Stop The Murder Of Environmental Defenders In Latin America

Hundreds of environmental activists have been killed all throughout Latin America as the world largely remains silent.
05/10/2017 06:46 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2017
Berta Cáceres. Credit, Goldman Environmental Foundation
Berta Cáceres. Credit, Goldman Environmental Foundation

The Murder of Berta Cáceres

In March 2016, I went to Mexico to receive the Mayahuel Award for human rights and environmental work at the Guadelajara International Film Festival. During my visit I learned that Berta Cáceres, environmental campaigner and head of the indigenous rights group Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous organizations of Honduras (COPINH), had been brutally murdered At around 11.30 pm on March 2nd gunmen broke into her home in La Esperanza, Honduras and shot her. I was shocked and deeply saddened.

When I accepted the Mayahuel Award, on March 12th I dedicated it to Berta Cáceres and those who struggle for the preservation of the earth and its people, to those standing up against the environmental devastation caused by the mega-extractive industries in Latin America and throughout the world.

Berta’s life was a symbol of unwavering courage and commitment to the defense of human rights and the protection of the environment. Her death was part of an epidemic of unconscionable murders of environmental defenders in Latin America. She was the 2015 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize – a prestigious award recognizing grassroots environmental activists from around the world.

Bianca Jagger receiving the Mayahuel Award from Ivan Trujillo at the  Guadelajara International Film Festival
Bianca Jagger receiving the Mayahuel Award from Ivan Trujillo at the Guadelajara International Film Festival

Over the years leading up to her murder, Berta Cáceres received many death threats and survived several attempted kidnappings because of her work defending indigenous Lenca land against the Agua Zarca dam project in Río Blanco. The intimidation had escalated since construction of the dam had resumed. Berta Cáceres received 33 death threats during the three weeks preceding her death. Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto who was with Berta on the night of her murder was also wounded in the attack. He told Amnesty International, ‘It was clear that she was going to be killed.’

Berta Cáceres’s murder sounded alarm bells among environmentalists throughout the world. I signed the Global Witness letter on behalf of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, alongside fifty other international organizations. I wrote a personal letter to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. I said, I urge you to allow an internationally led independent investigation into Berta Cáceres murder. I also urged Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to protect activist Gustavo Castro Soto, the sole survivor of the attack on Berta, who was unjustifiably detained by the Honduran authorities and prevented from returning to his country. US Senator Barbara Boxer wrote a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry urging for better protection of environmental defenders in Honduras.

Investigations into Berta Cáceres murder have yielded troubling results. An independent inquiry by the Guardian newspaper revealed that the assassination was ‘extrajudicial killing planned by military intelligence specialists linked to the country’s US–trained special forces.’ Last year, the Guardian reported that a former Honduran soldier said he had seen Cáceres’s name on a hitlist that was passed to US-trained units. Eight men have been arrested in connection with the murder, including one serving and two retired military officers. ‘First Seargent Rodrigo Cruz, a former solider, said that two elite units had been given lists featuring the names and photographs of activists. They were ordered to eliminate each target. Cruz’s unit commander deserted rather than comply with the order. The rest of the unit were then sent on leave.’ Officials have denied any state involvement. Berta Cáceres’s murder prompted a global outcry and increased pressure from the international community for the US to withdraw military aid to Honduras. So far, to no avail.

Berta’s execution was a tragedy, a great loss to her loved ones, a blow to environmental protection in Honduras and an appalling crime for which there has been no justice. But it is far from unique. The murder of environmental defenders has become a human rights crisis.

The Murder Epidemic

In January and February 2017 alone, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) learned of 14 murders of human rights defenders: seven in Colombia, two in Guatemala, two in Mexico, and three in Nicaragua. During 2016 alone 281 activists across the world were murdered for their cause. Half of these were protecting land, indigenous rights or environmental rights. A further 185 environmental defenders were killed in 2015, the worst year on record; a death toll more than double that of journalists worldwide according to Global Witness and the World Resources Institute.

