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Environmental Violence in South America, Explained.

By
Joshua Lubinsky

As climate change intensifies, hostility heightens over access to the earth’s natural resources, and a power struggle has erupted between those wanting to exploit them and those wishing to protect them. The collapse of the environment is not only violent against the natural world, but brutalises its people who are caught in the political (and literal) crossfires. 2020 saw a record-level high for the second consecutive year, with at least 227 activists being murdered, according to evidence collected by climate justice NGO Global Witness. The global environmental crisis is precipitating a surge of danger and violence directed towards environmental activists. Countries referred to as the Global South are disproportionately impacted by the ramifications of climate change, and all but one of the reported murders occurred in these regions. It’s never been more important to defend the environment, but it has also never been more dangerous.


Environmental defenders are targets of intimidation, surveillance, sexual violence and criminalisation. These dangers have emerged in a political climate that is increasingly averse to those operating on the front line.  Amnesty International reported Latin America as the most threatening region for human rights activists which includes those advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, women and those campaigning against anti-corruption. A 2019 UN Investigation also found Latin America to be the most dangerous region for journalists. This violence is overwhelmingly inflicted upon indigenous people, who constitute more than a third of all victims reported in the last five years. Indigenous people amount to approximately five percent of the global population, but the nature of their work exposes them to significant risks because of the political and monetary powers they take a stand against.


Latin America is a region abundant in natural resources. Environmental defenders are in constant conflict with loggers, petroleum workers, mining and expansive agribusiness, and organised crime mafias who all strive to dominate the land and exploit the very resources that environmentalists endeavour to protect.  Some activists have been murdered in attempts to disrupt illegal extractive practices, while others have posed a hindrance to highly profitable corporate deals and consequently been targeted as victims of hired assassins. We are talking about Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders, to those raising awareness of rampant extractive industries. We are talking about land rights activists who oppose large-scale development projects and environmental activists demanding that their communities have clean water, that their ancestral land is not being grabbed or that their forests are not being destroyed.


This is not a new phenomenon. Countries hailing from the Global North have been exploiting countries and their resources since time immemorial. Only now this form of imperialism has shifted to powerful corporations exploiting the land and resources of poorer countries that have less environmental safeguards, and are more vulnerable to corruption and instability within their governments and economies. Corporate greed is the root cause of global warming and exacerbates the climate crisis while terrorising environmental activists, indigenous groups and land defenders in its wake.


The world was horrified by the 2016 assassination of Indigenous Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres. Cáceres devoted her life’s work to anti-imperialist, feminist and environmental activism. Cáceres courageously mobilised the indigenous Lenca people and led a grassroots campaign against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the sacred Gualcarque River. The Agua Zarca Dam was a joint project of Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer. The project risked cutting off the water supply for the Lenca community, flooding large areas of their land and encroaching on their livelihood. Cáceres submitted official complaints with state agents, assembled a council where community members rejected the dam and organised a peaceful march where people called on their right to express their position on the development. The campaign also drummed up support from the international community by presenting the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and petitioning against the dam’s funders, such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank. When legal mechanisms failed to deter the construction companies, Cáceres assembled a human blockade to prevent DESA’s access to the land. The blockade was a highly effective strategy that rotated friends and family members for weeks at a time. For well over a year, the blockade resisted several eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarised security contractors as well as the Honduran armed forces. In a true David and Goliath fight, Cáceres and the Lenca community’s resistance resulted in DESA withdrawing from the plan and the IFC terminating its funding, citing concerns about human rights violations. Death threats and intimidation continued to follow Cáceres until the morning of March 3, 2016, when hitmen broke into her home in La Esperanza, Honduras and shot her dead. The murder of a high-profile figure like Cáceres was emblematic. The dam had wealthy international investors, and her activism created problems for the interests of the government and business elites - Cáceres’s death was a warning.

