July 19, 2016
The 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.