Last month, Global Witness released a report identifying Latin America as the most dangerous place for environmental activists. The study recorded 116 people killed worldwide in 2014 for defending the environment, 87 of whom were in South and Central America. During the time this report took to publish, three more environmental activists were killed in Latin America in the span of three days. The report, titled “How Many More?” exposed the danger that activists face every day and revealed many of the environmental defenders as leaders and members of indigenous communities.
A shocking 40 percent of the killings in 2014 were of indigenous people, many trying to protect their own land from being harmed by destructive projects such as hydroelectric dams, logging and mining.
“This is an enormous, multi-faceted issue, but an especially important thing to discuss is how indigenous people are being deliberately targeted, this is especially evident in Colombia and Peru,” Council of Green Affairs historian and second-year Victoria Eastep said. “Not only do these groups experience all of the negative environmental consequences of these projects, but frequently they aren’t even consulted or informed about them.”
The report shows a 20 percent increase in these killings from 2013. Statistics of the report recorded Brazil as having the highest number of deaths, reaching 29, Colombia next with 25, 15 in the Philippines, and 12 in Honduras. Despite having the lowest number of murders, Honduras is the number one most risky country in Latin America as it has the highest killings per capita. From 2002 to 2014, 111 people were killed in Honduras for defending the environment.
“How Many More?” includes a case study done in Honduras in addition to these statistics and unsettling facts. It documents land and environmental activist Berta Caceres’ stance against a mining project that was to take place close to her community, putting their water source in danger of being polluted. Caceres helped to put together groups of indigenous communities to resist a hydro dam on the Gualcarque River. Complaints were sent to the Honduran government, unrequited, and peaceful protests were organized in the country’s capital of Tegucigalpa.
“We denounced this dam and were threatened with smear campaigns, imprisonment and murder,” Caceres said in an interview with Democracy Now. “But nobody heard our voices, until we set up a roadblock to take back control of our territory.”
Caceres has received multiple death threats and, through her work as an environmental defender, has become an enemy of the Honduran government which openly supports the hydroelectric dam company. She has been forced to live the life of a fugitive, never safe from threats either from the government, the company or hired assassins. Despite these hardships, Caceres continues to actively resist hydro dams everywhere in Honduras.
“Depending on the location of the dam, its economic efficiency can be compromised because seasonal fluctuations in water level force them to operate below capacity for much of the year,” Eastep explained. “People seeking employment are driven to these areas where the ecosystem is already fragile, and the infrastructure built to accommodate them only causes further harm.”
Some countries in Latin America certainly have a safer world for land and environmental defenders than the deathly areas of Brazil and Honduras.
President Emerita of Pronatura de Yucatán Joann Andrews said, “Most of the conflicts in Mexico revolve around land grabs by unscrupulous lawyers backed by big investors who use semi-legal devices that allow them to buy land from members of ejidos [land reserved for agricultural use], often at very low prices. Most of the activity takes place in long legal arguments rarely with death threats.”
“Historically, Mexico has had, especially since 1936, a better system of protecting the land of poor farmers than do some of the other Latin countries. By Constitutional rights, the members of the various ejidos own the land in common. That land could not be sold until President Salina de Gortari had the Constitution changed to allow this land to be sold.”
This summer, Professor of Biology Sandra Gilchrist will be taking a group of students down to Honduras for marine science research.
“There are no safety concerns that I wouldn’t have in any large cities,” Gilchrist said. “There is gang violence in the cities and danger even in the forest areas because of drug drops off the trails. But I am strict with that, you do not go out near these areas, we stick to where we stay in the business district in Cayos Cochinos.”
The business district in Honduras is protected by a local military base and rangers. Other areas of Honduras are not so well guarded and produce a dangerous country where activists must be on their toes just to keep alive.