GUATEMALA CITY ― Juana Ramirez Santiago was well known in her small Guatemalan town of Nebaj. The 56-year-old mother of seven was a traditional Mayan-Ixil midwife and the founder of an indigenous women’s group.
Every night she would take food to her husband, who worked late in a hardware store. On Sept. 21, she called him to say she was on her way.
She never arrived. Her body was found on a bridge just after 6 p.m., riddled with bullets.
Santiago was almost certainly assassinated because of her work as a social leader and vocal frontline defender of human rights and the environment. Though she and others in the group often received death threats, they had learned to live with them ― that is, until Santiago’s murder, which many suspected had come at the order of powerful local politicians or government officials.
Santiago’s death was just the latest in a slew of brutal and escalating violence leveled against community leaders in Guatemala. At least 20 of them have been killed there this year, 15 of them in the past four months. They include farm leaders objecting to evictions, union organisers arguing for land rights, journalists investigating murders and people protesting logging, pollution from mines and the building of hydro-dams.
No one has been charged in any of those cases, even though most of the assassinations took place in public places with many witnesses, and in some cases the police allegedly obtained incriminating evidence at the scene.
The growing violence in this Central American country and the impunity of the killers shocks Maria Marroquin. Her husband, Luis, was executed in May as he left a photocopying shop in San Luis Jilotepéque.
“A black pickup truck drew up, and they shot him in the back. Everyone knows who the killers are, but there have been no arrests,” she said. “I was warned that he would be killed but I did not take it seriously.”
Environmental human rights defenders like Santiago and Marroquin are among the thousands of people around the world who have died trying to defend their land, wildlife and natural resources from destruction, said John Knox, who served as the first United Nations rapporteur on human rights and the environment and is now a professor of international law at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
The international human rights group Global Witness, working with local partners, recorded 197 murders of environmental advocates last year. The highest numbers were in Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua and the Philippines. Fifty wildlife rangers are also believed to have been killed by poachers while defending threatened animals in African and Asian game parks, according to the International Ranger Federation, which compiles the data.
Many of those killed live in remote villages and represent indigenous communities whose lands and ways of life are threatened by dams, logging, mining or oil extraction, said Knox.
“They face a high risk of violence and death,” said Knox. “On average, every week more than three are killed somewhere in the world. Countless more are threatened and harassed. The sheer scale of this problem demands notice.”
Billy Kyte, the environmental and land defender campaign leader at Global Witness in London, expects just as many, if not more, deaths in 2018.
“If anything, the situation is getting worse,” he said.
In the past few weeks, Kyte has received verified reports of the murders of more than a dozen tribal leaders, game park rangers, landless workers and a lawyer working against a big dam.
“It’s not just murders. People in rural communities all over Latin America and Asia are being threatened, intimidated, imprisoned on trumped-up charges and harassed. Most live in remote, rural areas, far from justice and with little access to protection, documentation and reporting,” said Mike Taylor, director of the U.N.-backed International Land Coalition (ILC), a global alliance of U.N. agencies and 278 civil society and farmers’ groups.
“There is an increasing culture of impunity,” said Taylor. “Leaders everywhere are being identified, arrested, detained and criminalized. People are being evicted illegally, even if they have title to land. Hundreds are being threatened with death and many have been thrown into prison without evidence.”
The ILC spent a week in September taking evidence from four Guatemalan communities, as well as judicial and governmental bodies.
The group, which included an observer from HuffPost, estimates that just 12 percent of those murders resulted in the arrest of suspects last year. The death tolls are highest in places where economic corruption and collusion between the state and business interests are rampant, said Jim Loughran, head of the Human Rights defenders memorial project with the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders and a member of the ILC investigative team
“The killings are not random,” said Loughran. “The targeted elimination of peaceful activists defending human rights and the environment is now a global epidemic.
With its mighty forests and some of the least equal land distribution in the world, resource-rich Brazil is the deadliest country in the world for environmental and human right defenders. Pará state, in the northeast, is the epicenter of rural violence.
According to a separate count of murders by the Brazilian Pastoral Land Commission, an organization of the Catholic Church that deals with the problems of the rural poor, 70 people were killed in Brazil last year over land and environment disputes, the highest number since 2003.
In Pará state alone, where powerful investors and politicians have collaborated to evict communities from traditional lands to make way for logging, charcoal production, gold mining, soy farming and hydropower dams, there have been 21 murders, according to the Land Commission.
Among those victims was land reform leader Waldomiro Pereira, who was shot last year in broad daylight while walking near his home in the small Amazonian town of Parauapebas.
He was rushed to the hospital severely wounded. At 2 a.m. three days later, five men rode up on motorbikes, went to his bedside, and shot him dead. Grainy black and white hospital security cameras show the men seen running out of the hospital and driving off.
Anyone who opposes the business interests seeking to convert forest land for agriculture may be targeted, said Sisto Hagro, a Catholic priest who works with the Land Commission in Amapa state, which is adjacent to Para. He estimates that more than 2 million acres have been earmarked for development.
“A state-sponsored land grab is taking place,” said Hagro. “All will be turned to soya or fast-growing eucalyptus trees for export to Japan and elsewhere. People will be evicted. Violence and land disputes will.”
