The deadly price of environmental activism

Deutsche Welle
8 Min Read

Since the start of this year in Guatemala, nine activists opposing megaprojects have been killed, a recent report says. Green activists in Latin America and Asia continue to pay for resistance with their lives.
Nine activists have been killed since the beginning of 2015 in Guatemala, mainly in indigenous communities opposed to infrastructure and mining projects, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) reported last week. Another 337 attacks against human rights and environmental activists in Guatemala were also reported for 2015. The report indicated that especially since ex-military Otto Perez came into power in 2012, more violence has been registered against such activists.

Delfina Mux Cana, director of the support program for indigenous communities from the non-governmental organization IBIS in Guatemala, told DW that these violent episodes are ongoing, and are all clearly linked to extractive activities.

“The only means indigenous groups have to protect their rights are international mechanisms, because local governments don’t support our protests,” said Cana. As a result, native people turn to defend their lands and rights – which then makes them targets.

Cana sees existing laws to protect native communities and activists as only theoretical. “In practice, the opposition is being either oppressed or murdered,” she said.

Appetite for destruction

Increasing global demand for products like beef, soy, timber and oil has been leading to development of new territory. And human rights groups are noting that ever more often, companies are striking deals with state officials without consulting local communities.

Arlen Ribeira, manager of COICA (Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon) described to DW how various megaprojects are taking place in the Amazon region, directly affecting indigenous communities that depend entirely on that land.

Those communities, Ribeira said, only realize what is happening when they are surrounded by bulldozers. Their subsequent resistance is met by state military forces, as well as paramilitary forces formed around oil, timber and mining business – both legal and illegal.

Indigenous leaders have been sued and legally condemned for trying to defend their rights from powerful companies, said Ribeira. “The state is not doing enough to protect us,” he added.

Guatemalan human rights commissioner, Jorge Eduardo De Leon, agreed that human rights and environmental activism in Guatemala has become more high-risk. “The government of Guatemala has failed in protecting the lives and integrity of the activists, especially those involved in protests against energy and mining megaprojects,” De Leon said in a statement.

He also pointed out that the attacks not only target activists, but also the public employees investigating those cases – and this slows down investigation. “The government contributes not only to the impunity, but also discredits the work of the activists by accusing them of being linked with illegal groups,” concluded De Leon.

New Wild West

According to the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of the International Labor Organization, indigenous populations have the right to preserve their traditions, and governments must protect these from being eroded by modernization.

They should also maintain rights over the territories they occupy and use, and be involved in any economic activity that can affect them. Any logging, agribusiness or mining should be previously consulted and consented by the native community, the treaty says.

The agreement, although it represents the major international binding convention on indigenous peoples, remains out of reach to most indigenous communities on the ground – due also to nebulous land title claims.

In Paraguay, for example, the government is selling territories traditionally inhabited by indigenous groups to ranchers who cut down the rainforest to graze cattle, forcing the natives ever deeper into the forest. The group Gente, Ambiente y Territorio (GAT) reported that more than 10,100 hectares of ancestral territories have been destroyed by Yaguarete Pora, a Brazilian company.

In response to ongoing deforestation there, the Ayoreo Cuyabia indigenous community seized a digger that was conducting logging activities in their territory – an area rich in flora and fauna.

According to rights groups, in early August 2015, ranchers, members of the military and policemen contacted the community’s leader, threatening them with force if they did not return the machine. Paramilitary groups have also reportedly sought to intimidate the indigenous by shooting into the air, said Maximiliano Mendieta, the community’s lawyer.

A deadly report

The report How many more?, published by the international organization Global Witness in March 2015, reflects how violence against environmental activists – though a worldwide problem – is particularly severe in Latin America and Asia Pacific regions.

Between 2002 and 2013, 908 environmentalists were murdered in 35 countries for reasons related to their activism. But 99 percent of the cases remain in a state of impunity: only 10 perpetrators have been sentenced in the same period of time.

The number of murders registered has been based on official sources and cases where the victims have been fully identified and clearly linked to a violent death due to their environmental activism. Thus, actual figures are estimated to be higher, as many deaths have not been officially reported, especially in African and Central Asian countries.

Brazil is considered to be the most dangerous place for green activism, with 29 environmentalists killed in 2014 alone. Colombia is in second place, with 25 cases in the same year. However, Honduras is the country with the highest number of activist murders per capita, with 12 violent deaths reported in 2014.

Indigenous groups are also particularly hard hit, representing 40 percent of total victims.

Responsible consumption, political will

As consumption drives industrial production deeper into undeveloped areas, conflicts for natural resources are becoming more intense. Global Witness urges responsible consumption and better information on the products consumers buy.

In Norway, for example, strict labeling requirements combined with an educational campaign on palm oil – which is driving deforestation in many regions – has resulted in a reduction of consumption of that product by nearly two-thirds from 2011 to 2012.

Both Cana and Ribeira emphasized how the lack of government accountability can be traced back to a lack of will to prosecute violence against activists.

Precisely as the world’s attention will be centered on the most important climate change negotiations in recent years – the UN conference to be held in Paris at the end of this year – critics point out a serious problem: the very people who fight to protect the environment are lack legal protections, and their voices are being systematically silenced.

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