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Latin America’s Environmental Defenders Find Themselves in the Crosshairs

Isidro Baldenegro sitting in a room
Environmental activist Isidro Baldenegro speaks to a reporter at Parral prison, 300 miles south of the U.S border in Mexico, on May 31, 2003. © Pablo Aneli/AP

On January 15, Isidro Baldenegro, a prominent environmental leader and a 2005 recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, was shot and killed in his home state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Baldenegro was a farmer and a community leader of Mexico’s indigenous Tarahumara people, defending forests from devastating logging in a region characterized by violence, corruption, and drug trafficking.

This deadly start to 2017 echoed a brutal murder almost one year earlier, on March 2, 2016, when environmental human rights defender Berta Cáceres was slain in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras. As the founder and coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, Cáceres had led a decade-long fight against the building of the Agua Zarca Dam along the Gualcarque River, a project that threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of indigenous Lenca families. She received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.

Cáceres’s murder was a wake-up call to other environmental human rights defenders across the Americas: if this could happen to such a well-known activist, then it could happen to anyone.

Environmental defenders, whose work often includes land and resource rights, the rights of indigenous communities, and both state and nonstate threats to healthy environments, are among the human rights defenders most at risk. In his recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders warns that the “shocking rate” of killings is “only the tip of the iceberg” of a disturbing trend of “increasing violence, intimidation, harassment, and demonization” of environmental human rights defenders. Another report by Global Witness states that Latin America is the most dangerous region, and Honduras the most dangerous country, for environmental defenders. Of the 185 killed worldwide in 2015, 122 were in Latin America, while in Honduras 12 were killed in 2014 alone.

Latin American environmental defenders are under such intense threat because their activism challenges powerful economic and political interests. The seven arrests made to date in Cáceres’s murder exposed ties between Desarrollos Energéticos, the company constructing the Agua Zarca Dam, and the Honduran military. Desarrollos Energéticos’s manager of social and environmental affairs allegedly planned Cáceres’s murder with the support of a Honduran Army special forces veteran and a retired Honduran Armed Forces military intelligence specialist.

The arrests and allegations exemplify the Honduran oligarchy’s extraordinary consolidation of power—a mere 10 families own the majority of the country’s land and businesses and include members of the political class. The military and the police, working in concert with private security forces, regularly protect private interests and silence their critics.

In Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, environmental human rights defenders also face threats from organized crime. An InSight Crime article reveals the increasing control organized crime networks have over mining interests in Mexico, with gangs extorting payments from local and multinational mine operators, and in some cases taking full control over mining operations, using them both as a revenue source and as a money laundering mechanism.

A report from the El Salvador-based organization PRISMA exposes the role of organized crime [report in Spanish] in deforestation activities in Mesoamerica, describing how criminal groups are intensifying existing deforestation patterns by clearing forests for illegal runways and illicit rural trade routes, as well as laundering money through deforestation-related activities such as illegal logging, cattle ranching, and palm oil production. The communities that own these lands and resources are now directly threatened by organized crime networks.

As environmental human rights defenders operate in such complex contexts, strategies to ensure their safety must evolve. This involves understanding, analyzing, and documenting rights abuses and threats in ways that take into account this complexity. Organizations, communities, and environmental defenders need a better understanding of criminal networks, corporations, and economic and political elites—and the relationships between them.

Other key aspects include gathering evidence on how states allow nonstate actors to operate with impunity, and increasing corporate transparency and accountability. Targeting the economic interests of corporations—for example, by presenting complaints to development banks that can suspend loans or conduct audits—may deter them, and the state and nonstate actors that benefit from their economic gains, from committing further abuses and attacks.

Where security threats are tied to the defense of land and resource rights, security protocols need to be collective and include community strategies. Concrete experiences in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico show that securing legal titles on land, supporting the recognition of community rights to natural resources, promoting community management plans of forests and resources, and strengthening monitoring systems that allow communities to better control and secure their territories are all effective measures in responding to threats to land and resource rights from organized crime.

As funders, we must move away from security and protection models that do not take into account the complexity of the contexts we now face. This involves flexible funding that organizations, movements, and communities can use as they see necessary to ensure effective protection of and security for environmental human rights defenders. Never before has there been so much information on and attention to the threats they face. The challenge now is to translate this into concrete strategies to effectively ensure their safety.

The Fund for Global Human Rights is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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