A year after Berta Cáceres’ murder, protecting the planet is just as deadly

Just two weeks before the anniversary of Berta Cáceres’ bloody killing, community leader José Santos Sevilla died amid a rising of tide of murders and intimidations in Honduras and elsewhere. Español Português

Robert Soutar
8 March 2017
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Woman holding an image of Berta Cáceres. Photo: Daniel Cima/ CIDH. All rights reserved.

Unlike Berta Cáceres, who was gunned down in the sleepy Honduran town of Esperanza a year ago, primary school teacher and Tolupan indigenous community leader José Santos Sevilla was not well-known. But his murder on February, 17, had chilling parallels with that of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner.

Like Cáceres, Santos was sleeping when he was fatally shot by masked gunmen who had broken into his home in the municipality of Orica, some 75 miles northeast of Honduras capital city, Tegucigalpa. Alexander Rodríguez, the mayor of Orica and a friend of Santos, said the motive was unknown. However, other indigenous Tolupa community members have been killed during peaceful protests against mining and logging operations in their territory, agencies reported.

The death of Santos came just two weeks before the anniversary of Cáceres’ bloody killing on March 3, and amid a rising of tide of murders and intimidations of environmental and indigenous activists in Honduras and globally. It also follows those of Nelson García and Lesbia Yaneth, both members of Cáceres’ indigenous rights group COPINH. In all, over 120 activists have been murdered in the Central American country since 2010, making it the deadliest place in which to defend the environment, a recent investigation by UK non-governmental organisation Global Witness revealed.

“We have documented widespread violations of international law regarding indigenous peoples. Most significantly, companies and state actors are illegally approving mining, agribusiness and hydropower projects without consulting the affected communities”, says Billy Kyte, leader of the environmental and land defenders campaign at Global Witness.

International investors implicated

Global Witness criticises the “systematic, widespread failures” of European investors in Honduras for failing to defuse violence at the Agua Zarca dam project they supported, and which Cáceres and indigenous Lenca resisted. According to Kyte, Dutch investor FMO and Finland’s Finnfund did not condemn the intimidation of Cáceres, who received 33 public death threats prior to her murder.

FMO publicly stated its regret at Cáceres’ violent death in a statement on its website and has temporarily suspended its activities in Honduras, saying it is seeking a “responsible exit” from the project. It is yet to formally withdraw. Chinese contractor Sinohydro pulled out of the project in 2012 amid rising tensions between opponents of the dam and Desarrollos Energéticos S.A de C.V (known as DESA), the company managing the project.

The Global Witness report points out that, in addition to private investors, large donors of international aid, such as the United States, should reevaluate their activities in Honduras to ensure that they are not promoting or financing companies that endanger activists. According to its own published information, the US Department of State states that its goal in Honduras is to strengthen democratic governance, promote human rights and the rule of law, and that it "encourages and supports Honduran efforts to protect the environment ".

The question is how they support environmental protection in Honduras and why the efforts to improve security appear to be unsuccessful in putting an end to the assassinations of activists. The State Department’s answer to this is that "Any murder, particularly that of human rights defenders and members of NGOs, is a matter of great concern". The United States is constantly expressing its concern about human rights to the Honduran government, although it admits that "a sustained effort and a sustained political will" are needed to bring about lasting change.

Billy Kyte notes, however, that half of the United States' annual aid to Honduras - the largest US aid recipient in Central America - is conditional on improving human rights; the other half consists of equipment and training for the Honduran security forces, which have been implicated in the murder of Cáceres, as shown in a report published by The Guardian.

Just as Global Witness urges the Honduran government to put an end to the "chronic impunity" of the murderers and to bring to justice the material and intellectual perpetrators of the crimes, the US is also under the ethical and political imperative to help Honduras in relation to human rights, to condemn the assassinations of activists, and to stop investment in industries that generate violence.

Assassinations on the rise globally

Latin America remains the world's deadliest region for environmental advocates but, globally, those who are at the forefront of land and resource conflicts are targeted by those who profit from environmentally destructive industries. Activists in Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been killed in recent months.

Shortly after visiting Honduras last year, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, called this series of assassinations of activists a "global epidemic." The recent drop in world commodity prices has only exacerbated the problem. Businesses are expanding more aggressively towards protected areas to keep their benefit masrgin, often without consulting the affected communities.

In January, another Goldman Environmental Award winner, Isidro Baldenegro, from the Tarahumara indigenous community, was gunned down at his home in Chihuahua, Mexico. Baldenegro had earned recognition for defending the forests in the region from devastating logging operations.

In her latest annual report, Tauli-Corpuz says that as conservation areas continue to expand, the threats from extractive and energy industries and major infrastructure projects are also rising. And she ends up with an exhortation: "The increasing incidence of murders of indigenous environmentalists highlights the importance of conservationists and indigenous peoples joining forces".

This article was previously published by Diálogo Chino.

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