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Fighting for their Lives: Exposing the Growing Violence against Environmental Activists

Berta Cáceres

May 13, 2015

Around the world, growing competition for natural resources has led to a dramatic increase in violence against environmental activists. A recent report from Global Witness entitled “How Many More? 2014’s Deadly Environment: the killing and intimidation of environment and land activists, with a spotlight on Honduras” details just how perilous the situation has become, especially for indigenous groups.

According to the report, over the last year 116 documented murders of environmental defenders took place in 17 countries, with indigenous victims accounting for 40% of the total killings. And while murder represents the most extreme end of the spectrum, activists are also vulnerable to intimidation tactics, death threats, beatings, false criminalization, arrests and other restrictions of freedom.

The main drivers of these conflicts are land disputes between private land owners, governments and corporations; and local communities. Mining and extractive industries, logging, agribusiness and hydroelectric projects are often behind these land disputes. According to Global Witness, “Disputes over the ownership, control and use of land was an underlying factor in killings of environmental and land defenders in nearly all documented cases in 2014.”

Although public information about the perpetrators of these killings is limited, Global Witness found 10 documented cases related to paramilitary groups, 8 to police forces, 5 to private security guards, and 3 to military forces. “The true orchestrators of these crimes mostly escape investigation, but available information suggests that large landowners, business interests, political actors and agents of organized crime are often behind the violence,” the report stated.

Out of the 116 documented killings reported on by Global Witness, South and Central America was the hardest hit region in the world, with 88 of the total deaths. Honduras is currently suffering from the world’s worst violence against environmental activists, with more deaths per capita than any country in the world.
Berta Cáceres
A case study on 2015 Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres is included in Global Witness’s report. Cáceres was awarded the Prize for waging a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. For her activism, she is subjected to regular death threats, she has been criminalized by her government and has suffered the loss of murdered colleagues.

Join us next week as we take a closer look at Berta’s story and spotlight other Goldman Prize winners who have come under threat for their work to defend their communities’ natural resources.

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