Our Responsibility to Indigenous Land Defenders

Berta Cáceres, seated at a desk and smiling. Cáceres, her organization COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), and the people of the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras maintained an ultimately successful two-year struggle to blockade and halt construction on the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. For well over a year they withstood multiple eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarized security contractors and the Honduran armed forces. (Photo credit: United Nations Environment Programme, shared under a Creative Commons license)


When you hear a land acknowledgment, or listen to Indigenous scholars like Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer talking about reciprocity with the land, you hopefully might think about responsibility. What is our responsibility to land? To water? To each other? What is our nation’s responsibility to people and ecosystems in other countries, near and far?

In 2016, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres traveled from Honduras to the Democratic National Convention to protest the assassination of her mother Berta Cáceres, founder of COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The Lenca, Berta’s people, are an Indigenous people located in southwestern Honduras and eastern El Salvador. Through COPINH, Cáceres not only worked to empower the Lenca and defend the environment in Intibucá; she also created a women’s shelter and a space where LGBTQ+ people would be protected.

Also called the “Green Nobel,” the Goldman Prize was awarded to Cáceres in 2015 for her work with COPINH in preventing Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA), a private energy company, from building a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, in Lenca land. A year after she won the prize, Cáceres was shot and killed by assassins who broke into her home. In December of 2019, The Intercept revealed that the men who killed Cáceres were linked through a communications chain to the highest echelons of DESA’s leadership.

“The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth—militarized, fenced in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated—demands that we take action.” – Berta Cáceres (Image credit: James Lee)


Killings of environmentalists and land defenders have doubled in recent years, and more Indigenous people have died than from any other group, which reflects the lead role Indigenous people have always had on the front lines of environmental stewardship and resistance. In Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa, President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), was tried and executed in 1995 along with eight other MOSOP leaders (the “Ogoni Nine”) under the regime of General Sani Abacha. Saro-Wiwa had been targeted for his life’s work: resisting the environmental degradation caused by Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria’s Ogoniland.

In Myanmar, Saw O Moo, an environmentalist and Indigenous wildlife researcher, had been working for 12 years to establish the Salween Peace Park and preserve not just old-growth forests but the Karen people’s culture and way of life. He was murdered by soldiers of Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw, in 2018. About a year later, Emyra Waiãpi, a community leader resisting illegal gold mining activities in the Amazon, was shot to death in Amapá, the state in northern Brazil where the Waiãpi’s Indigenous reserve is located.

According to a Global Witness report, only about ten percent of the murderers of environmental defenders are ever convicted for their crimes. A recent study using data compiled by Global Witness found that the number of environmental defenders killed between 2002 and 2017 was more than double the number of armed service people from the United Kingdom and Australia who were killed during active duty in war zones over the same period.

That same study identified a strong correlation between a nation’s rule of law and the number of killings. The researchers had done this by first assigning a rule-of-law score for each country using eight metrics: absences of corruption, civil justice, criminal justice, fundamental rights, government powers, open government, order and security, and regulatory enforcement. The lower a country’s score for rule of law, the higher the number of environmental defenders killed.

According to the study, rich, mostly Western nations generally have a strong rule of law score. But how relevant is the United States’ excellent rule of law score when the executive branch decides, through the institutional processes that are available, to revoke the land trust status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians?

Having a strong rule of law score does not stop countries from inflicting violence on environmental and land defenders. For instance, Coastal GasLink continues, with support from Canada’s Trudeau government, to encroach on sovereign Wet’suwet’en lands during the COVID-19 crisis. In Japan, the U.S. is responsible for years of landfill dumping in Okinawan coastal waters that is meant to build the foundations of a U.S. military base, despite the sustained protests of Indigenous Ryūkyūans. This filling of the ocean, using earth from a former battlefield filled with human remains, will likely drive to extinction endangered dugongs and rare corals. It will also expand the presence of the U.S. military, Okinawa’s main source of sexual violence and dangerous accidents.

Legacies of settler-colonialism and imperialism continue to manifest not only in the actions of resource-extracting multinationals, but also in the foreign policies of powerful nations. Attributing murders of environmental defenders to a country’s inadequate rule of law erases the role that wealthier nations play in enabling, and at times outright funding and installing, corrupt regimes that are willing to relax environmental regulations and criminalize activists.

