When the people of Rio Blanco, in Honduras, decided to oppose the construction of a hydroelectric project in the Gualcarque River, their lives took a tragic turn.
“They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten my family,” recalls Berta Càceres – winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Berta is one of the many environmental activists in Latin America who have been threatened and harassed for trying to protect their land from the interests of transnational companies.
Since 2013, three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca hydro dam, which risks to cut off the water sources for hundreds of indigenous Lenca people.
In 2014 alone, 116 environmental and land defenders were killed worldwide, an average of more than two a week, with 75 percent of those living across Latin America. The highest number of victims per capita is registered in Honduras, followed by Colombia, Brazil, and Peru.
After a worrying report published by Global Witness last year, Peace Brigades International set up to record this epidemic of violence in the documentary “Land of Corn”.
The documentary follows the stories of four environmental activists living and working respectively in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras. The situations are different but the struggle is the same.
As well as standing up against extremely powerful interest groups, land defenders work in isolated rural areas, often with poor communications and limited access to traditional protection mechanisms and support networks. “The authorities never support us and sometimes we have to escape to the mountains,” says Guatemalan activists Adrian Kal in the documentary.
Adrian is a member of the Verapaz Union of Family Farmer Organisations. The land where his community lived was sold to a logging company without prior consultation. When they refused to leave, the company accused them of being usurpers and squatters. Police officers were sent to arrest activists and terrorise the community while Adrian received a number of death threats.
In Mexico and Honduras the situation is similar. In both cases the government gave concessions to transnational companies without consulting the local population, despite the ILO Convention 169 and the Indigenous International Declaration being in effect.
“In Honduras and across the world environmental defenders are being shot dead in broad daylight, kidnapped, threatened, or tried as terrorists for standing in the way of so-called ‘development’,” says Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness.
“The true authors of these crimes – a powerful nexus of corporate and state interests – are escaping unpunished.”
Palm oil and cattle ranching
The documentary continues with the story of Mary Hernández from the department of Chocó, Colombia. Her community was forced to leave in 1997, when a company bought the land for large scale cattle ranching.
Recently, Mary went back to Chocó to fight for her land. What she found was a completely different ecosystem: oil palm trees and monoculture crops had substituted the forest that her people had inhabited for generations. Eventually, threats against her became so serious that she had to leave and take refuge in the Camelias Humanitarian Zone.
As the world turns its attention to the upcoming 2015 UN climate conference in Paris, “Land of Corn” and the work carried on by PBI and Global Witness shows a grave paradox in climate negotiations.
“Environmental defenders are fighting to protect our climate against ever-increasing odds,” says Billy Kyte.
“Now more than ever we need to start holding governments and companies to account for the rising death toll on our environmental frontiers. The secrecy around how natural resource deals are made fuels violence and must end. It’s time for the international community to stand up and take notice.”