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Record Number of Land and Water Rights Defenders Killed in 2016

July 17, 2017

By Zachary Slobig

Global Witness released a damning report late last week that shows it has never been deadlier to stand up against corporations seizing land and destroying the environment, tallying 200 deaths over the course of 2016. That’s nearly four people every week who lost their life defending precious natural resources, more than double the number just five years ago. In the first five months of 2017 the outlook remains grim with a tally of nearly 100 killings. The pressures of development, from mining and logging, to dam construction and poaching, has never been greater.

Global Witness teamed up with the Guardian on a project called “the defenders” to continue to track the killing of those defending land and water rights and protecting the environment, and to tell the stories of some of those who remain under threat. We caught up with Billy Kyte from Global Witness to hear more about those most under threat from what he calls “a culture of impunity” that allows for such gross human rights violations.

Zach Slobig: What do you think is causing this spike in the past year? Is it a combination of these conflicts becoming more common and governments being less capable of intervening, or what do you see as the big picture here?

Billy Kyte: There’s an increasing scramble for natural resources, so we’re seeing large destructive industries like mining, agribusiness, and logging encroaching on previously untouched areas. That comes into conflict with indigenous communities above all.

We’re also seeing increased impunity. Berta Caceres, the renowned Honduran environmentalist was brutally shot down in her home despite international recognition. We know of eight people detained for that murder. Many had links to the Honduran military, and there’s increased collusion between business and state interests. Before this was isolated to quite remote regions, but now we’re seeing high profile activists gunned down in cities.

Zach: You’ve documented 200 killings, but how much goes unreported?

Billy: It’s hard to tell. Our research is probably the tip of the iceberg. There are many regions where we can’t report from because of lack of freedom of expression and less media reports.

Zach: You mentioned this hits indigenous communities hardest. What’s not happening to protect those communities?

Billy: Historically these communities have been marginalized all over the world. Especially so in Latin America, which accounts for 60 percent of those killed last year. When a company come into a territory to start activities, often information is not available in local languages. They have less access to justice mechanisms and to the media, or even to national organizations to carry that advocacy.

Zach: Historically Honduras is the most dangerous country per capita for environmental activists, according to your data. What is it that makes Honduras such a hot spot?

Billy: Since 2009 when there was a right wing coup, the government has harassed activists and built a narrative that paints them as anti-development. There’s also been a big push by the government to increase foreign investments into industry and hydro power, and that’s coupled with high levels of corruption. Many of these projects wouldn’t get the green light without corruption. That starts when concessions are given out, bribes are paid to local officials, and attempted bribes of local activists. This all leads to the impunity at the end of the scale where threats and attacks are not held to account.

Zach: The report includes very personal narratives of some of these activists on the ground. How do you navigate with them the potential sensitivities around retribution?

Billy: We always make sure that what we’re saying has already been said publicly, to ensure that this won’t create any new legal threats from these companies they’re opposing. We make sure that they know the risks and benefits.

Zach: In some cases it seems you’re giving folks a much bigger megaphone, bringing these issues to an international level. With these reports in the past, have you been able to actually drill down into the impact and benefits for those real people on the ground?

Billy: We released an in-depth investigation into Honduras earlier this year, our first foray into actual investigating, with arbitrators doing actual field research and uncovering corruption and rights abuses. We’ve now seen a reduction in the killings of activists in Honduras, which is difficult to link directly to our work, but it’s certainly a positive step.

The Honduran government recently announced the creation of a human rights minister post, and we try our best to use leverage from particularly the U.S., which has influence in a lot of these countries, and in Honduras particularly, to ensure that there’s more protection given to these people.

Zach: What’s not being done that should be done by companies, governments, and even concerned citizens?

Billy: I think you’ve touched on a good point that businesses and investors have a pivotal role to play because without investor’s money, these projects wouldn’t get the go-ahead in the first place.  So we’re calling on governments, businesses, and investors to do three things. First, tackle the root causes, and that includes the right of local communities to say no to projects, and to control their land and resources. Second is to ensure these activists have the protections that they need through changes in laws, policies, and practices. Third is to end the lack of accountability abuses, and to ensure that investor money isn’t fueling this violence.

In terms of the average person, we call on people to pressure their governments, and their companies to look at their supply chains. Consumption is a huge issue, right? A lot of this stuff wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for the rise in demand for the natural resources of these countries. There’s a big case to be made for everyone to be wary of what they buy and where it comes from, particularly if it’s tainted with the violence on the frontline.

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