International Collaboration Reports on Violence against Environmental Activists

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August 9, 2016; Center for International Environmental Law

Worldwide, according to UK-based NGO Global Witness, in 2015 there were 185 individuals killed in 16 countries while defending their land, forests, and rivers against industrial encroachment. At the top of the list were Brazil (50 killings), the Philippines (33), and Colombia (26). Global Witness recounts, “Conflicts over mining were the number one cause of killings in 2015, with agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and logging also key drivers of violence. In 2015, almost 40 percent of victims were from indigenous groups.”

This month, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), British NGO Article 19, and Vermont Law School published a new report, “Deadly Shade of Green,” which documents the extent of the threat in Latin America. For environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs), the dire situation in the region has been created in good part by the lack of effective guarantees of human rights protection. This has been worsened by the weak rule of law in most Latin American countries, by worrying trends of impunity that corrode the fabric of society, and by the fact that environmental movements usually concern major development projects involving powerful governmental and corporate interests.

Though not exhaustive, “Deadly Shade of Green” cites recent incidents throughout Latin America covering human rights violations against EHRDs, violent attacks, torture, disappearances, and murder. Indigenous peoples are too often most at risk and according to the report comprise more than 40 percent of the deaths. This is because so many extraction and development projects are located on their land.

The persistent human rights violations targeting EHRDs are caused by resource exploitation, and increasing numbers of large-scale and mega-development projects in Latin American countries. For example, Honduras currently has 837 mining concessions, of which 411 have already been granted covering an area of 6,630 km. In Colombia, coal extraction between 2000 and 2010 nearly doubled and the number of mining concessions has similarly maintained an accelerated pace. This has resulted in a substantial increase in attacks across the region. According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA, in the decade between 2000 and 2010, 118 environmental human rights defenders in Guatemala were murdered and over 2,000 assaults occurred against groups of protesters.

Global Witness, too, has done exhaustive research on violence against environmental defenders, and their report “On Dangerous Ground reveals a surge in killings of those opposing hydroelectric projects, mainly in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. And researchers find little or no meaningful consultation with affected communities opposing the displacement of their villages and disruption of their farming.

On the subject of freedom of expression and access to information, the CIEL report examines how countries in the region wield anti-terrorism legislation and libel threats against activists opposing corporate interests (as well as governmental interests, which are often tied in closely to development projects). It looks at how even the rights to freedom of assembly and association are threatened when governments limit where protests can take place and have the last word on which NGOs are recognized and funded.

The report also offers a list of recommendations to governments, developers, financial institutions, businesses, and NGOs calling for unhindered security for EHRDs operating throughout the region.

When compared to the context in which we take for granted the rights of environmentalists in the United States, the recommendations are almost painful to read. They include things such as ensuring a safe and unhindered environment for EHRDs and the right of environmentalists to receive sufficient advance notice on projects so that they can take part in environmental impact assessments and public hearings. They call on governmental authorities to not subject environmental defenders to detention or imprisonment for “peacefully voicing their opinions…or for simply disseminating information to the public,” and ask that environmentalists not be subject to “intimidating actions…unlawful surveillance…[and] unreasonable restrictions.” Latin American and Caribbean countries are currently working on a binding legal requirement to ensure effective recognition and enforcement of these basic human rights.

One of the most publicized incidents of violence against environmental activists was the assassination of Berta Cáceres in Honduras in March. In an August 17 article in the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer points out that in the five months since her death, two more members of the group she led, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), have also been killed.

The relentlessness of the killings in Honduras has raised questions about how deeply the Honduran state is involved in, and responsible for, the violence. For U.S. policymakers, the death toll has also spurred a debate about whether the U.S. should cut off military aid to the regime of President Juan Orlando Hernández. Since 2009, when a military coup brought the key players in Honduras’s right-wing government to power, the U.S. has given the country two hundred million dollars in police and military aid. The money was intended to help Honduran officials combat organized crime, which—it was hoped—would lower the number of Honduran migrants heading to the United States to escape violence. But, instead, the money has served to prop up a government that has increasingly used state security forces to repress dissent.

The Honduran government has arrested five men in connection with the murder, two of whom worked for the development company (Desarrollos Energéticos, or DESA), against which Cáceres was organizing opposition on behalf of the indigenous community, Lenca. But Blitzer’s article reveals disturbing allegations about the role of the Honduran government and military themselves in the crime, as well as their ongoing ties to DESA. Maria Luisa Borjas, the former inspector general of the Honduran National Police whom Blitzer interviewed, alleges, “In this case, military officers, the material authors of the murder, were used to eliminate the obstacle that Berta Cáceres posed to [DESA].”

The U.S., along with environmental and human rights activists worldwide, are putting pressure on Honduras to bring Cáceres’ killers to justice, and a bill in Congress—the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act—has been introduced to withhold U.S. funds from Honduran police and military until human rights violations are addressed and the Honduran government pursues investigations into crimes against environmental, labor and human rights activists.

As Global Voices points out, the bill is not without controversy. The Honduran government warns that adopting the law will damage its bilateral relations with the U.S. and weaken efforts to stem drug trafficking. But others are embracing the law, including Laura Zúñiga, one of Berta Cáceres’ daughters, who met with activists at the DNC in Philadelphia to make an impassioned plea for their support.

In Latin America, today, they are plundering the land, they’re destroying the forests, they are poisoning our rivers in order to sustain consumption here in the United States. And to sustain that consumption, to displace us from our lands, they need the strength of the violence. The violence in Honduras is represented by the military and by the police. So we are here to ask—to demand—that they immediately cut off the financing to the military and the police who are killing us.

To be sure, the question of continued U.S. aid is but one piece of the puzzle. Of far greater impact, monetarily, are lenders investing directly in the disputed projects. Institutions such as the World Bank, for example, lent $50 billion worldwide between 2009 and 2013 to projects ranked as having a high risk for causing “irreversible or unprecedented” impacts to communities or the environment, according to an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Within Latin America, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s independent lending arm, has been linked to controversial projects and “complaints in Honduras and elsewhere that it has funneled money to companies involved in land grabs and human rights abuses.”

As we reported here in March, some lending institutions are pulling back from supporting continued projects in Honduras until the violence and assassinations come to an end. Following the death of Cáceres, the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO) suspended all of its activities in the country and FinnFund, another major financier, withdrew its support of the Agua Zarca dam project that Cáceres had been fighting. However, as Sarah S. Forth reported in June, “the Agua Zarca hydro plant may yet be built. The Atala family, which controls the DESA board of directors, also owns Grupo Financiero Ficohsa, one of Honduras’s largest banks.”—Patricia Schaefer