Claudelice Silva dos Santos, a single mother in her 30s, she came to Oxford, England, last year, to talk about continuing the conservation and education work of her brother and sister-in-law. Her brother, the Amazon conservationist Jose Claudio Ribeiro, was killed by loggers along with wife Maria do Espirito Santo in 2011.
Silva dos Santos said she now receives death threats as well. She suspects they are connected to her brother’s killers, who still go free. “I am afraid. My brother and his wife fought till the end for an ideal,” she said. “Who are we if we don’t show the same courage? It was our blood, not just theirs, that was spilled.”
Central American countries are nearly as dangerous as Brazil. In Honduras, where violent crime is rampant and the murder rate is among the highest in the world, militias working for developers regularly target community leaders and environmental defenders.
World attention was focused there in 2016 when renowned Honduran indigenous leader Berta Caceres was shot dead in her home after opposing an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River. Her murder triggered widespread condemnation. Eight men have been charged in the case, but their trial was delayed last month when lawyers representing Berta’s family requested that the three judges be replaced.
Fran Lambrick, co-founder of Not1More, a network campaigning against the ongoing murders of environmental defenders noted that those targeted are often women fighting powerful corporate and government entities.
“They commit themselves, sacrificing their time, their resources, their careers, even their freedom, to protect nature,” said Lambrick. “Yet those who protect our world face violent reprisals.”
Lambrick said countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are also becoming more dangerous for environmental activists.
“People who protest are framed as terrorists and communists. They are routinely subjected to stigmatization and smears and labelled as ‘anti-state’ and ‘anti-development,’” she said. “Police and security forces acting at the behest of corporations or their government sponsors are often the perpetrators of the murders.”
Lambrick made a film about the life and murder of Chut Wutty, a young Cambodian lawyer who was one of his country’s most prominent land and environmental activists. He was killed in 2012 while investigating the illegal rosewood trade in the Cardoman. The situation there has only gotten worse, she said.
In Thailand, human rights specialist Sutharee Wannasiri has documented how six communities have been targeted for years for opposing a large, polluting gold mine in a recent report for the watchdog group Fortify Rights. Villagers have been intimidated, imprisoned and attacked by violent militias.
“The government uses an absolute legal power to enforce policy on forest management,” said Wannasir.
The Filipino government declared Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, a U.N. rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, a “terrorist” earlier this year ― likely because of her criticism of the state’s forced relocation of communities to make way for coal mines on the island of Mindanao. The charge has since been dropped.
“The situation is getting worse, as the companies who are bent on exploiting lands of indigenous peoples have become more aggressive in terms of using the justice system to file trump up charges against those opposing them,” said Tauli-Corpuz. “I have seen this in many countries.”
The root cause of many of these conflicts is the ongoing global land rush in poor countries, said ILC director Michael Taylor. Between 2000 and 2010, companies and investors acquired an estimated 494 million acres in developing nations as part of this “land grab,” according to a 2011 study of large land appropriations in developing countries. The result, it says, has been accelerating deforestation and pollution, and escalating conflict.
Most of the land was earmarked for agriculture, though some went to mining companies and tourism ventures. Often the best land is closest to rivers and infrastructure like roads, making conflict with existing users more likely in those areas, according to the report.
Spanish economist and researcher Joan Martinez-Alier has documented over 2,100 ongoing environmental conflicts around the world, with one in 12 resulting in the deaths of environmental defenders. Each year, some 350 new conflicts are added to the database of the EU-backed Atlas of Environmental Justice. The conflicts range from violent disputes over deforestation, pollution, dams, waste and nuclear power, to sand and gravel extraction, land grabbing, fracking, fishing and mining.
Martinez-Alier observes the emergence of what she calls “the environmentalism of the poor” with many high-profile leaders of protest movements being killed. She said the murders of rubber-tapper Chico Mendes in 1988 fighting deforestation in Brazil, the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogonis in the Niger Delta fighting oil in 1995, and many others are all linked, she said.
“All the victims were poor people fighting for their communities to be allowed to keep their traditional resources,” said Martinez-Alier.
Many grassroots activists have been forced to defend themselves in the face of these escalating threats. In both Cambodia and the Philippines, forest communities now patrol their forests, confronting loggers and confiscating chainsaws and forest-clearing equipment.
Villagers from countries like Nigeria, Burma and Zambia have also appealed to courts in the United States and United Kingdom to sue mining, gas and oil companies for damage allegedly caused by their subsidiaries.
In the Amazon, Peruvian, Brazilian and Ecuadorian defenders regularly march on governments and set up blockades to prevent logging trucks, miners or oil workers entering their traditional lands.
And in June, Latin American countries adopted the Escazu agreement, which will force states and companies to better inform the communities that dams, mines and logging are likely to impact, and gives them the right to legal redress if harm is done.
There are also other global initiatives underway, including the new U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which are intended to codify environmental rights in international law.
But the reality is companies and governments still remain largely unaccountable, according to human rights groups working in the field.
“The situation is getting worse and there is no improvement on the ground. Investors need to take legal responsibility. Corporations and banks and must also be held responsible,” said Kyte, of Global Witness. “Until then, the killings will go on.”