Latin America has long been a hotbed for social and environmental activism. Unlike most active protesters here in the States, activists in Central and South America deal with an entirely different level of resistance, which have sometimes resulted in violent conflict.
According to a report released in 2014 by Global Witness, a watchdog organization active in many social and environmental campaigns around the world, more than 900 environmental activists have been killed in conflicts around the world in the past ten years.
Last year alone, an average of two environmental activists lost their lives every week struggling to protect natural resources. An estimated 40 percent of those killed belonged to indigenous communities, and 75 percent of all killings took place in Latin America, where five of the six deadliest countries for activists are located.
In the report, Honduras had the highest number of killings per capita, earning the label, “Most Dangerous Country for Environmental Activists in the World.” There have been 111 documented killings in Honduras in the past twelve years.
The income gap in the five Latin American countries highlighted in the report—Honduras, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico—is one of the largest underlying causes behind many of the region’s intense conflicts over environmental preservation and land-use.
According to the co-author of the report, Oliver Courtney, a relatively small number of wealthy, influential individuals own the vast majority of land in South America, while the larger percentage of the population remains poor and reliant on the land. As you might expect, Courtney says, “That dynamic sparks conflict.”
Interestingly, the report suggests that a powerful collection of “large landowners, business interests, political actors and agents of organized crime” are increasingly targeting influential activists from indigenous communities.
The report backs up this claim by documenting the extremely low percentage of killings that go unsolved in the region. According to Courtney, “[Only] one percent of the cases that we have documented [involve] a known killer who has been brought to justice.”
Abuses of Power
While those seeking a relaxing South American vacation should be aware of the rising tensions in the region, we should also understand the larger, systemic issues that spur many of these violent acts. For the indigenous people of the region, violations of basic human and natural rights should not be condoned simply for the sake of “progress and development.”
In many countries, the government would step in and act as a neutral mediator to resolve these conflicts. Unfortunately, the rampant corruption in many Latin American countries only exacerbates the issue. Honduras, says the report, “…suffers from one of the highest levels of corruption in the Americas and has one of the world’s highest homicide rates.”
Honduras is also plagued by widespread illegal logging practices and suffers one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. The country’s government continues to make way for these practices by further relaxing environmental regulations in response to the recent economic downturn that has sparked pressure to drive financial growth.
A recent statement by Billy Kyte, a campaigner at Global Witness, aptly captured the nature of the situation, “In Honduras and across the world environmental defenders are being shot dead in broad daylight, kidnapped, threatened, or tried as terrorists for standing in the way of so-called ‘development’. The true authors of these crimes—a powerful nexus of corporate and state interests—are escaping unpunished. Urgent action is needed to protect citizens and bring perpetrators to justice.”
Protecting Basic Human and Environmental Rights Globally
While it can be easy to take the right to free speech for granted in the States, activists in Latin America face the ultimate consequence for voicing opposition to the unhealthy corporate business practices being allowed in their countries. The right to free speech should extend to the indigenous communities of Latin America, just as it does to the citizens of the United States.
If you wish to learn more about the Global Witness report, or you’d like to donate to the organization’s efforts to protect the rights of environmental activists around the world, please visit their website.
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