Photo via RTV Honduras
Activists from Nicaragua, Colombia and Peru are clashing with government officials and corporations while attempting to protect their lands, and many are paying with their lives. These nations presently account for about 100 of the 185 murders among those protesting misappropriated land use in Latin countries. That’s a near 60 percent increase from where figures stood just last year.
“High levels of corruption in Latin America and weak rule of law means many of these projects get the green light and perpetrators of violence get away with killings,” says Global Witness campaign leader Billy Kyte. “Governments and companies are more and more brazenly killing environmental activists.”
Stories of activists murdered in Latin America have been running rampant all year. In March, the body of environmentalist Berta Caceres was discovered in Honduras. Internationally renowned for her work, Caceres had been objecting to the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River around the time of her death (the area was generally considered sacred by native peoples). While circumstances surrounding her murder suggest a botched robbery, her family believes Caceres was assassinated.
“They were waiting for the chance to get her,” her nephew Silvio Carrillo told NPR. “They were just waiting and she knew it was going to happen. We all knew, but we didn’t dissuade her because we believe in this, too.”
Occurrences like these have also proved common in Southern Asia. Living in Mindanao in the Philippines, Michelle Campos witnessed the deaths of her father and grandfather following an attack that drove nearly 3,000 people from their homes. Known for its coal, nickel and gold reserves, Mindanao is often classified as one of the most dangerous places in the world for land and environmental activists.
“We get threatened, vilified and killed for standing up to the mining companies on our land and the para-militaries that protect them,” Michelle explained. “My father, grandfather and school teacher were just three of countless victims. We know the murderers – they are still walking free in our community. We are dying and our government does nothing to help us.”
While indigenous groups are the primary victims of these attacks, their defenders face risk as well. Six members of the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua recently received death threats on their personal cell phones, warning them of the horrors they’d potentially face should they refuse to step aside.
Some countries have attempted to implement necessary changes. In Brazil, for example, where murder rates among activists are particularly high, authorities have implemented governmental protection for protestors in the Amazon following a streak of killings that occurred in 2011. This is indeed a powerful step forward, but unless neighboring countries follow suit, individual attempts are only likely to mask the problem in the long run.
“The brave women and men who risk their lives to protect the environment and rights of others should be lauded as heroes,” wrote human rights reporters of the United Nations. “Instead, the authorities typically fail to protect them, to investigate their deaths, or to punish those responsible.”