On September 18, 2015, Guatemalan professor Rigoberto Lima Choc awaited a judge’s decision on an issue he had been the first to uncover: A company was polluting the waters of La Pasión River near his town and Lima Choc had not only documented and reported the problem but had also taken journalists and photographers to witness the fish slaughter.
That day, as he walked down the steps of the courthouse, two men on a motorcycle approached and fired at him. He died on the spot.
As shocking as Lima Choc’s death is, sadly it is not an exception. Through 2015 a worldwide total of 185 murders of this kind were documented by the nongovernmental organization Global Witness. A detailed report on these deaths is published this week.
As the study points out, 2015 had the highest conservation-related mortality rates since 2010, with 185 confirmed cases (143 were reported for 2012 and 130 for 2011). In a previous study with data from 2014 Global Witness had counted 116 deaths, which implies a significant growth from one year to the next.
According to the NGO’s statement, in 2015 Latin America had the dubious honor of being the region with the highest number of conservationist murders—122; Brazil took the lion’s share with 50 killings. The investigation found that conflicts mostly involved mining (42 cases), agrobusiness (20), logging (15) and hydroelectric projects (15).
BLOOD TINTED GOLD
Viviane Weitzner, with Forest People Programme, is well aware of the problem that mining is capable of causing in Colombia. She works to support the indigenous people of the Cauca region in southwestern Colombia who have been affected by the consequences of large-scale gold extraction from their land. A casualty of these mining interests was indigenous Emberá–Chamí leader Fernando Salazar, shot dead in front of his home in Caldas.
Wetizner explained that Cauca has seen an increase in movements by armed groups who regard gold as an easy way to get cash. To compound the problem, the national government grants extraction concessions in places banned by traditional local authorities. “Fernando’s death was a message to the entire local government,” Weitzner says. “In addition, despite the pressures, in this case there has been total impunity. When is the state going to do something? Continuous threats are sent against leaders who try to have their rights respected, and are accused of being antidevelopment,” she says.
The demand for mineral products, wood and space is a continual pressure on communities, many of which are not willing to compromise on what they see as their rights. In Latin America the indigenous communities are especially vulnerable, and it is there where most environmental activists are killed.
The clash between the different viewpoints on how to achieve development is more often than not resolved with violence. Global Witness warns that just a few cases result in the filing of a formal complaint that leaves a documented record. Even less frequent are cases resulting in a conviction. According to the NGO, impunity ends up benefiting not only the perpetrator of the crime but also the mastermind behind it, who can have a relationship with the upper levels of the economic and political powers.
Osvaldo Durán, spokesman of the Costa Rica–based Federation for the Conservation of the Environment, which was not consulted in this study, speaks of the danger people in the region face when trying to protect their land and the environment. The activist agrees that indigenous populations are the most vulnerable. He also points out that many times the government does nothing to defend people or groups under attack; and that sometimes it even orchestrates disinformation campaigns. “When the state does not act like it has to act, it becomes an enemy,” Duran says. “The economic model, which calls for the extraction of materials and the construction of hydroelectric power plants or resorts, also requires a fusion of interests between [the] state and corporations. This is when you see the state defending private interests instead of communities.”
TAKING GLOBAL ACTION
Even though the issue might seem a distant reality to many, Billy Kyte, head of campaigns for Global Witness, explained that anybody anywhere can take certain measures to make a difference. “Unpunished murders occurring in remote mining villages or in the heart of tropical jungles are the result of decisions taken by consumers of the other side of the world. Companies and investors should cut their ties with those projects that trample the rights of the communities living on their land,” he wrote in a press release.
Meanwhile governments are asked to extend a better protection to activists, to recognize their right to refuse to carry out projects, to give voice to communities’ opinions on the issues that affect them and to combat illegal activities that damage natural resources.