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The Legacy of Berta Cáceres: What Environmentalists Can Learn From Human Rights Groups

July 19, 2016

Photo_bertacaceresThe murder of the environmental activist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres in Honduras in March came as a shock. Shortly after, I was asked to address the question of security for environmentalists at the annual meeting of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a U.S.-based conservation group started in New York's Hudson River Valley that today includes members from Colombia to Bangladesh.

Waterkeepers asked me to address the meeting because of my experience in advising journalists, human rights defenders, and activists on security matters. And the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to realize how much the environmental community can learn from press freedom and human rights groups.

Cáceres was shot dead in her own home and a fellow activist was wounded in the same attack. Less than a year before, she had been honored in San Francisco and Washington with the prestigious Goldman Prize, giving her a measure of international recognition and, one might have hoped, a measure of protection from such a brazen attack.

Alas, no form of protection or deterrence has worked. In fact, no fewer than a hundred and eighty-five environmental activists around the world were murdered last year — more than three a week — according to a report issued last month by the group Global Witness. That's more than double the number of journalists killed worldwide over the same period of time. Nearly two-thirds of the murdered environmentalists were indigenous activists like Cáceres. Brazil, host of the Summer Olympic Games, the Philippines, and Colombia topped the list of countries with the most environmentalists killed, followed by Peru, Nicaragua, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Last year's death toll represents an increase of 59 percent from the year before, and the trend has been moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, Global Witness reports that no fewer than 1,176 environmental activists worldwide have been killed since 2002. Even the conservative figure is more than the number of journalists documented to have been murdered over the same period. Mining, logging, and other extractive industries were the focus of many of the murdered activists, along with government-backed development projects like the proposed dam in Cáceres' case that would have destroyed a pristine river and the indigenous lands through which it flows.

Nearly all the killings were pre-meditated homicides; nearly all the killers enjoy blanket impunity. In Cáceres' case, five men, two of whom have ties to the Honduran construction industry and one of whom is a former Honduran military intelligence specialist, have since been arrested — itself a rare development. It remains to be seen, however, whether justice will be served on the men who shot her or the more powerful, shadowy figures who may have ordered her assassination.

I began my Waterkeepers' talk with a confession. Early in my career, I was torn between working for social justice in "hard" places like El Salvador or environmental causes in familiar places like Montana. I chose the former, concluding that green issues were fundamentally "bourgeois" concerns. (In my home state of New Jersey, environmentalism was all the rage in both major parties back then due to widespread dumping of hazardous materials that was threatening home property values across the state.)

I realize now I could not have been more wrong. The murders of Cáceres and so many others prove beyond a doubt that not only are "green" activists on the frontlines of social justice and human rights struggles around the world, they are being targeted at a greater rate than journalists or human rights or LGBT activists.

This is going to be a long struggle, I told the audience, so prepare yourselves. But don't despair; there are reasons for optimism.

First, however, we need to understand that if environmental activists are going to do their work, and do it well, they need to be safe. And safety begins with solidarity. As the director of the leading U.S.-based hostile environments training provider, I could simply tell you the solution to enhanced safety is to hire my firm. Training, along with the use of security cameras and other technologies, can and does make a difference. But no amount of training or technology can ever do as much to protect frontline environmentalists as the kind of protection that comes from collective advocacy, both inside and beyond the countries where the problem is most urgent.

Second, solidarity, as important as it is, is no panacea. Take the enterprising Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, the subject of a Hollywood film by the same name. Guerin was shot dead in her car in 1992 just seven months after she had been honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Recognition can help protect the lives of those who are in danger, but it isn't enough. Instead, advocates must build networks and promote green activism in ways that raise the profile of at-risk activists — both within their own communities and abroad.

Third, we must recognize that the root of the problem is the impunity of powerful interests, as well as the corruption and incompetence that undermines functioning judiciaries in almost every developing nation.  Less than two weeks after Cáceres' murder, one of her fellow activists, Nelson Garciá, was shot dead near his home. Last week, the body of another of Cáceres' colleagues, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, was found in a trash dump with signs of blunt trauma injury to her head.

In such a lawless environment, and even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence, powerful actors, especially those with ties to government, can stop a case before it gets started. In Colombia in 2001, a team of prosecutors brought charges, based on eyewitness testimony and documentation, against an Army general accused of okaying the use of paramilitary groups to commit massacres in remote villages and assassinate trade unionists, community leaders, and human rights activists. By the time the case collapsed, six regional prosecutors and twenty-two investigators had been murdered and the two lead prosecutors on the case, along with twenty other prosecutors and investigators, had fled the country.

