponents, and military officials, which led to his ouster in a 2009 coup d’état.  The US never officially recognized that a coup had occurred, nor did they censure the new Honduran government by suspending aid.  This exasperated Cáceres, who later assailed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for having legitimized an unlawful operation that stripped the Lenca people of their foremost asset.

Honduras’ ensuing de facto administrations posed a significant threat to the natural resources of the Lenca, in large part due to the significant opportunity they posed for the ‘energy, mining and tourism’ industries.  With the country “Open for Business,” two companies – a Honduran energy company called Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA) and a Chinese hydropower company called Sinohydro, both of which had arrived on Lenca land three years earlier – seized the opportunity.  With Sinohydro’s assistance, DESA intended to build four hydroelectric dams on the Río Gualcarque, a river not only sacred in the Lenca culture but an essential source of water, food, and medicinal resources for the Lenca natives.[6] Since the company neglected to consult locals before initiating the project, they were in violation of international law, a legitimate argument for DESA’s lack of jurisdiction that Cáceres brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[7] In addition to taking legal action, Cáceres rallied COPINH and other community members to form a peaceful blockade, lasting from 2013 to 2014, against DESA’s efforts to transport construction equipment to the river.  Protestors were met with violent counterattacks from company officials and Honduran military officers, leading to three deaths and six serious injuries.  But they persisted.  With pressure mounting, Sinohydro left Honduras and DESA shifted the operation upstream.  The following year, Cáceres was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to protect the Río Gualcarque, which despite an influx of death threats never ceased.  She continued to fight for DESA’s complete eviction until March 2, 2016, when she was shot and killed at the age of 44.[8]

Berta Cáceres may have died; but her legacy, courage, and wisdom live on.

[1] Goldman Environmental Prize, Berta Caceres Acceptance Speech, 2015 Goldman Prize Ceremony, accessed July 14, 2021.

[2] Alina Maschirow, “The Story of Berta Cáceres: How Her Fight for Indigenous, Environmental and Gender Rights Cost Her Her Life,” The Beam (blog), accessed July 16, 2021.

[3] Maschirow.

[4] Maschirow.

[5] Benjamin Dangl, “The Road to Zelaya’s Return: Money, Guns and Social Movements in Honduras,” Upside Down World (blog), September 21, 2009.

[6] “Berta Cáceres,” Goldman Environmental Foundation, accessed July 14, 2021.

[7]Elisabeth Malkin and Alberto Arce, “Berta Cáceres, Indigenous Activist, Is Killed in Honduras”, accessed July 16, 2021.

[8] Nina Lakhani, Who Killed Berta Caceres?: The Murder of an Indigenous Defender and the Race to Save the Planet (Verso Books, 2020).