Are Environmentalists Becoming an Endangered Species?

By: Emily Canney

In the United State an environmentalist is not always the most poplular person at a party. Well, in Latin America environmentalist are not just disliked, they are being murdered at an alarming rate. Between the years 2002 and 2015 the U.K.-based NGO Global Witness recorded that more than 900 environmentalist were killed in Latin America. In 2015, the deadliest year to date, at least 185 environmental activists were murdered worldwide and more than half of these murders occurred in Latin America.

A probable cause for this astonishing murder rate is the increase in tension between foreign companies funding these developments and the indigenous group’s who are protesting.  Many of these developments are wiping out land that has been occupied by indigenous groups for generations.  There are strong economic incentives in place that allow the foreign exploitation of local resources, like coal mining reservoirs, which cause local ranchers and loggers to be pushed off their land. These local ranchers and loggers then move into and take over the lands of the indigenous peoples. Most indigenous groups lack legal titles to their lands, making it easy for these displaced ranchers and loggers to illegally take their property. Without a property deed many of these natives have no form of redress in the legal system, which is why most indigenous groups have taken to protesting foreign development to prevent their land from being intruded on in the first place.

One of the most recent high profile murders occurred in northern Mexico. Isidro Baldenergo López was an indigenous  activist that protested illegal logging in the Sierra Madre Region. On January 15, 2017, Baldenergo was murdered, as was his father, for defending his people’s traditions and livelihoods.  Baldenergo won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 for his peaceful protests against Sierra Madre logging. This was the second time a Goldman award winner was murdered in recent years. A year prior to Isidro’s assassination Berta Cáceres was murdered in La Esperanza, Honduras. Cáceres was a leader of the Lenca indigenous group and was protesting  the development of hydropower projects in Honduras.  Two weeks before Cáceres’ murder another indigenous activist, Nelson Garcia, was shot in the face in Honduras, and one day later Walter Méndez, an environmentalist, was shot multiple times in his front yard in Guatemala.

Even the people who are not activists or environmentalist are being targeted by this violence just because they refuse to give up their land to a new development or project. Maxima Acuña de Chaupe is an example of this. Chaupe’s house was ransacked, her dog was murdered, and her children have been repeatedly threatened and shot at because Chaupe refused to sell her potato farm to a gold mining company.

Latin American governments have done little to investigate these murders. In Mexico the government has said that it plans to look into the murder of Baldenergo, but as of today no formal investigation has been initiated. Also, the Honduras police reported that Cáceres was murdered during an attempted robbery, even though it is common knowledge that she was murdered because of her activism. However, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies has “condemned” these murders and has created a National Environmental Defendor Day each July 17th. Yet, no additional investigation has taken place to discover who is committing the murders, and no additional funding has been given to help create a safe place for environmentalist to voice their opinions.

Another issue contributing to an increase of tension, and in turn murders, is that many countries are not enforcing environmental regulations thereby fostering new developments and encouraging rapid development.  Countries like Peru and Honduras have governmental policies that favor development and foreign investors over their own people and land. In 2010, Honduras created a law that gave their government the right to sell its country’s water to the highest bidder.  International funding encourages these governments to fail in the protection of their environmentalists, those who are trying to prevent these projects and their sources of income. The World Bank has lent more than$50 billion dollars to “high risk” projects that contribute to the ongoing confrontations in Latin America, according to the International Consortium Investigative Journalists.

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