Latin America Is the Deadliest Place to Be an Environmental Activist

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On March 3, a group of gunmen barged into indigenous activist Berta Cáceres‘ home and killed her. At her funeral, it became clear just how important she had become to the Lenca community and Honduras. The relentless environmental activist fought Desarollos Energéticos, SA (DESA) when they attempted to build a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River. Many speculate her death is in direct connect to her stark opposition to DESA, a company that Cáceres said threatened her. “I have no doubt that she has been killed because of her struggle and that soldiers and people from the dam are responsible, I am sure of that. I hold the government responsible,” her 84-year-old mother said.

Berta Cáceres’ death is one of the most visible examples of the high risk environmentalists face while defending their communities in Latin America. Global Witness‘ recent report, On Dangerous Ground, found that Latin America accounted for most of the murders of land defenders in any region in 2015. Out of 185 documented killings, 100 – 54 percent – happened in Latin America, with Brazil capping the list at 50 murders.

Around the world, at least three environmental activists died every week protecting their land. From 2014 to 2015, the number of environmentalists killed jumped 59 percent, though, real numbers could be higher simply because some of these areas are too remote.

As the demand for natural resources like timber, minerals, and palm oil steadily increases, indigenous groups are at the forefront of battling goliath corporations that have money and power, as well as things like security and hitmen. Worse yet, these companies are backed by corrupt governments who paint defenders as villains who are anti-development, instead of people who are trying to make “development truly sustainable,” as The Guardian points out. Indigenous people account for 40 percent of victims – an indicator that the most affected are the most marginalized.

“High levels of corruption in Latin America and weak rule of law means many of these projects get the green light and perpetrators of violence get away with killings,” Billy Kyte, a Global Witness campaign leader and author of the report, told BuzzFeed News.“Governments and companies are more and more brazenly killing environmental activists.”

Due to the constant stress for natural resources, it looks like 2016 will be on par with last year when it comes to the murders of environmentalists. In March, the UN human rights council took measures to protect environmentalists by requiring states to ensure their safety, but even with that, there’s still work to be done. In an effort to abate the crisis, Global Witness urges governments around the world to increase protection of their land, investigate crimes dealing with the land, and to support activists.