Last year was the deadliest year on record for environment and land right defenders, according to Global Witness. In their latest report, 185 people were killed across 16 countries for standing their ground to protect the environment. Brazil (50 killings), the Philippines (33) and Colombia (26) are at the top of the list, and it sadly makes Latin America the deadliest region for environmental activists. Conflicts over mining were the number one cause of killings in 2015, with agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, and logging also key drivers of violence.
These defenders do not even consider themselves as environmental activists, in the strict sense of the word. They usually come from very remote locations –be it mountain villages or deep inside the rainforest. A great number of ‘activists’ come from grassroots organisations, as such, 40% of the victims are indigenous people trying to defend their lands, their rights to be consulted about the management of the natural resources in their territories. They are courageously making an outstanding contribution to their communities and advocating for the protection of human rights at a great personal risk.
All these killings are the consequences of pervasive incentives in which general repression of activist and civil society has become the norm. Encouraged by the financial benefits and the high level of impunity, targeting key actors, their organisations, and their communities is the modus operandi of many project developers that are expanding their operations into indigenous towns, while at the same time destroying the natural environment.
Impact on local activists
According to Billy Kyte, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness, these killings take place in developing countries because civil society has fewer means to make its voice heard. In that respect, the only resource left is to protest. Latin America is a very interesting case as the strength of civil society acts as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people are more willing to talk about their rights, as they are more aware, and they are willing to fight for them, so they are more targeted. But on the other hand, because of that same awareness and strength, they have better monitoring capabilities, so they are more likely to have data compared to those in Central Asia or Africa.
Knowing that their lives are at risk, these murders act as an effective deterrent for future protests, and many people do not want to be part of the statistics. Some of them know that they are currently living in danger, and killing after killing, more often than not, their demonstrations stop out of fear. This is especially true with authoritarian ‘regimes’ since the government censors this kind of activities.
The death of Berta Cáceres and her comrades is currently one of the most outrageous examples of the systematic persecution that environmental activists suffer. In Honduras, she was protesting against the construction of a dam by the national company “Desarrollos Energeticos” and by the Chinese Sinohydro -which abandoned the project in 2013. On March 3, she was shot dead in her hometown by unknown gunmen. In the face of this, the initial reaction in her community was fear. However, given the unprecedented support from national and international organisations, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, people in her community saw the opportunity to speak out.
For Honduran activists keeping this issue alive is important, since it has become a ‘safety net’ in which they can keep their battle active. A good example is Ana Mirian Romero, who recently won the Frontline Defenders’ award this year. She is a Honduran activist and an indigenous woman from the same area as Berta. She has been fighting for recognition of the land rights of indigenous communities since 2010. She was touched at a personal level by Berta Caceres’ assassination and therefore her activities stopped for a short period. Nevertheless, after receiving the award, she found a place where she could continue with her activism.
Violence also touched Victor Zambrano. He is a Peruvian activist who was recognised this year by the National Geographic for his work protecting the Amazon region. Together with his friend, Alfredo Vracko, he has been fighting against mining projects in the rainforest, and all the other ‘evils’ those projects bring to the communities –killings, corruption, pollution, child labour and sexual exploitation. After several death threats, Alfredo was shot. Hence, Victor was obliged to change his strategy and now he is focusing on inviting schools to the rainforest so they can learn about the potential and beauty of this region compared to mining and agribusiness projects.
Governments and corporations are equally responsible
Across the world, governments, companies, and financiers are driving agendas that prioritise mining, agribusiness, logging and hydro dam projects. As long as these industries remain profitable, more and more corporations will go even further to acquire resources, and this includes stepping into long protected natural areas and indigenous communities, posing increasing dangers for the inhabitants of such zones as well as nature and our future.
Some governments have also ill-intended motives against activists because they see these protests as a threat to their power. As such, officials have been harassing anyone in their path. This criminalisation of protests at the hands of the government was highlighted by Global Witness, especially in African countries. There, activists are branded as anti-development and they have to endure heavy propaganda against their causes. In Latin American countries, like Ecuador, civil society organisations and activists have the same sort of harassment. They have been accused of terrorism and as destabilising forces. The government controls the media and, more often than not, freedom of speech is censored. These practices are creating a culture of fear and many people are taking a step backwards.
These projects, as profitable as they are, are also triggering a dynamic in which governments and corporations collude in order to benefit financially and/ or to harden their authority. Many of these projects people are protesting against are carried out because of corruption. Companies and governments collude to deliver them, the bribes are significant and the stakes are at the highest. So, for many officials there is an incentive behind harassing activists.
This vicious circle ends with impunity of these crimes. There are few people actually arrested and they can only talk about suspected perpetrators, so the latter get away with murder. According to the Global Witness report, 16 killing cases were related to paramilitary groups, 13 to the army, 11 to the police and 11 to private security – strongly implying state or company links to the assassinations. The report also mentions that there was little evidence that the authorities either fully investigated the crimes or took actions to bring the perpetrators to account.
However, there are several ways that the national community and the general public can help to put an end to this issue. One of them is by putting together success stories. In other words, to talk about positive stories about how activists are beneficial for society, how they promote sustainable development, and why it is so important to have civil society organisations. In this way, a counter-narrative appears against the discourse of negative propaganda, carried out/supported by governments who brand activists as anti-development agents.
Likewise, it is vital to demand justice for these crimes. Impunity cannot be the norm, and keeping the momentum by raising awareness of the atrocities that these people are put through becomes essential. If more people realise what is happening, there is a better chance for the victims to access to fair and unbiased justice be that in the national system or through the international human rights courts.
In addition, it is very important to accept responsibilities as consumers. The fact that these companies are going further into these territories and these lands is due to the increasing demand for resources. It is in the hands of the public to ask corporations and governments about the products in the market. Consumers have the responsibility to question about the sources of the products they are buying whether it be palm oil from Indonesia or tropical hardwoods from the Amazon. The more people are engaged demanding traceability and responsible sourcing, the quicker these threats and killings can stop.
- 1 Global Witness (2016), On Dangerous Ground, available online at: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/reports/dangerous-ground/ (Accessed on 1st July 2016)
- 2 Kyte, B. (2016), Interviewed by Michelle Arellano for Social Vision, 8th July
- 3 Frontline Defenders (2016), Case Story: Ana Mirian Romero, Available onine at: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/ana-mirian-romero (Accessed on 8th July 2016)
- 4 Alejandra Martins (2016), Honduras: matan a Berta Cáceres, la activista que le torció la mano al Banco Mundial y a China, BBC Mundo, Available online at: http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2015/04/150423_honduras_berta_caceres_am (Accessed on 11th July 2016)
- 5 Martin Riepl (2016), "Te buscan para matarte": Víctor Zambrano, el ambientalista premiado por National Geographic que vive bajo amenaza en Perú, BBC Mundo, Available online at: http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-36828355 (Accessed on 19th July, 2016)