Latin America, the world’s deadliest region for environmental activism

Latin America, the world’s deadliest region for environmental activism

“In commemoration of the World Environment Day, 5th of June 2019”

By Andrea Marzeth Padilla, Louise Vingert & Mariana Garrido

Latin America (LATAM) is the most dangerous region for defenders of the environment and land, comprising six of the ten deadliest countries for environmental defenders: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Honduras and Nicaragua [1]. According to Global Witness’ 2018 Report ‘At What Cost?’, from the 207 environmental defenders killed around the globe in 2017, 116 died in LATAM [2]. Comprising over 50% of the world’s biodiversity [3], the region holds a vast natural wealth, attracting investment for extractivist activities — such as mining, hydroelectric exploitation and agroindustry,— which have been widely guarded by national governments independent of the many pernicious environmental and human costs.

Extractivism and its environmental damages has motivated counter-actions from environmental defenders, who speak out for the protection of their homelands’ natural diversity [4].  The  majority of them identify as indigenous peoples, making them natural protectors of the environment, yet more prone to suffer the impacts of environmental imbalances and ethnic exclusion [5]. Environmental defenders often face persecution and intimidation from corporations or contracted mercenaries, which is aggravated by widespread impunity and a weak rule of law. Three significant case studies in Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras have been chosen to overview the situation and reflect upon the reasons making LATAM an insecure region for environmental defenders.

Brazil

Brazil has been assessed by Global Witness as the most dangerous country for environmental defenders [6]. The country had a record  57 killings in 2017; 43,9% of which happened in the context of massacres in areas of the Amazon [7]. The escalation of threat can be traced back to the beginning of this decade, marked by budgetary cuts in the two most important organisations handling the protection of indigenous populations, and the land redistribution to small farmers and Afro descendants: The National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) and The National Foundation of Indigenous people (FUNAI). The latter was forced to close offices in remote areas, such as Vale do Javari (Amazonas), an isolated and prevalent indigenous territory. This allowed the unmonitored access of miners in indigenous areas, which allegedly led to the massacre of 10 innocent members of an indigenous group [8]. Furthermore, policy changes have made it easier for corporations to develop projects without the previous consent of local communities, further shifting the power balance in favour of big industries [9].

A notorious example of the resistance against corporate action in the region is the one of Maria do Socorro, an active leader of forest dwellers – indigenous, quilombo and riverine communities in the state of Pará [10]. Since 2009, Maria has denounced the intrusive action and water contamination of one of the world’s biggest Alumina refineries, Norsk Hydro [11]. In exchange, she has suffered threats and intimidations, while being widely ignored by local authorities, who seem to value foreign investment over environmental security. Even though the company has finally been convicted for contamination and flooding, proper justice is yet to be made. Maria continues to lead the demands for land recognition and environmental protection — a personal struggle that is also historically relevant to matters of ‘race, inequality and justice’ [12].  

The backslide on public policies for the environment and the rights of indigenous people remains ongoing in Brazil, including cuts on the National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. The new President’s, Jair Bolsonaro, expressions of stigmatization and securitization of environmental defenders do not promise a better future, with the promise of continuing Temer’s policy of ending the ‘industry of demarcation of indigenous lands’ [13]. It bears mentioning that the Brazilian Congress has a significant influence of agribusiness lobby (Bancada Ruralista). In fact, changes in legislation have facilitated the construction work of many companies demonstrating that the law seem to lean towards the politics of big corporations, which are usually under public contract, rendering the environment and its defenders environment particularly vulnerable.

Colombia

Colombia’s record of threats against environmental defenders is part of a bigger picture of stigmatization and aggressions against human rights defenders and leftist groups in the country [14]. According to Global Witness, 24 environmental defenders were killed in 2017 [15], and at least 105 Human Rights defenders were killed in the same year [16]. Although records of threats against environmental activists have been present throughout Colombia’s history, there has been a significant rise in the killings of defenders after the signing of the Colombian Peace Process in 2016. This rampant phenomenon is closely related to land disputes that emerged as a consequence of the power vacuum left by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) [17].

Environmental activism in Colombia is usually led by indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders who actively speak out against the environmental impacts of mining, hydroelectric energy, illegal logging and deforestation [18]. One of the most striking examples has been the case of Francia Marquez, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize [18], who mobilized 80 women from her community of La Toma to march 350 km to Bogotá in  protest against the illegal mining activities taking place in their homeland [20]. As a result of Marquez’s role, all those operations were forced to cease [21]. Francia’s work is nevertheless unfinished as La Toma still faces high levels of water contamination and as the activist continues to suffer life threats that forced her to move to the city of Cali [22].

