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The Most Dangerous Place To Be An Environmentalist

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Published at Generation Progress. Photo: young Hondurans protest against mining.

As Al Gore and many others have said, “The future of our civilization is at stake,” due to climate change and a host of other environmental challenges. To preserve a planet worth living on, we will have to put a stop to deforestation, open pit mining, and many other destructive extractive industries. How will we do it if the loggers, miners, and destroyers are willing to kill to stay in business?

An April report from British nonprofit Global Witness shows the importance of that question. The group documented at least 116 murders of environmental activists worldwide in 2014. Global Witness tracked only confirmed cases; the real toll is likely higher.

Since its democratically elected president was overthrown in a 2009 coup, Honduras has seen over 100 killings of environmental defenders. The small Central American nation is the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmentalist.

“A white car with tinted windows and no license plate would always stop near my shop. They wouldn’t roll down the windows,” one Honduran told me when I visited the country last year. He was involved in a campaign to prevent a mine from opening in the rural community where he lived. The mine was near one of the community’s sources of drinking water, and many residents feared that it would contaminate the supply.

He asked that his name not be used due to the threats he has received for his work.

“Then the calls began. Calling me, threatening me, saying they knew where I hung out, knew where my daughter went to school. But I still kept going. From there they sent me a note telling me to shut up, that I was going to regret was I was doing,” he said.

“They said they had me well studied, the places I went, the house where I slept, and that soon they were going to pay me a visit.”

One day, he got a phone call from friends saying that mysterious men were looking for him. He fled his hometown and hasn’t been back since.

“I’ve had moments of reflection. My children are young,” he said. “My wife has asked me with tears in her eyes that I try to separate myself a little bit, because they need me. That has put me between the sword and the wall, because I feel that the need to fight is urgent. I feel a pressure inside of me, a commitment to fight, of total dedication, but I have had to slow down a little.”

If other cases are any indication, the threat is real. In the Honduran community of El Níspero, locals have reported that an iron oxide mine is destroying water sources and farmland. National police have broken up protests against the mine, and in May 2014, the body of anti-mine activist Rigoberto López was dumped in public, tongue cut out and throat slit.

In Peru, Ashaninka indigenous leader Edwin Chota asked authorities for protection after receiving threats from illegal loggers in retribution for reporting their activities. He was murdered in September 2014; a community member told a local newspaper that Chota and three others were bound and shot in front of other residents of their Amazonian village.

One month later in the Southern Philippines, anti-mining activist and indigenous Lumad leader Henry Alameda was “dragged from his house, taken to a forested area and shot dead by a paramilitary group,” according to the Global Witness report.

The damage caused by each of these crimes reverberates far beyond the Honduran highlands, Peruvian Amazon, or Philippine coast. As the killings continue, they enable the type of destructive extractive industry that is damaging all of our futures.

“It’s difficult to quantify,” said Billy Kyte, one of the authors of the Global Witness report. “But I think you can definitely draw a general conclusion” that violence and intimidation against activists is worsening environmental destruction. For every one of the 116 killings documented by Global Witness, there is an even greater amount of intimidation that doesn’t lead to violence, but still deters activism in defense of the environment.

On both ends of the equation, young people are impacted. In the developing world, one doesn’t have to be an adult to defend the environment, or to die for it. Several members of the community of Río Blanco in Honduras have been killed for their resistance to a hydroelectric dam project, among them 15-year-old Maycol Rodríguez. In the same community, the 17-year-old son of a local leader was beaten by police. Berta Cáceres, one of this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, got her start as a student activist.

But even where young people aren’t on the front lines, these are fights over our future. Young people have a special interest in preserving both the local ecosystem services their communities rely on, as well as a healthy planet capable of sustaining life. If we’re going to put an end to problems like deforestation, it would help to make sure the deforesters aren’t killing the people who oppose them.

In the most direct sense, it’s a criminal justice problem. The people who target environmentalists are getting away with it.

“From the data we’ve found, conviction rates are unbelievably low. Of over 900 cases, we can only find ten of those in which a perpetrator has actually been tried and convicted,” Kyte said.

A lot of nations are not enforcing the laws they already have in place to protect environmental defenders, according to Kyte. Many nations are also ignoring the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous communities must give prior informed consent before any development projects take place on their land.

Meanwhile, activists are working toward a binding UN treaty that would make businesses more accountable for the abuses that take place in international commerce.

“Competition for natural resources is definitely intensifying,” Kyte said, “while consumption patterns demand that we need ever more resources to feed an ever-growing economy, and our kind of obsession with growth and the growth model demands that we have ever more resources to feed that.”

If the violence is going to end, consumers in the developed world have an obligation to be part of the solution.

“As consumers, young people in the US have a responsibility to ensure they don’t fuel the rapacious activities of the mining and agribusiness companies behind much of the violence against these activists,” Kyte said. “Young consumers should check the sources of the products they buy and where possible identify companies violating human rights abuses and boycott their goods.”

Americans support the violence in more concrete ways as well. The Honduran military—implicated in many abuses against Hondurans defending their land—receives part of its funding from taxes on mining profits, but it also receives funding from the United States.

“If this reaches the ears of those who make the great contributions to the army, for weapons, for all the logistical support for our Honduran compatriots: it would be better if this help didn’t come in this form, but instead for education. Here we need help with education, here we need help with health,” the Honduran anti-mining activist in hiding said.

“We don’t want them to keep sending help to the army,” he said. “This is only bringing mourning to our poor towns, and more and more innocent blood spilled in the streets.”

04/28/2014 // Amazon Jungle // Beni, Bolivia

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Flying over Amazonia in Bolivia. Areas of thick forest like this are less and less common. In neighboring Peru, the rainforest became a net carbon dioxide emitter rather than carbon sink for the first time in 2012, as deforestation released tree-trapped CO2 into the atmosphere.