Berta Cáceres leads a peaceful protest Image Credit: Fivas

The organisations embroiled in the assassination included contract killers, an army major and employees of the company building the dam. The killing of Cáceres is significant as it is one of the very few cases where those responsible for the death of an environmentalist were legally prosecuted and imprisoned.  In July of this year, former manager of DESA and the man in charge of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, David Castillo, was found guilty of participating as the chief mastermind in Cáceres’s murder.  During Castillo’s trial, the court did not consider evidence that Berta’s family lawyers submitted that would implicate high-level business executives and agents of the state in ordering her murder. This emphasises Castillo as the case's scapegoat and allows the Honduran government to wash their hands of any responsibility of any corruption or misconduct. Securing justice against the Establishment is almost impossible in Honduras. Corruption and impunity are some of the glue that holds it altogether.  Like  other countries in the region, Honduras has long been a profoundly unjust and racist country. It’s long been dominated by US economic, political and military interests.  This took a turn for the worst in 2009 when there was a US and Canada backed military coup. Even though the roots of injustice go further, all of these indicators worsened significantly after the coup placed in power a military-backed government that maintains full economic, political and military relations with the governments of Canada, the US and the EU, with the World Bank and IMF, and with numerous global corporations.

David Castillo was found guilty as co-author in Cáceres’s death Image Credit: Naiz

The rare aspect of this is the international attention that’s been paid because of Berta Cáceres’ celebrity, but is far from the only one of its kind.


Guapinol is a village located in the valley of Bajo Aguán in the north of Honduras. Bajo Aguán valley’s residents have long suffered due to land and water conflicts, leaving over 150 people dead or missing. The rivers that run through Guapinol and surrounding Bajo Aguaán valley are a vital source of drinking water to communities. In 2014, without formally consulting residents, the Honduran government granted the company, Inversiones Los Pinares (ILP), permission to develop a mining project in the Carlos Escaleras National Park. The effect of mining activities and the pollution of the rivers has a crippling impact on the lives and livelihoods of people living in the surrounding areas. Guapinol residents are justifiably afraid that continued pollution by the mining project will have long-term effects on their rivers. In 2018, over a period of several months, the water supply that the communities are dependent on was too insanitary for consumption and unsuitable for domestic purposes. In 2020, The Guapinol Resiste reported that approximately 14,000 people were negatively affected by pollution in the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers caused by the construction of roads related to the mining project.

In opposition to the extractive project, communities in Guapinol and San Pedro mobilised and organised a series of protests in defence of their land. They also established the Municipal Committee in Defence of Common and Public Goods in 2015 which comprises several local organisations dedicated to defending environmental and human rights of its people. The government has suppressed activists in Tocoa using severe measures and enforcing violence by the police and paramilitary groups employed by ILP. ILP are the largest landowner in Honduras and can rely on the support of the military and the government as they wield their financial power.  The Honduran state is stifling the voices of environmental defenders by throwing them in jail on baseless accusations. These charges range from illegal land seizures and aggravated robbery, arson, and illegal associations. There are currently 8 land defenders who have been in prison for more than a year.

Nicaragua

2020 saw Nicaragua become the most dangerous country for land and environmental defenders, with 12 murders per capita. The battle between land invaders wishing to exploit natural resources and Indigenous communities, who have lived on the land for centuries, has been intensifying for almost a decade. Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognised site for its ecological significance and home to the Indigenous Miskitu and Mayangna people, has been terrorised by paramilitary groups demanding access to the reserve’s natural resources. The heavily armed group, referred to as the Kukalon, are responsible for murdering the reserve’s people, raping women and forcibly displacing its communities. In August of this year, another attack within the reserve murdering at least a dozen indigenous people was believed to be committed by the same group. The pillaging of Bosawas is believed to be for the purpose of large-scale mining. According to Nicaraguan law, the mining industry is required to pay a 10% tax to the government. So in return for their silence and complicity, the state is rewarded financially.  The non-intervention in humans rights abuses by President Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian government has only served to escalate the brutal attacks on land defenders as invaders are encouraged by the exemption from punishment