Brazil is the most dangerous country for environmental defenders ― 50 were murdered there during 2015. The Philippines took the dubious honour of second place with 33 activists killed and 26 murders were committed in Columbia during the same year, placing it third on the list.

Honduras

Berta Carceres’ murder is one of a long line of horrific killings in Honduras. Since 2010 more than 120 environmental campaigners have been killed in Honduras alone; the largest number of killings of environmental defenders per capita of any country in the world.

In the early hours of 22 October 2015 a group of
 thirty heavily-armed soldiers, police and civilians forced their way into Ana Miriam Romero’s home, drew their guns 
and beat her and her sister-in-law Rosaura. Both women were heavily pregnant at the time. Ana Miriam spent 11 
days in hospital recovering. Her unborn child survived, but Rosaura lost her baby.

Ana Miriam Romero was the 2016 recipient of the Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. She had taken a stand against the illegal construction of the Los Encinos hydroelectric dam on her community’s land. The dam project was controlled by the husband of Gladis Aurora Lopez, President of the ruling National Party. Romero was not the first environmental defender who opposed the dam to meet with violence. Three other indigenous activists had been killed. One man was found dismembered on the bank of the Chinacla River and the body of another, Juan Francisco Martínez, was found with burns across his body and his hands bound with laces from military boots. He had suffered death threats since the murder of his son in 2014. Since reporting the attack against her, Ana Miriam has again been threatened by gunmen, and in January 2016 she lost almost all of her family’s belongings in an arson attack on her home.

As Honduras’ biggest aid donor, the US wields significant influence over the country’s policies. In 2016, it contributed US$100 million in bilateral aid, which could be a huge boost to fighting poverty in a country which suffers the highest levels of inequality in the whole of Latin America. But tens of millions of aid dollars were directed to the police and military, both of which are heavily implicated in violence against land and environmental activists.

Meanwhile, the US continues to pump money into Honduran industry, despite concerns raised in Congress about the country’s dubious human rights record. The US embassy has been promoting ramped-up investment in Honduras’ extractive industries, for instance, with US mining giant Electrum already planning a US$1 billion investment.

Historically, many governments in Latin America have been weakening the legal protections for the forest and the land for years. The role of environmental campaigners is becoming more and more important, which means that the risks to their lives increase. Communities, indigenous people and their lands are under siege from some governments, mining, drilling, dams, logging and development. Instead of being empowered to use their ecological wisdom and understanding to protect and restore the rain forests, indigenous people face systematic human rights violations: persecution, murder and abuse.

Chico Mendes and Brazil

The murder of Chico Mendes in 1988 first drew the attention of the international community to the assassinations of human rights and environmental defenders in Latin America.

Nearly thirty years ago, a few days before Christmas 1988, Chico Mendes, leader of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) was shot dead in his home in the village of Xapuri, in the state of Acre in the western Brazilian Amazon. The policemen who had been assigned to guard him were playing cards at the kitchen table at the time. His murderer, a rancher named Darcy Alves da Silva, later said that murdering Mendes was just like ‘shooting a jaguar.’

Chico Mendes was 44 years old when he died. He was a rubber tapper, one of about 2,000 people who make a living collecting latex, nuts, resins, and fruits, sustainably harvesting the products of the Amazon forest, The rubber tappers’ movement led by Chico Mendes developed a proposal for ‘Extractive Reserves’, an innovative model for combining forest protection and sustainable management of natural resources, based on recognition of community land rights.

Marcio Thomaz Bastos, the chief prosecutor Darcy Alves da Silva’s trial, told the Associated Press: “This is a historic trial not only for Brazil, but the world. In Brazil, it is a test case against reckless lawlessness, and for the world, a marker of whether or not man will allow the Amazon to be destroyed.”

