Lack of governmental investigation, police or military complicity and increasing criminalization of social protest are some of the numerous common features of today's environmental justice conflicts from all over the world
On March 15th 2016, twelve days after Berta - who spearheaded the fight against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam - was shot in her home, gunmen killed her colleague Nelson Noe Garcia. Three years earlier, the Honduran armed forces shot another leader of the same Lenca indigenous community: Tomás Garcia. Since this first killing, the military and the Honduran government have been criminalizing the Council of Civic Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which was co-founded by Berta in 1993. False accusations of violence, murder and even terrorism have become the norm. The state's terrorism has been happening to facilitate the construction of the dam and to repress the opposition to it.
What made Berta's murder more widely known is that only a year earlier, she had won a prestigious international award as protector of the environment: the Goldman Prize. That made her a global celebrity in the world of environmental activism. However, it didn't stop the state of Honduras executing a plan they've build up over many years. In fact, in 2013, due to an alarming number of threats of sexual violence and death, Berta was forced into hiding for a short while. She and her colleagues were frequently intimidated by the military and the government, who took many steps to tar their images. All this had led to the recommendation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to ask the government to take ‘precautionary measures' for her safety. Yet, not only was she brutally gunned down in her own home, but also her suspected perpetrators have not yet been convicted.
A recent investigation by the Guardian newspaper along with leaked court documents raise serious concerns that this was an extrajudicial killing planned by the Honduran military intelligence. In fact, despite an International outcry and rallies at embassies of Honduras all over the world, the brutalities still continue. In October 2016 two other COPINH leaders survived separate murder attempts.
Part of a pattern
Berta's murder and its perpetrators' non-penalization is not an isolated case, but one among numerous environmental activists across the world whose murders go unpunished.
People's struggles to protect nature and the local communities' livelihoods and health against all kinds of ecological distribution conflicts are of course not only related to the cases of hydroelectric projects like the one mentioned above but are also triggered by all kinds of projects pushing the commodity extraction frontiers further. These include mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, construction of power plants or the destruction of mangroves for aquafarming, just to name a few.
Another such regrettable incident happened not so long ago, on January 17th, 2017. Laura Leonor Vasquez Pineda was shot dead by unidentified men at the entrance of her house, in Mataquescuintla, Guatemala. She was 47-years-old and in charge of two grandchildren. Laura was a prominent member of the Committee Defending San Rafael Las Flores. This environmental justice organization was created in 2011 to organize the local resistance to the El Escobal/San Rafael gold and silver mine. The operating license was granted to the Canadian company Tahoe Resources in April 2013 by the national government and without the local inhabitants´ prior consent.
The Mesoamerican Initiative of Advocate Women (MIAW) denounces a territorial femicide. The organization reminds us that Laura's activism, just like Berta's, was criminalized until her life was taken away. She was imprisoned for seven months in 2013 whilst the evidence of the charges the public ministry had against her were never presented. After her release she suffered a campaign stigmatizing and discrediting her as a retailer. She actually owned a small shop which was her principal source of livelihood. The World Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights reckons that besides Laura, at least 14 more activists opposing the San Rafael mine were improperly sued. Again analogous to Berta Caceres' case, another member of Laura Vasquez's organization was killed:Telésforo Pivaral in April 2015.
The kill list keeps growing
Global Witness records every year many other instances of the physical elimination of environmental activists, women and men. The EJAtlas maps many of these deplorable incidents, be it Nilce de Souza Magalhães in Brazil, Rosalinda Perez in Guatemala, Gloria Capitan and Teresita Navacillas in the Philippines, Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto in El Salvador, Vincent Machozi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe in South Africa or Somporn Pattanabhumi, Montha Chukaew, Pranee Boonrat and Chai Bunthonglek from Thailand. Lack of governmental investigation, police or military complicity and increasing criminalization of social protest are some of the numerous common features of today's environmental justice conflicts from all over the world.
These people, like most defenders of nature and human rights, are ordinary people with common aspirations of sustaining a happy and healthy life for their family and friends. Is the protection of this dream a reason to be killed for and not worthy of any justice? What would you do if tomorrow someone constructed an incinerator which polluted your neighborhood, or built a dam that submerged your home?
The current economic model which facilitates the global unsustainable production and consumption patterns is putting at risk both the ecosystems and the people defending it. There is a need to acknowledge these interdependencies. This implies that unless we can drastically change the system, and curb our insane addiction to natural resources, territorial femicides and their perpetrators' impunity will continue and most likely intensify. Those perpetrating ecocide are those perpetrating femicide. We need to come together and raise our voices to demand justice for the women who like Berta Caceres are brutally silenced on the frontlines of the struggles for environmental justice.
Camila and Brototi are PhD candidates at Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and a part of the EnvJustice team