Devastating impact of deforestation in Bosawas Biosphere Reserve

Colombia

For the second consecutive year, the highest number of murders took place in Colombia, with a horrifying 65 land and environmental defenders murdered. This growing figure symbolises that the Colombian state is doing little to mitigate the rampant violence against human rights activists and community leaders across the country who are defending natural resources including land, rivers and forests. According to a special report by the UN Human Rights Council, almost 90 percent of murders of human rights activists in the country do not lead to a conviction, which is a strong indicator of the country’s compromised justice system.  Afro-Colombian comprise roughly 10% of Colombia’s population, while Indigenous people only make up around 4.4%. Yet these communities were overwhelmingly victimised according to a 2018 census, with a third of attacks targeting them. Colombia has been plagued by decades of violent internal conflict. The 2016 Peace Agreement was intended to signify a resolution to the bloodshed and usher in a new era, with some of the best defence mechanisms to protect indigenous leaders and social activists coming into legislation. The problem is that the proposed safeguarding is not being exercised and protection measures in place by the government are limited and ineffective. The hope that the peace process once symbolised is now dwindling, while paramilitaries and other armed groups are gaining momentum and acquiring more territorial control. During the height of the pandemic last year, social gatherings including protests were banned, but controversial extraction and development projects such as mining were authorised to continue. Emergency pandemic laws, enforced to curb the transmission of COVID-19, were weaponised against environmental defenders and human rights campaigners. Restrictions on movement kept activists stationed in one place, making it easier for them to be located and surveilled, and subsequently easier to be targeted and murdered in their own homes.

Yolanda Maturana was known for her work denouncing illegal mining and pollution of water sources.

Javier Francisco Parra, 47, was shot on December 3, 2020. He known in the area for his campaigning of the ecosystems of the municipality and he became a true promoter and defender of natural resources.

Cristina Bautista was a community leader of the Paez/Nasa people. Bautista dedicated her life to defending indigenous peoples' lands, and fighting for indigenous women's right.

Mexico

In Mexico, 30 lethal attacks against land and environmental defenders were recorded, with a 67% increase from 2019 according to the Global Witness report.  Half of the violence impacted indigenous communities — and exemption from punishment for crimes committed against defenders is disturbingly high, with up to 95% of murders not leading to legal action.  In September 2020, Indigenous Mexican human rights leader Oscar Eyraud Adams was assassinated in his hometown of Tecate, Baja California. A member of the Kumeyaay indigenous group, Eyraud had a long history of activism, fighting for environmental justice and recognition for his community’s rights to self-determination and autonomy. Driven by the region’s scorching heat and scarcity of water, one of Eyraud’s campaigns was fighting for the access to water and promoting solutions for its preservation. The Kumeyaay have been negatively impacted by the expropriation of the region’s water resources by transnational liquor companies such as Heineken. Eyraud demanded that control of the water supply should be placed back in the hands of indigenous communities in order to irrigate their crops and ensure food security. Eyraud was vehemently against the development of the Constellation Brands brewery, which would use about 1.8 billion gallons a year for their production. By defending the right to water and voicing his opposition to mega projects, Eyraud spotlighted much needed visibility on extraction in the region. Unfortunately his bravery is what got him killed.


By courtesy of Global Witness, video footage provided of community members in Tecate and family members of the late Oscar Eyraud Adams being interviewed following his murder.

Brazil

Another target has been placed on the heads of the Guardians of the Forest, a group of volunteers from the Guajajara tribe in Brazil, who fight against illicit logging by gangs extracting the hardwoods in their homeland of the Arariboia indigenous territory. At least five members of the Guajajara tribe have been executed in the last few years, including the November 2019 assassination of prominent indigenous leader, Paulo Paulino Guajarara.