Brazil remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for land rights activists, with 61 killings last year, the highest level since 2003, (according to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Brazilian advocacy group.) Less than two months ago, on March 2oth, 2017, Waldomiro Costa Pereira, who like Chico Mendes was part of the MST, was recovering from an assassination attempt in a rural hospital in the state of Para. Five armed men stormed the hospital, surrounded his security guards, and then shot him.

On the 1st of May 2017 Brazilian farmers attacked the indigenous Gamela community with machetes and rifles, severing hands and feet and hospitalising thirteen people.

Conflicts over territory are common in Brazil where 1% of the population owns nearly half of the nation’s land, according to a 2016 study from the University of Windsor in Canada. Amnesty International states in their 2016 report that ‘Attacks, threats and killings targeting human rights defenders increased compared to 2015.’ At least 47 defenders were killed in Brazil between January and September 2016 – including small-scale farmers, peasants, rural workers, Indigenous Peoples including quilombola communities, fisherfolk, riverside dwellers and lawyers – in their fight for access to land and natural resources. ‘Killings, threats and attacks against human rights defenders were rarely investigated and remained largely unpunished.’

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz has denounced Brazil’s failure to demarcate or uphold demarcation of indigenous land in accordance with the Constitution, and the undermining of state institutions charged with protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Brazil’s 1988 constitution recognises that the Indians have an ‘Original’ and inalienable right to occupy and use their traditional lands. If it can be shown that the tribe historically occupied and used that area of land, it is theirs by right - it should become demarcated land.

In the past, Brazil had an average of thirteen demarcations per year. Under President Dilma Rousseff this number sank to three a year. The demarcation process was slowed almost to a standstill by an unrelenting barrage of legislative proposals from Congressmen representing large agribusiness, mining corporations and the dam industry.

Now, demarcation has been dealt a fatal blow. No new lands have been demarcated for indigenous groups since President Dilma Rousseff was ousted in August 2016. Corporate interest is crippling the demarcation process for good with ordnances designed to prevent indigenous peoples from taking legal possession of their land in order to open it to development.

Chico Mendes tapping rubber. Credit: UOL educação
Chico Mendes tapping rubber. Credit: UOL educação

Dams in the Amazon

I am deeply committed to defending the rights of indigenous people and communities threatened by development, and to raising awareness of the murder of human rights and environmental defenders in Latin America and throughout the world. These issues are the cornerstone of the work of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation (BJHRF) which I founded in 2005.

For many years I supported the communities and indigenous people threatened by the Belo Monte, Madeira and the Tapajós Dam complexes in Brazil. The BJHRF is campaigning against the Brazilian government’s plan to build at least 256 dams in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. The dams will displace tens of thousands of people, destroy lives and devastate the environment, inundating at least 6,470 sq. km of the world’s largest tropical forest and threaten the survival of the Munduruku, Kayapo, Juruna, Arara and Xikrin indigenous peoples among many others. Some of the dams, including Belo Monte and Madeira are already operational. Even now the river system that provides a fifth of the world’s fresh water is being dammed, polluted and fouled up, causing irrevocable human and environmental destruction.

I went on a fact-finding mission to Xingu and the Madeira Rivers in 2012. I published a report on the Huffington Post, titled, Belo Monte: An Environmental Crime. I urge you to read it.

Colombia

In Colombia, “25 community leaders and civil society activists have been killed since 2017 began,” according to Human Rights Watch sources. The office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia reported that 60 leading rights defenders were killed in 2016, a significant increase from the 41 in 2015. The Colombian NGO Somos Defensores reported 80 killings in 2016 and 63 in 2015.

