Murder Of Honduran Environmental Activist Showcases The Risk Environmentalists Face Around The World

CREDIT: AP Photo/Fernando Antonio

People embrace as they wait for the arrival of the body of slain Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, outside the coroners office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Thursday ,March 3, 2016. Caceres, a Lenca indigenous activist who won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in fighting a dam project, had previously complained of receiving death threats from police, soldiers and local landowners because of her work.

Before Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was gunned down in her home Thursday, she knew her life was in danger. She had long reported death threats as she fought illegal logging and, most recently, a massive dam project.

“In my organization alone,” she told CNN en Español in 2015, “we have 10 people who’ve been killed with total impunity.”

As of Friday, Honduran police say the cause of the crime is under investigation, though initial official reports point to an alleged botched robbery. As the investigation continues, Cáceres’ family said it will lead a demonstration in Tegucigalpa to protest the government’s failure to protect Cáceres — who was under police protection — and her community as they opposed a proposed dam.

Meanwhile, her murder has made headlines around the world. Outlets from the BBC to NPR and even the New York Times have reported on the tragic death of an indigenous woman who long fought for environmental justice, despite harassment. But the manner of death of this 45-year-old, award-winning environmentalist is strikingly similar to how hundreds of other environmentalists in the Americas and elsewhere have died in the past few decades. It also raises serious concerns for activists, who are reminded once again that environmental justice is, in many countries, a potentially deadly cause.

This isn’t a new problem, however. A gruesome quadruple murder in the Amazon’s Ucayali region of Peru in September 2014 made international news, too. The alleged culprits were illegal loggers enraged by the natives’ efforts to protect their ancestral lands.

Moreover, more than 25 years ago, Chico Mendes, a Brazilian activist who campaigned to stop deforestation in the Amazon, was shot dead with a rifle as he went to the back of his house to take a shower. Mendes had just turned 44 when the rancher who was eventually found guilty of the crime killed him with a single bullet.

“By no means is the problem getting better,” said Billy Kyte, senior campaigner at Global Witness, an organization that has been tracking deaths of activists, whom the nonprofit calls environmental defenders. He noted the issue seems to be a growing problem, particularly in America as indigenous lands are encroached upon. “The increase in demand of natural resources is fueling ever more violence.”

At least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014, according to Global Witness’ latest figures, and 40 percent of those killed are from indigenous communities. Total deaths are almost double the number of journalists killed in that same period, and fatalities have been increasing since 2002.

Brazil tops the list with 29 murders, followed by Colombia, the Philippines, Honduras, and Peru. What’s more, three fourths of environmental activists’ deaths happen in the Americas. Kyte said this may be happening because Latin American civil societies may be better organized, and thus more likely to fight off unwanted development. That’s not to say that environmental activists are not in danger in African or Asian countries, he added.

“Asia is also hard hit,” Kyte told ThinkProgress, but added that confirming the figures Global Witness compiles is much more difficult in these regions. In any case, Kyte believes the Global Witness report just describes the tip of the iceberg. “It’s hard to get information about attacks against [environmental] defenders.”

For years protests sparked by socio-environmental concerns were surging in countries like Peru, said Maria Luisa Vasquez, a Peruvian political scientists who specializes in public policy.

In an email to ThinkProgress, Vasquez said environmental conflicts are showing a downward trend in Peru. That’s probably due to a decreasing demand of primary resources, she explained, “but this downward trend isn’t steep.”