When the saving the environment becomes a human rights' battlefield

After internationally renown environmentalist Berta Cáceres was murdered 2 March 2016 in Honduras the debate on activists safety is back on the table.

Environment has slowly become a new arena for human rights. The demand for natural resources and land for industrialization purposes has increased in the last decades, creating a clear conflict between economic interests and environmentalists. More so, its common for governments to reach deals with companies   without local community's support.

According to Global Witness' 'How many more' report released in 2014 and updated last January, Central and South America account the highest number of environmental activists' deaths. More than 3/4 of its total (88 out of 116 reported in 2014). The organization says numbers are likely to be higher, but the lack of data collection makes the real figure uncertain. Countries which registered more killings were Brazil, Colombia, Philippines and Honduras.

The reasons for this murders (116) are all related to land disputes and differ in specific activities such as: mining and extraction (25); water and dams (14); agribusiness (14) and logging(10).

Honduras is known to be the most dangerous country for environmental activists with the highest number of deaths in the last 5 years. Berta Caceres, 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, died protecting indigenous Lenca land  against the Agua Zarca dam project, she had received multiple threats after in recent weeks the construction had restarted.

Perpetrators are unlikely to be processed, high impunity rates are frequent, with just over 1% of them being convicted, states another Global Witness' report. They also trace violence to large landowners, political agents, business and crime organization's interests.

China's investments in Latin America are also related to economy's battle against environment. According to a CEPAL's document China has approximately invested $10 million per year since 2010 in Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil and Peru received the largest direct investment with $6,066 million and $1,306 million in 2012.

Extractive industries received most capital, almost 90% of all investments. This is relevant as Chinese owned companies have been related to several disagreements between locals and their governments. For example, Agua Zarca dam project, which Cáceres fought against, is being developed by a Chinese company.

Another example is 'Las Bambas' copper mine, in Peru. The excavation "was supposed to be the poster child for responsibility in new mining", says Cynthia Sanborn, vice president for research at the University of the Pacific in Lima.

Protests against this Chinese mine here were the cause of Beto Chahuayllo's death in September 2015, who died after police clash in Challhuahuacho, a town at the foot of the mine. Chahuayllo was a representative of his village in meetings with mine officers and the government. Concern over pollution affecting local farming and fishing kept him participating and brought him closer to mine workers, with whom he protested just before his death. Scenarios like this are common in the region, but they don't usually get media coverage. 

Berta Cáceres murder, on the other hand was globally rejected. More than 50 organizations along with Global Witness wrote a letter directed to Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernández expressing their outrage. They demanded the government "to ensure indigenous peoples’ right to their land is respected and that they are able to carry out their legitimate work without fear for their safety."

Goldman Environmental Foundation's president, John Goldman, stated: “she [Berta] built an incredible community of grassroots activists in Honduras, who will carry on the campaign she fought and died for".

It is only a matter of time for Latin Americans to realize which lessons we've learned from the activists who've lost their lives and their drive to protect our environment, natural resources and local communities interests.

LatinAmerican Post |

María Andrea Marquez

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