The late Paulo Paulino Guajarara Image Credit: Green Peace

Brazil’s populist President Jair Bolsonaro has set a dangerous precedent through his ardent support of the industrial farming and logging complex in the region, which have been a key factor in the rapid deforestation of Brazil’s Amazon, whose ecological network is paramount in combating climate change. Drastically reducing state expenditure on Brazil’s environmental agency, Bolsonaro has garnered strong condemnation from both the domestic and international community. Not only have his policies failed to protect the rights of environmental defenders and local indigenous groups, but sought to subvert their influence while incentivising vigilantes to take over land in the Amazon. Throughout his career, Bolsonaro has made racist comments about indigenous people and embarked on a smear-campaign intended to compromise the work of environmentalists, while vilifying them in the public perception as troublemakers or criminals. This narrative has far-reaching consequences for environmentalist and indigenous groups by blaming them for preventing the economic development of society, and can even determine whether they receive international funding.  It also evokes a white-supremacist trope of indigenous communities as primitive people with no place in the modern world.

Brazil’s indigenous community resist Bolsonaro Image Credit: EcoWatch

Image Credit: CAFOD

The Escazú Agreement

The Escazú Agreement is a groundbreaking treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean that reinforces the connection between human rights and environmental protection. In essence, it’s a legal mechanism that promotes better governance of natural resources, aims to ensure transparent access to environmental information, encourage public participation in decision-making concerning environmental issues, and provide measures to fortify justice in environmental matters. It is also the first treat of-its-kind that explicitly offers protection for environmental defenders and pledges to respect the rights of indigenous communities. Negotiations have been a long process, but sped up in 2016 after the widespread outrage caused by the assassination of Berta Cáceres. The Escazú Agreement establishes a powerful precedent in providing comprehensive legal action to safeguard environmental defenders, but its implementation is not without fault. Two of the biggest countries of activist deaths in Latin America, Brazil and Colombia, are yet to enforce the treaty, while Chile has refused it altogether. Human rights and environmental activists have praised the treaty as a weapon to hold governments accountable, but like many international agreements, its success depends on the political will of the countries associated with it.


The persecution of environmental defenders on the front line is a global issue. There needs to be far more visibility of these situations at an international level and far more outrage.  Journalism can indeed help draw attention to grass-root struggles, but the need to establish North-South global solidarity has never been more vital. We as the global community can support this work from different positions. One way is calling attention to reports of violations and taking them to international human rights organisations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and various UN agencies.  Not only is it imperative for these forums to ensure that their body of laws are enforced by states, but to have them present and operating on the ground in areas of environmental conflict providing legal assistance and rapid support to defenders. There has also never been a greater need for establishment of international criminal courts focused specifically around environmental justice. Ending the culture of impunity is integral to stop the flow of blood.  


The system that persecutes indigenous communities and environmental defenders is made possible by international funding, which is key to large-scale extractive projects.  The private sector needs to stop separating human rights from the economy. Large corporations have a huge responsibility in ensuring that their supply chains are free of the bloodshed of environmental activists and indigenous people. Consumerist culture of the Global North needs to engage in processes whereby companies manufacturing the products we purchase are appraised with due diligence and sanctioning measures are applied accordingly when they have failed to do so. Companies and investors should take action in support of human rights defenders and the communities suffering human rights violations. Global Witness and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Investor Alliance for Human Rights, and International Service for Human Rights have launched two joint briefings detailing how companies and investors should take action in support of human rights defenders.


We all want to survive on a liveable planet. We all want to breathe unpolluted oxygen and have access to uncontaminated water. Environmentalists and land defenders are the first line of protection against climate breakdown. The devastating irony is that those who are doing the most to protect our planet are the ones who are being the least protected.  In many cases, people who are defending the natural environment are doing so for their own survival and do not even recognise the monumental role they have in defending human rights. Even with the escalating violence and murder of human rights defenders, people are still continuing to stand up for their land. They are risking their lives in an increasingly dangerously war against morally governments and non-state actors who hold a disproportionate amount of power.  


As we envision a more sustainable world in the future, a world that protects its most vulnerable people and resources, we cannot forget those who have dedicated their entire lives – at severe danger to themselves and their families – to do just that.

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