Mustering the political will to compel institutions to change can take decades. It can, and has been, done, however. Guatemala was long one of Latin America's most violent and corrupt nations. But in recent years, in a sharp break from its past and with the support of a UN-backed anti-crime commission, the Guatemalan government has managed to prosecute two former presidents, albeit with mixed results, and a host of other once-powerful figures for crimes ranging from money laundering to sexual slavery.

Bringing change to other nations will be harder. Take Bangladesh. There, environmentalists are up against the same kind of collusion between powerful private interests and corrupt government officials faced by activists elsewhere. But in Bangladesh it occurs in a climate where independent bloggers, human rights activists, foreigners, and LGBT Bangladeshis are routinely bombed, shot, and hacked to death in the name of Islam.

How can we protect them? asked one Waterkeeper. I told them about Peace Brigades International, a UK-based NGO with an office in the United States that for decades has deployed teams of observers from the U.S. and Western Europe to provide "protective accompaniment" for threatened human rights activists in areas of conflict. The mere presence of the observers has kept many local activists and their families alive — without a single foreign observer having been lost in the process. And while I wouldn’t recommend that kind of assistance in a country like Bangladesh at the moment, in many countries around the world protective accompaniment for frontline environmentalists is an idea whose time has come.

The effectiveness of many environmental groups is predicated on their ties to, and passion for, the waterways and lands they work so hard to protect. Too often, however, these groups seem to exist in a bubble. The Waterkeepers publish a glossy print magazine for donor-subscribers. But unless every issue is searchable online, where other passionate environmentalists can find them, the magazine isn't going to be much help in terms of building a global solidarity movement. Similarly, no environmentalist wants to spend more of her time indoors than she has to, but Twitter and other social media platforms need to be embraced on a 24-7 basis if a movement hopes to cut through the noise and maintain and grow its presence.

The environmental movement also needs more groups capable of providing the kind of rigorous documentation we have come to expect from the likes of Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

For sure, Global Witness deserves credit for stepping up and pioneering the documentation of threats and violence against environmental defenders. But the initial data it has generated raises as many questions as it answers: Why are activists killed? Who are the suspected perpetrators? What is the status of government investigations into the murders? And which international interests are doing business with national or regional entities suspected of having ties to the murderers? Small grassroots groups such as Canadian-based Rights Action are doing their best to answer these questions in countries like Guatemala and Honduras and, together with Global Witness, have begun to shine a spotlight on the work that needs to be done.

At the same time, today's environmental movement has one advantage that, if nurtured, could provide frontline activists with a measure of the solidarity and protection they so desperately need. The movement to curb climate change is still an amorphous and largely leaderless jumble of competing interests (as was so wonderfully on display in Paris last fall), but it enjoys the backing of most Western governments. It is also the largest movement of its kind the world has seen.

Does anyone doubt that there is a direct link between the work of frontline environmentalists and the campaign to slow global warming? Yet how many climate change activists, let alone the public at large, are aware of the intimidation and violence that has been brought to bear against local environmental activists in recent years? Running a poll or two along these lines would be illuminating and a good place to start. But raising awareness about these slayings and the ongoing threat to environmental and indigenous activists is essential.

I have long thought of myself as an environmentalist, and I pay close attention to conservation issues. And yet I had no idea that so many environmentalist activists were being murdered until I was alerted to that fact by mutual friends' status updates about Berta Cáceres' murder on Facebook and then a call prompted by her murder from the Waterkeepers.

One way we can honor Cáceres' legacy is to take the hard but necessary steps needed to bust open our comfortable cocoons and forge alliances between environmentalists, climate change activists, and the donors, foundations, and governments that support them. Only by building a unified international movement will we be able to protect fearless activists like Berta Cáceres who are doing the kind of work that inspires and benefits us all.

Headshot_FrankSmythFrank Smyth is the founder and executive director of Global Journalist Security, the leading U.S.-based hostile environments training and consulting provider. A former arms trafficking investigator for Human Rights Watch and the author of the HRW report Arming Rwanda, Smyth has written for The Nation, The Village Voice, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal and has testified before the U.S. House and Senate, the Organization of American States, and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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