An insidious wave of threats, bogus charges, smear campaigns, attacks and killings of environmental and land activists in recent months has made Honduras and Guatemala the most dangerous countries on earth for those protecting natural resources, Amnesty International said in a new report six months after the brutal murder of Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres.
The report, We defend the land with our blood, explores the increasing stigmatization, threats, attacks, killings and lack of justice faced by individuals and communities fighting to protect the environment from large-scale mining, logging and hydroelectric projects.
“Defending human rights is one of the most dangerous professions in Latin America but daring to protect vital natural resources takes these risky jobs to a whole new, potentially lethal level,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
An astounding 65 percent (122 out of 185) of the murders of human rights defenders working on issues related to land, territory or the environment registered across the world in 2015 were from Latin America, according to Global Witness. Eight took place in Honduras and 10 in Guatemala alone – making them the highest rate per capita in the region.
“The tragic murder of Berta Cáceres seems to have marked a deadly turning point for human rights defenders in the region. The lack of a transparent and effective investigation into her killing has sent the abhorrent message that shooting someone, point blank, for standing up to powerful economic interests is actually allowed,” said Guevara-Rosas.
Honduras: Deadly attacks
The murder of Indigenous leader and human rights defender Cáceres in her home a few hours from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on the night of March 2 was one in a string of deadly attacks against her organization.
The leaderof the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), she had worked for years to protect the Gualcarque River from the potentially negative impact of a dam that is being planned in the area.
Since the campaign against the dam began in 2013, Cáceres had received several death threats, which were never properly investigated. The Honduran authorities failed to provide her with effective protection despite the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights requesting the government to do so.
Attacks, threats and harassment against members of COPINH and its sister organization MILPAH (Movimiento Indígena Lenca de La Paz Honduras) which works to protect the land of the Lenca Indigenous people, increased after Cáceres’ murder. Members of the community say that unknown individuals have been harassing them near their homes and the community radio station.
On March 15, Nelson García, another leader from COPINH, was shot dead on the street as he was riding his motorbike back home, after meeting the community to organize a protest later that day. Authorities have opened an investigation which is yet to shield any results.
On July 6, the body of land rights activist Lesbia Urquía, was found in a dumpster in the city of Marcala, on the border with El Salvador. A few days later, authorities arrested two men in connection with her death but they have not yet been charged.
A week later, Martín Gómez Vásquez, another MILPAH leader, was pelted with stones as he left the western Honduras community of Azacualpa. He said the attackers were members of a family that alleges ownership of a portion of the Lenca community’s ancestral lands. The Honduran authorities have not launched an investigation into this attack.
Lawyers and activists working to ensure justice for Cáceres’ murder have also been targeted by attacks and intimidation.
On July 13, Víctor Fernández, a human rights defender and lawyer representing Cáceres’ family, had his office raided. The thieves only took information related to Cáceres’ case. Police said they are investigating the incident but there have been no results to date.
On May 2, Honduran journalist Félix Molina was shot as he rode a taxi in the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, after he published an article on Cáceres’ case. Authorities have failed to open an effective investigation into the attack.
Guatemala: Smear campaigns
In Guatemala, environmental and land activists have been constantly subjected to smear campaigns aimed at stigmatizing and discrediting them in order to force them to stop their legitimate work. This includes being falsely accused and prosecuted as a way of keeping them silent.
Communities fighting against mining and other natural resource exploitation projects on their lands have been particularly affected.
Earlier this year, one of the former leaders of the Resistencia Pacífica La Puya – an organization near the Guatemalan capital that fights against a local mining project – was threatened, along with her young sons. She reported the threats to the authorities.
She believes this is to discourage her from continuing her work opposing the construction of the mine due to the impact it could have on the community and their land.
Around the same time, one of the main national newspapers, Prensa Libre, published a full-page ad in which a senior representative of the country’s mining company accused human rights organizations of “terrorism,” contributing to the pattern of stigmatization.
Protection mechanisms for human rights defenders at risk in both countries have proven to be ineffective.
In Honduras, while a law has established a protection mechanism for human rights defenders at risk, in practice, the program has not been adequately implemented due to lack of political will and financial resources. Human rights defenders have complained that they are not properly consulted as to what their needs are and sometimes are offered protection by the same security forces suspected of attacking or threatening them.
“How many more human rights defenders like Berta have to die until the authorities take action to protect people who defend our planet? Failing to deliver justice contributes to the climate of fear and impunity that gave rise to these crimes,” said Guevara-Rosas.