As a matter of routine, private security firms, State actors, the judiciary, and armed groups are employing an armoury of tactics to silence dissenting voices, who speak out against the exploitation of the natural environment. Environmental human rights defenders risk murder and physical attack, as well as harassment and arbitrary detention, to defend and protect the local environment. Vested interests make bullet-proof vests a requirement for many activists.
The murder of Honduran campaigner Berta Cáceres in March this year reverberated worldwide. Unfortunately her death is not an isolated event, rather it is reflective of a regional trend that sees environmental rights defenders paying with their lives for speaking up. In 2015, 185 environmental defenders were murdered across 16 countries. Latin America is the most dangerous region on the planet for activists who defend environmental rights.
These statistics are no coincidence. In recent years global demand for minerals and hydrocarbons has sky rocketed. Latin America is rich with natural resources and land that is ripe for exploitation. Governments across the region have spotted this as an opportunity and courted large multinationals, often based in the global north with lucrative incentives.
Consequently there has been an explosion of construction projects and mining concessions across the region, with resource extraction accelerating at pace, which, it is argued bring, income and development to the region. In Colombia, coal extraction doubled between 2000 and 2010, and mining concessions have increased at a similar rate.
Indigenous communities often bear the brunt of such mega projects and consideration for the environmental and human impact of these works is frequently an after-thought, if considered at all. A proposed transcontinental railway project that China has agreed to finance poses a threat to indigenous territories and biodiversity hotspots of mammals, birds, amphibians and plants in Peru and Brazil. The Xalalá Hydroelectric dam in the Ixcán region of northern Guatemala would flood the Q'eqchi' Mayans' ancestral land, displacing up to 15,000 people, whilst also affecting the water flow and biodiversity of the area. The government argues that the hydroelectric dam will bring economic development, but indigenous leaders say the dam will cause the disappearance of entire communities.
The region has a strong tradition of social movements and civil society plays a crucial role in safeguarding environmental rights that are so often intertwined with fundamental rights and basic human dignity: where and how you live your life; whether you can access clean water and feed your family. This combined with the symbiotic relationship with the environment that underpins many indigenous belief systems makes resistance to the increased exploitation of natural resources an understandable result.
However, despite this rich cultural tapestry of community mobilisation and social movements, large-scale projects have brought with them a culture of impunity and violence, with profit prioritised over protest and dissent dismissed for dividends. Those who speak out are increasingly under attack: threatened, tortured, disappeared, imprisoned and silenced in favour of shady business interests and State action or inaction.
The attacks against vocal opponents of these projects have created a polluted atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that further weakens accountability. While the projects in question may vary in nature (some are extractive industries, others are infrastructure or agro-industrial projects), what they have in common is a shocking lack of transparency in terms of who is responsible and the parent companies pulling the strings. Impunity for attacks against those who wish to shine a light on these shady deals allow the murky nature of the relationship between state and business to continue unchecked, risking further degradation of the environment and of the freedom to speak out in Latin America.
Given the dire situation, ARTICLE 19 worked together with Vermont Law School and the Centre for International Environmental Law to produce a comprehensive review of threats to environmental rights defenders across Latin America. 'A Deadly Shade of Green' presents a sorrowful picture of violence and harassment, but also a call for action to reverse the current trend.
Though business interests and human rights are seen traditionally as antagonists, there is real potential for the two to form a strong and constructive partnership for lasting social change that can have a positive impact on both realms. Unfortunately, this potential is far from being fulfilled. Rather, it is proving a toxic combination that is degrading human rights of both those living on the land and those seeking to protect it.
States, businesses, and global civil society must take action to neutralise this pandemic of violence and threats and to integrate a human rights approach into the interactions between the state, business, and civil society. Environmental human rights defenders cannot continue to be collateral damage for the share prices of multinationals or the whims of government.
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