Aldemar Parra Garcia, an advocate for communities displaced by coal mining and community leader of El Hatillo was killed on January 7 in rural Cesar. José Yimer Cartagena Usuga was found stabbed to death in Carepa, Antioquia, on January 10. He was the vice-president of a local farmer’s organization and a member of the human rights commission of Marcha Patriotica, a national left-wing political and social movement. Juan De la Cruz Mosquera of the Caño Seco community, murdered by Gaitanista paramilitaries on January 7. Two days later on January 9th they killed his son Moisés Mosquera Moreno who was thirty years old. Juan De la Cruz and Moises murders may have been motivated by their relation to Marino Córdoba, president of Afrodes and International Coordinator of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA). They are not the first relatives of Mr. Cordoba’s to be murdered. His 21-year old son, Wilmar Cordoba Forero, was assassinated in October 2016. Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera and her partner Joe Javier Rodallega, both from the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, were found dead in Buenaventura on January 16. Feiver Cerón, the president of a local council, was found dead in Mercaderes, Cauca, on February 18. He was shot eleven times.

On Wednesday 19th April Gerson Acosta, an indigenous leader and governor of the town of Timbío, in south-west Colombia, was shot dead by assailants on a motorbike as he left a community meeting. Gerson was a renowned human rights defender in the region of Cauca and a leader of a victims group belonging to the indigenous community of Kite Kiwe, who had been displaced in 2001 after a massacre committed by right-wing paramilitaries. Gerson’s murder is the 25th assassination of a community leader this year in Colombia.

Guatemala

The Guatemala Peace Accords of 1996 put an end to the longest and bloodiest of Latin America’s Cold War civil wars. During the conflict Between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians were murdered or vanished; most were indigenous people. Today, The Guatemala Human Rights Commission states that “Eighteen years after the signing of the Peace Accords, human rights violations in Guatemala have once again reached wartime levels… human rights activists and community leaders risk their lives to promote and defend the rights of Guatemalans.”

On November 12th 2016, 22 year-old Jeremy Abraham Barrios Lima was executed by two shots to the head as he was making his way home from a restaurant. Barrios Lima was the assistant to the director of the environmental advocacy organisation, the Guatemalan Centre for Legal, Environmental and Social Action (CALAS). Amnesty International has issued an urgent call for police to treat his murder as “a possible retaliation for the human rights work of the young leader and his activities in CALAS.”

The NGO International Rivers reports that on January 17 paramilitaries shot and killed 72-year-old activist Sebastian Alonso during a peaceful demonstration against a hydroelectric plant. Pojom I Hydroelectric Project is being constructed without the consent of local indigenous groups in Huehuetenango, in Guatemala’s western highlands. Sebastian Alonso led a peaceful campaign against the Ixquisis dam and illegal logging in the ancient forests in the Sierra Madre mountain chain situated in the ancestral lands of his people the Ixquisis, in Huehuetenango.

Mexico

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) expressed its ‘great concern regarding the dangerous uptick in violence and armed attacks against journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico’ during 2017.

In January 2017 Isidro Baldenegro López a Mexican environmentalist was shot dead. Like Berta Cáceres, he was a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Baldenegro was a leader of the Rarámuri people in the Tarahumara Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, which includes four vast forested canyons, each bigger than the Grand Canyon. Isidro Baldenegro López led a long non-violent campaign to protect these ancient forests against powerful commercial interests allied to loggers and drug trafficking.

Juan Ontiveros Ramos, another rarámuri leader worked to combat illegal logging and land grabs for illicit crop harvesting on ancestral lands, was abducted and brutally murdered on February 1.

The rarámuri are a peaceful, reclusive people who retreated to the mountains five hundred years ago to avoid the Spanish colonists. To the rarámuri each man of the tribe has three souls and each woman has four, as they are the producers of new life. They believe that every star in the night sky is a member of the tribe whose souls have all, finally, been extinguished.

The rarámuri’s ancestral lands, way of life and very existence is in danger from violence, drug trafficking, logging, land grabs, deforestation, corruption and many other threats. Juan Ontiveros Ramos and Isidro Baldenegro López were courageous defenders of their ancient tribes’ rights and land. The rarámuri have lost two of their champions.

PERU

On December 28th 2015, Mayor Rafael Rojas Gonzales was shot while walking home in Yagen, in the Cajamarca province of Peru. He was an outspoken opponent of the plans for a series of megadams on the Marañón River. The Marañón is the main source of the Amazon River. It begins in the Peruvian Andes and winds through the 1,700-kilometers of cloud forest, dry forest and lowland Amazon rainforest, rich in biodiversity, high in endemic species. Engineer Jose Serra Vega predicts that the dams will mean “biological death” for the region.

In September 2014, while I was in Lima Peru participating at COP20, the UN climate change conference, I heard the news that Edwin Chota Valera, Leoncio Quincima Meléndez, Jorge Ríos Pérez and Francisco Pinedo of the Ashéninka tribe were killed in an brutal quadruple murder in the Ucayali province to the west of Lima. They were killed for defending the rainforest that their communities depend on. Perez’s daughter told Newsweek, “It feels like a knife in my heart. Nothing will cure it. It will last forever. My father fought, and we will go on until we get change or we die.”

I denounced the murders and urged then-President Ollanta Humala Tasso to do everything in his power to investigate this crime, in my speeches at the conference and in my op-ed about COP20 in the Huffington Post.

UN Protections

As I researched the mortal danger that environmental and human rights campaigners face in Latin America, it became evident to me that there is a lack of effective legal mechanisms to protect them, as well as a lack of political will to investigate these murders and make the perpetrators accountable. There are several international instruments specifically designed to raise awareness of the plight of environmental and human rights campaigners and shield them from harm.

The UN began working towards a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1984. In March 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which is known as the “Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.” The Declaration states that ‘Environmental human rights defenders are at the heart of our future and the future of our planet. They play a critical part in ensuring that development is sustainable, inclusive, non-discriminatory and beneficial for all, and does not cause harm to the environment.’

In August 2000, Ms. Hina Jilani was named the first Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders. Ms. Margaret Sekaggya was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2008 and Michael Forst succeeded her in 2014. Mr Forst “raises alarm about the increasing and intensifying violence against” human rights defenders. The Special Rapporteur stresses that empowering and protecting environmental human rights defenders is part and parcel of the overall protection of the environment. The UN urges all governments to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. The Governments are also urged to implement and follow-up on her recommendations. The 2016 UN report, ‘Situation of human rights defenders’ emphasises the dire need for stronger laws and better implementation of protections for human rights defenders.

In March 2012 the Human Rights Council established a mandate on human rights and the environment, to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and promote best practices relating to the use of human rights in environmental policymaking. Mr. John Knox was appointed in August 2012 to a three-year term as the first Independent Expert on human rights obligations. His mandate was further extended in March 2015 for another three years as a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights on the Environment. In addition, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was appointed as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples by the Human Rights Council in 2014.

In March 2016 the UN human rights council adopted a landmark resolution requiring states to ensure the rights and safety of human rights defenders working towards the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights.

The UN measures are encouraging, and the work of the special rapporteurs is invaluable in monitoring and making policy recommendations. The fact remains, however, that these are advisory bodies, oversight mechanisms and soft-law instruments: non binding and unenforceable.

VICTORIA TAULI-CORPUZ AND BIANCA JAGGER AT 'INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVES ON CLIMATE CHANGE, COP 20, LIMA, PERU, DECEMBER 2014
VICTORIA TAULI-CORPUZ AND BIANCA JAGGER AT 'INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVES ON CLIMATE CHANGE, COP 20, LIMA, PERU, DECEMBER 2014 CREDIT: BIANCA JAGGER

IACHR

The Inter-American System on Human Rights is made up of two organs. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights has the principal function of promoting the observance and defense of human rights in the Americas regarding all the member States of the Organization of American States. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights is an autonomous judicial institution whose objective is to apply and interpret the American Convention. To attain this objective, the Court has two functions: a judicial function, and an advisory function. 

