More activists being killed in their fight for the environment

Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, the daughter of Berta Cáceres, who was killed for her work fighting transnational corporations and the government of Honduras. (Credit: Daniel Cima, Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos/Flickr)

Last year was the deadliest yet for activists seeking to protect their land, forests and rivers from destructive industries like mining, logging and dams, according to a report released Monday by Global Witness.

The report, “On Dangerous Ground,” uncovered 185 deaths from news reports and public records – a death about every other day – revealing a 59 percent increase from the previous year and the highest annual toll on record.

“The environment is emerging as a new human rights battleground,” the report says.

The deadliest countries for land and environment defenders were Brazil, with 50 deaths; and the Philippines, with 33; setting a record number of such deaths in each country. Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also topped the list.

Almost 40 percent of last year’s victims were indigenous people, a vast proportion of whom suffer weak land rights and geographic isolation, making them particularly exposed to land grabbing for natural resource exploitation.

Because information is severely limited, the estimates are conservative; according to Billy Kyte, the report’s author and a researcher for Global Witness, the toll in other countries could be higher than Brazil’s because the group could only uncover deaths where there was some record of a fatality.

“The murders that are going unpunished in remote mining villages or deep within rainforests are fueled by the choices consumers are making on the other side of the world,” Kyte said in a statement. “Companies and investors must cut ties with projects that trample over communities’ rights to their land. Our warming climate and growing population mean that pressures on land and natural resources are set to increase. Without urgent intervention the numbers of deaths we’re seeing now will be dwarfed by those in the future.”   

What’s worse, the report found, is that few of the assailants are ever even identified – much less punished for their crimes. Finding justice is made difficult when governments are assisting a broader corporate quest for resources on valuable land, and activists are fighting against them in remote areas where killers can easily escape.

As it was the year before, Latin America was the world’s most dangerous region for people trying to protect natural resources in 2015. Acclaimed Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was killed by two unidentified men in her home in March, and her fellow worker with the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Nelson García, was slain two weeks later.

Despite Cáceres’ high profile death, her assailants haven’t yet been identified, and the rising death toll has largely escaped international attention.

The Global Witness report is calling on governments to investigate the crimes, bring perpetrators to justice, support the rights of activists and increase the protection of those at risk of violence, intimidation or threats.

The report also encourages governments to resolve the underlying causes of violence against defenders by recognizing communities’ rights to their land and tackling the corruption and illegalities that blight natural resource sectors.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com