Subsequent Colombian governments share the weight of responsibility for an incautious promotion of extractivism and for the effects of their inaction in the protection of environmental defenders. Many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) along with the United Nations have exhorted national authorities to take further action in the investigation of the referred killings, as well as in the development of protection schemes for its victims [23].  At the moment, the state’s protection measures include the provision of disposable cell phones and bulletproof vests, leaving the security concerns of defenders ignored [24]. Simultaneously, while there appears to be an effort by authorities to investigate the material perpetrators of crimes against defenders, intellectual authors of these crimes remain untouched[25]. The apparent systematicity of the killings, a generalized environment of stigmatization of environmental activism — defenders are often accused of narco-trafficking — not only spreads fear and distrust over defenders’ communities but contributes to the relegation of important environmental protection reforms in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.

Honduras

Honduras has been the most insecure country per capita for environmental defenders in LATAM, with 128 people murdered since 2010 [26]. In 2009, following a coup d’état, Honduras witnessed an explosive growth in environmentally destructive megaprojects that would displace many indigenous communities [27]. Although there has been a significant decrease in the killings of environmental defenders in the last few years, the civil society continues to face waves of repression, stigmatization, criminalisation, death threats, and police brutality [28].

Moreover, the Honduran government has faced serious accusations for taking part in illegitimate agreements, bribes and crimes committed against environmental and land defenders in the country. Such is the 2016 case of Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, in which Berta Cáceres, a prominent human rights defender, indigenous leader and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, was shot dead, for opposing this project, by gunmen who entered her home in Honduras on the 2nd of March 2016.

Cáceres, had been actively leading the Lenca community’s resistance against Agua Zarca project, which has previously been linked to the killing of another human rights defender, Tomás Garcia, in 2013 [29]. In her effort to stop the Agua Zarca Project dam, Cáceres rallied her community and waged a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam developer to pull out” [30]. However, the case of Berta’s murder indicates the high levels of impunity throughout the country. For two and a half years after her assassination, Berta’s case remained unresolved until the Environmental Manager of the Agua Zarca dam project company Desarrollos Energéticos S. A (DESA), Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, alongside six others, were found guilty of her murder.  Meanwhile, powerful elites and politicians that were implicated have yet to be held accountable [31].

Berta’s story is evidence  that Honduras’ justice system, despite receiving large amounts of financial aid from the United States (US) and European Union (EU), continues to operate with negligence, impunity, secrecy and bias. In addition, the strong linkages between rich and powerful elites of the country and the environmental defenders’ assassinations are difficult to ignore in the global context, where Berta Cáceres has become the self-image of international environmental activism.

Conclusion

The daily reports of threats and murders demonstrate the high levels of insecurity encountered daily by the environmental defenders in Latin America. UN’s Former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, John Knox, has highlighted ‘endemic corruption’ as one of the main reasons why the region is especially dangerous for environmental defenders [32].  After a thorough analysis, it is clear that corporate and governmental interest are major factors driving the persecution, stigmatization and criminalization of these activists. Impunity and the lack of political will to resolve this issue are certainly aggravants to the problem. In this conflict between corporations extractivist conception of natural resources as profit versus an indigenous biocultural approach to the preservation of their natural ecosystems, the environment is not only a victim itself, but it is “emerging as a new battleground for human rights” [33].