Before her death, Berta Cáceres criticized Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, for enabling the 2009 coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya’s government in Honduras. According to Cáceres, the new coup government was also successfully pressured by Washington, D.C. to pass so-called anti-terrorist and intelligence laws that criminalized political protest. For Cáceres and others like her, whose work was centered in the organization of Indigenous resistance, these laws only put their lives in deeper jeopardy.

Berta’s daughter Laura didn’t just go to the DNC in 2016 to bring attention to human rights issues in Honduras; her intent was also to hold Secretary Clinton and the administration in power accountable for their roles in the death of Cáceres and hundreds of others like her. Laura has repeatedly criticized the United States’ complicity in the Honduran coup and her mother’s death: besides the fact that the U.S. continues to bankroll the new government and support police militarization, it was reported that some of the men convicted of killing Berta had received training in the U.S. military. According to Laura, the institutional frameworks in Honduras that were broken by the 2009 coup were never restored either. From her perspective and the perspective of other Hondurans, the coup is a clear example of the role the U.S. plays in enabling the murders of environmental defenders.

Despite these overwhelming geopolitical forces, environmental defenders and their families continue to resist and hold the people and the institutions who kill them accountable. In 2009 in Nigeria’s Ogoniland, Royal Dutch Shell settled out of court with the families of Saro-Wiwa and the rest of the Ogoni Nine on the eve of an impending trial to avoid admitting or being assigned complicity in their deaths. Shell, like San Francisco-based Chevron, had long been collaborating with Abacha’s military to protect their petroleum extraction activities in Ogoniland from local resistance. After thirteen years of litigation against Shell, the families of the Ogoni Nine considered the settlement a substantive victory against the oil giant.

In 2018, seven men were convicted for Cáceres’s murder, although the United Nations issued a statement saying that the masterminds of the crime had still not been brought to justice. Roberto David Castillo Mejía, a West Point graduate and the CEO of DESA, was arrested and held in jail not just for his alleged link to Berta’s death, but for other crimes as well. He is now being sentenced for his role in Cáceres’s murder. DESA still owns an exclusive right to work the lands of the Gualcarque River watershed until the year 2059, but the European investors who were funding DESA (and who are thought to have failed to act on prior knowledge of DESA’s violent behavior) have pulled out of the project.

Two years ago, Hank Johnson, a Democratic Congressman from Georgia, reintroduced the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (H.R. 1945). The bill, originally introduced in the wake of Berta’s murder, was another reason Laura had traveled to the DNC in 2016. If passed, it would suspend U.S. military aid to Honduras until the Honduran government “investigates credible allegations of gross human rights violations by their security forces.” Meanwhile, in addition to Laura, another of Berta’s daughters has joined the fight to protect the Gualcarque River.

The sheer strength, determination, and resilience of Indigenous environmentalists and land defenders around the world cannot be overstated. But resisting corrupt governments, Big Oil, and the rich, Western nations that support them is a monumental task for any community, and it requires the collective action of those of us whose peace and comfort comes at the expense of communities to whom we’ve exported our violence. We can and must understand the role the U.S. plays across the globe in creating the conditions that lead to violence against the environment and its defenders.

We must also demand better of our leaders and hold accountable the powerful decision makers whose choices will affect foreign policy, millions of lives, and the environment for generations to come. At the minimum, we could demand that our Congressional representatives pass legislation that creates accountability mechanisms, support organizations that stand up for environmental defenders, and practice financial solidarity with land and water protectors.

Many of us who work in the marine or environmental realm feel a responsibility to water and to land, but intrinsic to that responsibility is an obligation to people, because it is people, particularly Indigenous people, who defend water and defend land. For Indigenous people, this stewardship is based on deep connections to the environment shaped by a multitude of reciprocal and transgenerational relationships with the natural world. The time is long overdue for the rest of us to step up and do our part, and to fulfill our obligations to each other.

“She, the mother, the lady, the commander, my mommy, Berta Cáceres with oppression piled atop her, she rebels against death, she climbs inside the heart of a people that have no borders. Berta has multiplied and there is not an assassin who can kill her.” – Laura Zúñiga Cáceres (Image credit: James Lee)