A year after Berta Cáceres’ murder, protecting the planet is just as deadly

Killings linked to resource conflicts spark calls from international NGOs to tackle impunity
<p>There are violations of international law in relation to indigenous peoples (image: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/cidh/26236310776" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Daniel Cima/ CIDH</a>)</p>

There are violations of international law in relation to indigenous peoples (image: Daniel Cima/ CIDH)

Unlike Berta Cáceres, who was gunned down in the sleepy Honduran town of Esperanza a year ago, primary school teacher and Tolupan indigenous community leader Jose Santos Sevilla was not well-known. But his murder on Friday 17 February had chilling parallels with that of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner.

Over 120 have been murdered in the Central American country since 2010, making it the deadliest place in which to defend the environment

Like Cáceres, Santos was sleeping when he was fatally shot by masked gunmen who had broken into his home in the municipality of Orica, around 75 miles northeast of the capital Tegucigalpa. Alexander Rodriguez, the mayor of Orica and a friend of Santos, said the motive was unknown. However, other indigenous Tolupa have been killed during peaceful protests against mining and logging operations in their territory, agencies reported.

The death of Santos came just two weeks before the anniversary of Cáceres’ bloody killing on March 3, and amid a rising of tide of murders and intimidations of environmental and indigenous activists in Honduras and globally. It also follows those of Nelson García and Lesbia Yaneth of Cáceres’ indigenous rights group COPINH. In all, over 120 have been murdered in the Central American country since 2010, making it the deadliest place in which to defend the environment, a recent investigation by UK non-governmental organisation Global Witness revealed.

“We have documented widespread violations of international law regarding indigenous peoples. Most significantly companies and state actors are illegally approving mining, agribusiness and hydropower projects without consulting affected communities,” Billy Kyte, leader of the environmental and land defenders campaign at Global Witness, told Diálogo Chino.

International investors implicated

Global Witness criticises the “systematic, widespread failures” of European investors in Honduras for failing to defuse violence at the Agua Zarca dam project they supported, and which Cáceres and indigenous Lenca resisted. According to Kyte, Dutch investor FMO and Finland’s Finnfund did not condemn the intimidation of Cáceres, who received 33 public death threats prior to her murder.

FMO publicly stated its regret at Cáceres’ violent death in a statement on its website and has temporarily suspended its activities in Honduras, saying it is seeking a “responsible exit” from the project. It is yet to formally withdraw. Chinese contractor Sinohydro pulled out of the project in 2012 amid rising tensions between opponents of the dam and Desarrollos Energéticos S.A de C.V (known as DESA), the company managing the project.

In addition to private investors, big international aid donors such as the US should reassess their activities in Honduras to ensure they are not encouraging or financing industries that put activists at risk, the report says. The US State Department’s factsheet on Honduras says it is focused on strengthening democratic governance, including the promotion of human rights and the rule of law and “encourages and supports Honduran efforts to protect the environment”.

When asked by Diálogo Chino how they support environmental protection in Honduras and why efforts to improve security appear unsuccessful in stopping activist killings, a US State Department official replied by email: “Any murder, and particularly those of Human Rights Defenders or NGO activists, is a cause for great concern.” The US consistently raises human rights concerns with the Honduran government but “sustained effort and sustained political will” are required to effect a lasting change, the official said.

Yet half of the US’ annual aid to Honduras – the largest recipient of US aid in Central America – is supposed to be conditional on improvements in human rights, Kyte points out. The US also provides training for the Honduran security forces, which have been implicated in Cáceres’ murder by a report published in the Guardian.

Enterprises are expanding more aggressively into protected areas in order to protect their profits, often without consulting affected communities

Global Witness calls on the Honduran government to end the killings and “chronic impunity” by bringing the perpetrators and intellectual authors of the crimes to justice. The US must also implement human rights conditions on aid to Honduras, condemn the killings of defenders and suspend investment in industries causing the violence until activists are better protected.

Global problem

Latin America remains the world’s deadliest region in which to defend the environment but those on the frontline of land and resource-related conflicts are continually targeted all over the world by profit from environmentally destructive industries. In recent months activists have been murdered in Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines and DR Congo, among others.

Shortly after visiting Honduras last year, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights called the global pattern of activist murders an “epidemic”. The recent crash in global commodity prices has only exacerbated the problem as enterprises are expanding more aggressively into protected areas in order to protect their profits, often without consulting affected communities.

In January, another Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Isidro Baldenegro, of the indigenous Tarahumara, was shot at his home in Chihuahua, Mexico. Baldenegro had gained recognition for defending the region’s forests from devastating logging operations.

In the Philippines, environmental groups backing an environment ministry campaign to reign in heavily polluting mining operations have also found themselves in the firing line. “The killings, militarisation and other human rights violations in mining-affected areas should also be a strong basis for suspension and closure of big mines,” said Clemente Bautista, coordinator of Filipino environmental watchdog Kalikasan in a recent press release

Kalikasan puts the number of killings of environmental defenders in the Philippines at 112 in the past 15 years. Most recently on February 15, gunmen brutally assassinated environmental lawyer Mia Mascariñas-Green in front of her three children. Mascariñas-Green was well-known for her casework and had been involved in a land dispute with a local businessman.

In her last annual report, Tauli-Corpuz, said that while conservation areas continue to expand, threats against them from extractive industries, energy, and infrastructure projects are also increasing. She argues that effective conservation between indigenous and environmental groups, which can leverage their influence to demand greater protections, is of paramount importance.

“The escalating incidence of killings of indigenous environmentalists highlights the importance of conservationists and indigenous peoples joining forces,” she wrote.