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The Risks of  Activism

In a time where the environment faces an ever-growing threat at the hands private corporations and state neglect, activist activity is needed like never before. But standing up for the environment can come with grave, sometimes life-threatening risks.

Last year, the murder of Berta Caceres, an environmental activist in Honduras sparked international protests and ended her long opposition to the proposed Agua Zarca Dam, which was to be built on the land of the indigenous Lenca people. In 2015, she had won the prestigious Goldman environmental prize for her extensive efforts to protect the areas natural resources. Just months after her death, the indigenous Mexican activist Isidro Baldanegro Lopez, also a winner of the Goldman prize for his non-violent campaign against illegal logging was shot dead in a relative’s home. These are just two of many activist deaths that have occurred over the last few years – and the numbers seem to be rising.

In 2016, figures showed a 59% increase in environmental activist murders since 2014, with 185 activists killed in 16 countries in 2015 and 200 activists in 2016. This threatens not only professional activists, but ordinary people opposing land grabs, mining operations and industrial timber trade, which are aggressively displacing vulnerable communities.

The demand for mineral products, wood and land space are a continual source of pressure on communities, particularly indigenous communities. Of the deaths, around 40% of them are members of indigenous communities, who are trying to protect the natural resources that their traditional means of survival rely on.

Flickr | Greenpeace SwitzerlandWhilst activists face risks across the world, Latin America in particular is the most dangerous region for environmental activists. Brazil has been found to be one of the most dangerous countries for those defending natural resources, with 448 deaths between 2002 and 2013. In 2015, the country saw 50 activist murders, mostly linked to opposition towards agricultural encroachment and illegal logging in the Amazon. Other countries like Honduras have also been marked as one of the most dangerous regions, with more than 120 people killed since 2010.

In many areas, the economic model relies heavily on the extraction of materials and the construction of power plants, meaning that the government will ultimately side with private interests over local communities. Other plans, such as land growth concession models, are often a cover for land grab and timber grab projects. Consequently, the lack of state support means that communities are completely reliant on their own abilities and the attention of environmental activists, who often also face limited resources.

The powerful network of state officials, landowners and criminal bosses involved in the environmental devastation pose a major threat to ordinary people trying to fight a corrupted system. In fact, some agricultural and mining firms are supported by para-military groups, whilst a large number of such companies have international investments from areas such as the US, the European Union and China. 

The government’s failure to protect its struggling communities and the general neglect by the international community is a major factor in the injustice and the further continuation of the killings – in many ways, the environment is a new battleground for human rights.

Flickr | Julien HarnelsA further issue that arises from the violence is the prosecution of the perpetrators. Few cases end in formal reports, meaning that a lot of activist deaths are likely still undocumented. Fear of the perpetrators hinders a lot of people from taking action after a friend or family member is killed. For instance, the year 2013 saw only 10 successful prosecutions linked to the murders in Brazil. Whilst this may mean that a small number of the people who undertook the murders may have been charged, those who hired them have been left untouched.

Because the powerful networks remain in-tact, defiant activists face ever-growing obstacles that affect not only themselves but their communities as well. For many, engaging in protest means daily sacrifice. The Cambodian environmentalist Leng Ouch, responsible for exposing a multi-million dollar illegal logging operation with connections to high-level Cambodian government officials, spent most of his activity undercover in order to gain access to logging sites and the international ports. He now lives mostly in safe houses, and suspects that his family is being kept under surveillance. Such measures are not uncommon consequences in the fight for the preservation of natural resources.

Whilst the violence towards environmental activists highlights a lot of issues regarding land rights, environmental conservation and governmental priorities, it is also important to note that the consumerist needs of global communities are fueling the pressure behind land exploitation for economic gains. States and investors, both international and regional, must cut ties with invasive projects that are willing to resort to such violent measures – only when all levels take responsibility for the lives they are putting at risk can the problem be properly combatted.

By Laura Hallensleben - Online Journalism Intern

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