Latin America: why are environmentalists dying?

It is one of the most dangerous regions for these activists

Latin America: why are environmentalists dying?

Latin America registered 60% of deaths of environmental activists in 2016. Almost four people per week were assassinated last year while trying to protect their lands, forests, and rivers from mining enterprises, timber companies, and agricultural businesses, according to data reported by the NGO Global Witness. In this report, Brazil has the largest amount of deaths, with 37 killed, followed by Colombia, with 22. For Billy Kyte from Global Witness, Brazil’s situation stems from a growing expansion of the cut down of trees and agro-industry in the Amazon, which was made evident by Michel Temer’s decisions in the Ministry of Human Rights. In Colombia’s case, where numbers have reached a historical high, the situation is attributed to the results of the peace agreements with the FARC; displaced communities are returning to their original lands, areas that used to be occupied by the FARC and that are now looked at with greed by companies looking to extract raw materials.

The most dangerous country in the world for environmental activism is Honduras. Since 2010, there have been more than 120 homicides registered related to this issue. The most well-known case took place in the Central American country; the assassination of Berta Cáceres, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016 for organizing the Lenca people, the biggest indigenous population of the country, against the construction of the Agua Zalca Dam in Gualcarque River. This river is sacred to indigenous communities and vital to their survival.

The industrial goals prevail over the communities’ necessities due to a combination of the capacity to lobby towards the instances of environmental control, organizations marginal to the law, and state complicity. Due to the economic interests involved, impunity seems to be the rule in these cases. If the murderers are detained, the brains of the operation are rarely reached. There are reasons to believe that the numbers reported are a lot smaller than the real amount of victims and activists targeted: most of the affected communities are usually in isolated areas, in jungles or in the middle of mountain chains, far from the institutions where they can report these issues.

Numbers indicate that 2017 will be even more deadly than 2016. Around the world, there have already been 117 defenders of the environment assassinated and most of them have been in Latin America. Fingers point to governments, companies, and investors because, as stated by Global Witness investigator Ben Leather, they are the ones who must guarantee that communities are consulted on the projects that might affect them, that activists are protected from violence, and that the guilty are brought to justice.


Latin American Post | María Andrea Otero

Translated by Laura Rocha Rueda

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto