Defending the natural world, it seems, is a very dangerous game in some countries.
A new report by the NGO Global Witness — an activism organization that deals with links between natural resources, the environment and human rights — highlights the plight of environmental activists around the world.
Eco-warriors sometimes face harassment, kidnapping and even death. According to the report, titled “How Many More,” the worst region in which to be an environmental activist is Latin America — specifically Honduras, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico.
The country with the most killings of “land and environmental defenders” from 2002–2014 was by far Brazil, with 477 deaths. On a per capita basis, however, comparatively tiny Honduras’ 111 murders make it the most dangerous country in the world to be an eco-warrior.
In 2014 disputes over mining claimed the most activist lives around the world (25), followed by agribusiness and water and dam projects (14 each), and logging (10). The same year Latin America accounted for close to three quarters of the world’s environmental murders, according to the report.
Publicly available information about the perpetrators of killings is limited, but among the well-documented cases from 2014, we found 10 related to paramilitary groups, 8 to the police, 5 to private security guards, and 3 to the military. The true orchestrators of these crimes mostly escape investigation, but available information suggests that large landowners, business interests, political actors and agents of organized crime are often behind the violence.
What’s happening in Honduras?
Relatively quiet for the first several years of the period of study, Honduras has recently seen a sharp increase in killings of environmental activists, with 101 between 2010 and 2014. Targets include indigenous anti-mining protestors and those opposing hydro dam projects.
The report shines a light on Honduras, where deforestation is rife, poverty levels are high and corruption is endemic. According to a local NGO, 90 percent of killings and human rights abuses in Honduras remain unsolved, suggesting the law does little to protect either people or nature.
With the government dead set on exploiting mining, forestry, agribusinesses and dam projects, the indigenous peoples who occupy the land those industries wish to exploit are on the front line when it comes to crimes against the natural world.
The problem with Brazil
Last year 29 environmental activists were killed in Latin America’s largest country, despite programs to safeguard human rights defenders, which currently protect 415 activists. According to the report, private large landowners coming into conflict with activists over land use has resulted in the dangerous atmosphere for environmental action in Brazil.
Though most of the killings in Brazil are tied to agribusiness, the government is also investing heavily in hydroelectric projects like the Belo Monte dam, which could displace as many as 20,000 people.
Are victims “treehuggers” or defenders of indigenous land?
A chilling detail from the statistics in the report reveals that 40 percent of all murdered activists during the 12-year period were indigenous. This means that many of the victims are not dying for a cause, but simply fighting for their own survival and their community’s way of life. It also serves to illustrate how the fight for indigenous rights and the fight to protect the natural world are often one and the same.
Many of these fallen activists simply are the most recent victims of an ongoing colonial genocide and cruel exploitation of native populations that began with the Age of Exploration and continues to this day.