[1] Parker, A (2018) ‘Latin America is the deadliest region for environmental activists’, Open Democracy [online], available from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/latin-america-is-deadliest-region-for-environmental-activists, accessed on 7th June 2019; Rojo, M (2019) ‘Environmental Defenders endangered in Latin America,’ Fair Planet [online], available from https://www.fairplanet.org/editors-pick/environmental-defenders-endangered-in-latin-america/, accessed on 7th June 2019. 
[2] Global Witness (2019) ‘At What Cost: Irresponsible business and the murder of land and environmental defenders in’, available from https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/at-what-cost/, accessed 6th June 2019. 
[3] United Nations Environment Programme (2016) ‘Biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean’ (1 March 2016). XX Meeting of the Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean [online], available from http://www.pnuma.org/forodeministros/20-colombia/documentos/Background_Biodiversity_Document_26_02_16.pdf, accessed 7th June 2016. 
[4]   Forst, M (2016) ‘A Deadly Shade of Green: Threats to Environmental Human Rights Defenders in Latin America.’ Center for International Environmental Law, Article 19, pp. 4-5, available from www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Deadly_shade_of_green_English_Aug2016.pdf, accessed 6th June 2016. 
[5]  Mihlar, F (2018) ‘Voices that must be heard: minorities and indigenous people combating climate change’ Minority Rights Group International [online], available from https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/492d18da2.pdf, accessed 7th June 2019. 
[6]  Global Witness p.8 
[7]  Global Witness. 
[8]  Global Witness, Op cit., p. 25 
[9]  Global Witness 2017; Mitchell, C. (2018) ‘2017 was deadliest year for environmental activism: report’, Al Jazeera [online], available from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/07/2017-deadliest-year-environmental-activism-report-180722174539780.html, accessed 6th June 2019. 
[10]  Barbosa, C (2018) ‘Três mulheres de Barcarena: ameaçadas, perseguidas e intimidadas’, Amazonia Real [online], available from http://amazoniareal.com.br/tres-mulheres-de-barcarena-ameacadas-perseguidas-e-intimidadas/, accessed 6th June 2019. 
[11]  Watts, J (2018) ‘They should be put in prison’: battling Brazil’s huge alumina plant’, The Guardian [online], available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/21/land-grab-corruption-pollution-amazon-rainforest-brazil-maria-do-soccoro-silva, accessed 8th June 2019. 
[12]  Watts, Op Cit.. 
[13]  Folha de S. Paulo (2018) ‘Bolsonaro diz que pretende acabar com 'ativismo ambiental xiita' se for presidente’, Uol [online], available from https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2018/10/bolsonaro-diz-que-pretende-acabar-com-ativismo-ambiental-xiita-se-for-presidente.shtml, accessed 8th June 2019. 
[14]   Forst, M. (2018) ‘United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Visit to Colombia, 20 November to 3 December 2018 End of mission statement’, United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures [online], available from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Defenders/StatementVisitColombia3Dec2018_EN.pdf, accessed 7th June 2019; Fundación Ideas para la Paz (2016) 'Human Rights and Business Country Guide - Colombia', Fundación Ideas para la Paz and The Danish Institute for Human Rights [online], available from: http://www.ideaspaz.org/especiales/guia-empresas/colombia_country_guide_(english).pdf, accessed 17th June 2019; Galanova, M (2018) 'In Colombia, it's dangerous to be left wing', Deutsche Welle [online], available from: https://www.dw.com/en/in-colombia-its-dangerous-to-be-left-wing/a-44131086, accessed 17th June 2019. 
[15] Global Witness, Op Cit.  
[16] Amnesty International (2018) ‘Amnesty International Report 2017/18 - Colombia’, Amnesty International [online], available from https://www.refworld.org/docid/5a993925a.html, accessed 7th June 2019. 
[17]  Forst, M. (2018). 
[18]  Global Witness, Op cit,  p. 28. 
[19]  The Goldman Environmental Prize (2018) ‘Francia Márquez. 2018 Goldman Prize Recipient South and Central America’, Goldman Prize [online], available from https://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/francia-marquez/, accessed 7th June 2019. 
[20]  Rojas, C, Mosquera, M, Botero, P, Escobar, A (2015) ‘Fights of "good living" by black women from Alto Cauca’, Nómadas 43. Universidad Central, pp. 167-183. 
[21]  The Goldman Environmental Prize (2018). 
[22]  The Goldman Environmental Prize (2018). 
[23]  United Nations Security Council (2018) Resolution SC/13307. Despite Recent Challenges, Colombia Represents Pinnacle of Success in Fostering Peace, Security Council Hears at Briefing on New Developments (19 April 2018) [online], available from https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13307.doc.htm, accessed 7th June 2019. 
[24]  Global Witness, Op cit, p. 28. 
[25]  El Espectador (2019) Académicos piden acciones de fondo en defensa de líderes y excombatientes (21 May 2019) [online], available from https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/politica/academicos-piden-acciones-de-fondo-en-defensa-de-lideres-y-excombatientes-articulo-861841, accessed 7th June 2019. 
[26]  Global Witness, Op. cit.,  p.21. 
[27]  The Goldman Environmental Prize ‘Berta Caceres’,  [online] available from https://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/berta-caceres/, accessed 5th of June 2019. 
[28]  Global Witness, Op. cit.  p.25. 
[29]  Business & Human Rights Resource Centre ‘Honduras: Agua Zarca Dam impacts indigenous people by Gualcarque River,’ [online] available from https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/honduras-agua-zarca-dam-impacts-indigenous-people-by-gualcarque-river, accessed 5th June 2019. 
[30]  The Goldman Environmental Prize ‘Berta Caceres,’ Goldman Prize [online], available from https://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/berta-caceres, accessed 5th June 2019. 
[31]   Lakhani, N (2017) ‘Honduras elites blamed for violence against environmental activists,’ The Guardian [online], available from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/31/honduras-environmental-activists-global-witness-violence-berta-caceres, accessed 5th June 2019. 
[32]  Schweimler, D (2018) ‘Intimidation and murder: Brazilians fight unequal land ownership’, Al Jazeera [online], available from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/07/intimidation-murder-brazilians-fight-unequal-land-ownership-180725032455226.html, accessed 4th June 2019. 
[33]  Global Witness, Op cit. 

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