Environment in Latin America is a matter of human rights
2015 was the deadliest year on record for the killings of environmental activists around the globe, according to the latest Global Witness report On Dangerous Ground. Ever since 2010 they've been recording the deadliest years on record and now 3 activists are killed every week.
But who are these people? Environmental and land defenders are those who take peaceful action to protect environmental or land rights whether on their personal or professional capacity. They face powerful political and business interests who usually collude to steal land and natural resources.
They face death threats, intimidation and harassment against themselves and their families but receive little or no protection from the authorities. They are defending human rights; the right to a healthy environment or the right to their ancestral lands, but their lives are being lost in the way.
2015 had a total of 185 killings across 16 countries, a 59% increase on 2014. The worst hit countries are Brazil (50), the Philippines (33) and Colombia (26). Mining is the industry most linked to the killings with 42 deaths in 2015.
The death toll is likely to be higher as other crimes cannot be verified or go unreported. But the worst hit region is Latin America with over 60% of the killings in 2015 and indigenous people are the most vulnerable.
In 2015 almost 40% of the victims were indigenous. For example the Lumad people in Brazil suffered 25 deaths in 2015 in the region of Mindanao because of its natural resources. The father and grandfather of activist Michelle Campos were publicly executed for defending their ancestral land against mining.
Following this trend, last week Honduras suffered the loss of Lesbia Yaneth Urquía, a 48 year old who worked in the movement Comité Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH). COPINH is the movement that late Berta Caceres, murdered in March, used to lead.
There is growing international awareness of the topic as NGOs and human rights experts are calling for urgent action. As UN expert Victoria Tauli-Corpuz commented during a visit to Brazil in March, "the pattern of killings in many countries is becoming an epidemic."
But impunity remains high with little evidence of authorities fully investigating the crimes or punishing the perpetrators. In fact, there is an alarming trend, as impunity prevails the criminalization of activists is becoming more common, particularly in African countries.
Another factor posing a threat to the environment and its defenders is the weakening of human rights institutions. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is currently facing a severe funding crisis that is expected to lead to the loss of 40% of its personnel by the end of this month.
This impacts the ability to continue its work which is to address and investigate human rights issues in Latin America. Financial support to the commission has been halted due to disputes over investigations and findings affecting the region's countries.
Global Witness urges governments, companies and the international community to address this crisis, protect environmental activists, investigate crimes against them and expose the corporate and political interests that lie behind the persecution of these defenders as well as to recognize land and indigenous rights.
“The environment is becoming a new battleground for human rights,” Global Witness' Campaign Leader for Environmental and Land Defenders Billy Kyte said when interview for IPS. “Many of these activists are being treated as enemies of the state when they should be treated as heroes.”