The Court may only decide cases brought against the OAS Member States that have specifically accepted the Court’s contentious jurisdiction - and those cases must first be processed by the Commission. Additionally, only States parties and the Commission may refer contentious cases to the Court. Currently, 23 OAS Member States have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, 20 of whom have opted to accept the Court’s contentious jurisdiction in accordance with Article 62 of the American Convention. The 20 States over which the Court may exercise its contentious jurisdiction are: Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Uruguay.

These are welcome measures, designed to address the pandemic of murder and violence against human rights and environmental defenders. There are many examples of the Court and the Commission achieving results to improve the status of human rights and environmental defenders in Latin America.

However, like the UN bodies they are non-binding and advisory judgements, difficult to enforce. Meanwhile, campaigners continue to be systematically persecuted and murdered with impunity throughout the world. Corporations and governments continue to collude in the name of profit and development, at the cost of lives, livelihoods and the fate of future generations.

The Rest of the World

The murder and abuse of environmental defenders is not restricted to Latin America. It is a worldwide epidemic. At least 33 environmental activists were murdered in the Philippinnes in 2015 alone making it one of the deadliest countries for land and environmental defenders. Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was a community leader in Xolobeni, South Africa who opposed a titanium mine planned by Perth-based Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC). Rhadebe was murdered in March 2016: shot eight times in the head in front of his son, by assassins who gained entry posing as police. In July 2015, Lobsang Yeshe, a Tibetan village head imprisoned for protesting against a mine in May 2014, died in custody. China continues to use expanded surveillance mechanisms to imprison environmental campaigners and community leaders, according to Human Rights Watch.

I could go on and on. There are too many horrific statistics and stories to recount here.

Conclusion

The slaughter of environmental defenders must stop. Governments must act and bring the culprits to justice and put in place enforceable protections in law. Regrettably in some cases governments are in collusion with hydroelectric, mining, oil, gas and other corporations. In some countries the murder of environmental defenders are perpetrated with no more consequences than ‘shooting a jaguar;’ in the chilling words of Darcy Alves da Silva, murderer of Chico Mendes.

Perpetrators will continue to walk free unless governments and the international community take action. As natural resources become scarcer, and the pressure upon them increases with increasing population, disputes over land rights, particularly where oil exploration, hydroelectric, mining agribusiness and logging are concerned, are intensifying. Communities and indigenous people are particularly hard hit and their fundamental rights to life and land are violated in many countries. Given the lack of binding international legal mechanisms to protect them, responsibility must fall on individual states.

Governments should lay out exactly how they will protect environmental defenders and the nation’s land, address the root causes of the violence they face, and guarantee that local communities can participate in decisions regarding the use of their land and natural resources; just as international law says they ought to. They must end impunity for murderers and thugs who terrorise communities and kill those who oppose them. John Knox, Michel Forst and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz write in their excellent article in the Guardian newspaper, ‘The brave women and men who risk their lives to protect the environment and rights of others should be lauded as heroes. Instead, the authorities typically fail to protect them, to investigate their deaths, or to punish those responsible.’

I could not agree more.

Governments and International financial institutions must make their aid and investment conditional on accountability: the implementation of safeguards for human rights, including environmental protection, rights of freedom of expression and association. Companies should not undertake projects in countries where these basic protections are not accorded. If they fail to keep their commitments, they should be penalised in their home countries and in the marketplace. The epidemic of violence against environmental defenders must be tackled on home soil, as well as abroad.

Chico Mendes said, before he died, ‘At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.” His words were prophetic. The struggle to save the rainforest throughout Latin America is part of the battle to save the world. We cannot protect the forests which produce 20% of the world’s oxygen unless we ensure safety for those who defend it.

I urge world leaders to heed the words of Berta Cáceres: ‘Mother nature- militarised, fenced in, poisoned - demands we take action.’

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