4 environmental rights issues to follow in Latin America

The blue-and-yellow macaw is native to the Amazon rainforest, a vast region of incredible biodiversity that is threatened by a rising rate of deforestation. (Credit: Steve Wilson/Flickr)

In Latin America, advocating for environmental rights is more critical than ever. Resource-rich lands and waters across the region are increasingly exploited in the form of logging, ranching, agricultural and mining operations to meet the soaring demand for raw exports like oil and timber in the north. Sometimes, these activities drive industrialization onto land without the consent of local communities, who are forced to become advocates for the preservation of their land and their own welfare.

Unfortunately, Latin America is also one of the most dangerous regions in the world for environmental activists. According to Global Witness, 60 percent of killings of the world’s environmental activists last year occurred in Latin America. In Brazil, 50 environmental defenders were killed – the world’s highest death toll.

Humanosphere has selected four of Latin America’s most pressing environmental issues that these brave activists fight for on a daily basis.

1. Deforestation in the Amazon

In the early 2000s, Brazil managed to drastically reduce forest clearances in the Amazon rainforest, but the rate of deforestation now appears to be rising again. The rapid loss of forest is in large part to make room for new dams, roads and other infrastructure projects. These projects pose a threat to climate change, native species of plants and animals, and local indigenous peoples, many of which have become advocates for protecting their regions’ ecosystems, water quality and the livelihoods of their communities.

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Indigenous groups have long advocated for the preservation of the forest through protests, legal battles with the government and even new technologies. The largest Amazonian nation, Brazil, is doing its part to save the rainforest by placing restrictions on cattle ranching and other industries, satellite monitoring of deforestation zones and international government partnerships.

2. Palm oil production

Companies that cultivate palm oil – a cheap edible oil with high global demand – are routinely accused of failing to use sustainable practices in Latin America and worldwide. The clearing of land and forests to make room for palm oil plantations has been linked to a host of environmental issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and displacing entire communities.

Last year, a palm oil company was also formally accused of violating human rights, leading to a revolutionary ruling of ‘ecocide’ in Guatemala. A coalition of public entities effectively sued the company for the consequent fish die-off in La Pasión river and its effects on more than 22,000 people living in the region, but the victory was tainted by the murder of 28-year-old environmental activist Rigoberto Lima.

3. Hydroelectric dams

Protesters against the construction of the controversial Belo Monte Dam on Brazil's Xingu River, in 2011. Earlier this month, a Brazilian judge suspended the dam's operating license for failing to provide required water and sewage services to local communities. (Credit: Guima San/Flickr)

Protesters against the construction of the controversial Belo Monte Dam on Brazil’s Xingu River, in 2011. Earlier this month, a Brazilian judge suspended the dam’s operating license for failing to provide required water and sewage services to local communities. (Credit: Guima San/Flickr)

Hydroelectric dams are effective ways to meet the energy and water needs of areas across Latin America, but some dams do more harm than good. In cases of poor planning and failure to communicate with local communities, dams have displaced indigenous groups, endangered species of fish and other animals and flooded forests and farmlands.

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Perhaps the most famous recent example is that of an internationally financed dam project on the River Gualcarque in Honduras, which a local indigenous group said would compromise their access to water, food and medicine and threaten their traditional way of life. Honduran environmental activist and indigenous leader Berta Caceres was killed in her home after protesting its construction, and investors eventually pulled out of the project. Honduras remains the fourth-most-dangerous country for environmental activists, with 12 recorded deaths in 2014.

4. Illegal mining

Illegal mining operations, particularly of gold and copper, are contentious and widespread across the region. Gold mining in Peru – one of the top producers worldwide – has been associated with a number of environmental abuses, including the destruction of forests and riverbanks and the contamination of rivers, fish and people by mercury and cyanide.

Mining operations are also closely linked to human rights abuses, such as forced labor and sexual exploitation of minors. Nineteen percent of the indigenous territories in Latin America are subject to legal or illegal mining, according to the World Bank, and the majority of that 19 percent are formally recognized indigenous lands.

Seeing as illegal gold exports make for an estimated $2.6 billion annually, economic incentives remain an enormous barrier for change.

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About Author

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 or email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.