Jeannette Kawas was an accountant whose concept of value was broader than any balance sheet. No number could capture for her the natural wealth she saw in the forests, rivers, beaches and mangrove swamps of Punta Sal, near her hometown of Tela in northern Honduras.
In the 1980s, cattle ranchers, resort developers and loggers all wanted a slice of this landscape. As their hunger grew, Kawas formed an environmental organization, PROLANSATE, to protect the land, and in 1994, it convinced the government to allow it to create and manage a new national park there.
Within three months PROLANSATE renamed Punta Sal National Park to honor its founder, because on February 6, 1995 Jeannette Kawas was shot dead in her home. Years later a ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Kawas’s work in defense of the environment had motivated the murder.
Kawas was a victim of a largely unreported war that still rages around the world two decades later. Its casualties are women and men who through peaceful acts work to defend their local environment from polluters and miners, land grabbers and loggers. In the past decade, close to 1,000 such activists in 35 countries were murdered, according to a report published in April 2014 by Global Witness.
“This report is a good one to alert people to the sad reality at hand,” says Alfredo Quarto, executive director of Mangrove Action Project, which has documented murders of activists and community leaders who stood in the way of shrimp farmers. “In a five-year period in the 1990s, over 100 local community members and activists were killed protesting shrimp farm encroachment and mangrove loss in Bangladesh. Similar reports of murdered community leaders who stood in the way of shrimp farmers come from Thailand, India, Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil.”
To tally the body count, Global Witness researchers scoured hundreds of credible, published and publicly available sources. They included only cases that stated the name of the victim, the nature of the death and the date, and for which the murder had a clear connection to the environment or land rights. Alice Harrison, a consultant with Global Witness, says the numbers underestimate the problem because levels of reporting are low, especially in Africa.
The globally reported murder rate has risen in recent years: In 2012, the last year for which there are reliable figures, it approached three per week. Harrison says it is unlikely that monitoring has increased enough to account for this increase in reported deaths, and that the real explanation is an ever faster race to profit from ever scarcer land and resources.
The report says that what’s behind that race to profit is consumer demand for electronic goods, tropical timber, beef, oil and — thanks to the ubiquity of palm oil in modern products — even mundane things such as toothpaste and peanut butter. Contributing to the problem are cash, corruption and a culture of impunity.
“Violence often results from powerful elites cashing in on resources for short-term export earnings from large scale production,” says Oliver Courtney, a senior campaigner at Global Witness. “This issue has its roots on our shop floors and living rooms. The growing pressure on resources that leads to conflict and killing is a product of overconsumption, largely in the rich world, driving demand for cheap commodities.”
“Many of those murdered were ‘accidental’ human rights defenders,” says John Knox, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University and independent expert on human rights and the environment of the United Nations Human Rights Council. “They got involved because it was their own land, their own forests, their own water they were defending.”
“What’s really unfortunate is that the contest is so one-sided,” says Knox. “On one hand are extremely powerful economic interests. On the other are people who are often marginalized in society, people who have not got allies and who are not very sophisticated in knowing what’s going. Often they first find out they are subject to a government decision when the bulldozers arrive, or the trees start falling or they get evicted from their land.”
When such people try to protest they may be met with threats, violence, unlawful detention and even death. In only about 1 percent of the murders Global Witness documented has the killer been tried, convicted and punished.
“There’s a screaming lack of political will,” says Harrison. “Some killings are at the behest of political actors or private sector companies linked to politicians. Some are not reported and followed up. There’s a fear of reprisals.” In the case of Jeannette Kawas, several reports from government agencies, including one from the attorney general’s office, include allegations that named members of the state security forces were involved in her murder. But nobody has been tried or convicted.
In 2013, a study estimated that Jeannette Kawas National Park provides ecological goods and services worth $46 million per year. That’s close to a billion dollars of uncounted benefit since the park’s creation in 1994. If Kawas had been armed with these numbers 20 years ago, perhaps she would be alive today.
Stemming the Flow
With the death toll rising, organisations like Global Witness want to stimulate action both in countries where the killings take place and in countries in which consumers, journalists and governments can exert some influence.
“It’s a combination of working with organisations at the grassroots that encounter these crimes, raising awareness and funnelling it upwards,” says Harrison. “We want governments to monitor this and bring perpetrators to justice. We are working at the international level to do this and hold governments to account.”
Experience shows that people are generally safer if they are known internationally, so Global Witness plans to work with partner organizations around the world to develop an early warning system that can raise the profile of environmental defenders and their struggles. “We don’t want to look only at deaths, when it is too late,” says Harrison.
In a similar vein, an international network of researchers from universities and nongovernmental organizations has developed the Environmental Justice Atlas, an online map and database of stories of more than a thousand ongoing environmental conflicts that users can search by commodity, country or company.
Global Witness wants to see a fall in consumer demand for products linked to violence — such as timber, soya and palm oil. “Governments need to legislate for this and enable consumers to make informed decisions,” says Courtney. “Norway now obliges companies to disclose their environmental impacts, and its food companies now publish their use of palm oil. As a result, Norway’s food sector reduced palm-oil consumption by two-thirds in a single year.”
Rights vs. Wrongs
According to the Treaty Alliance, a global coalition of more than 500 civil society groups, what’s needed is a legally binding international treaty to address human rights violations by corporations. The alliance is urging the U.N. Human Rights Council to set this in motion. Governments, meanwhile, already have obligations under human rights law to protect citizens who speak out about development choices or environmental protection, as the case of Jeannette Kawas shows.
In a landmark ruling in 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that Honduras violated several rights to the detriment of Kawas and her family. It ordered Honduras to make amends in several ways.
In a public ceremony in June 2010, the Minister for Interior and Justice of Honduras apologized and took responsibility for Kawas’s death. Yet Honduras failed to meet the court’s deadline for erecting a monument to Kawas, starting criminal proceedings against her killer or carrying out a national campaign to raise awareness of the work of environmentalists in defense of human rights.
Between 2011 and 2013, the Global Witness report shows, another 74 environment defenders were murdered in Honduras alone. With vast profits at stake and powerful interests pitted against poor and marginalized communities across the world, the body count is likely to rise.
“I don’t think it is a losing battle these people are fighting,” says Knox. “It has real victories, but they need help.” It is in the power of governments, companies and consumers to provide that help and give tomorrow’s grassroots environmental defenders hope that they can be heroes without being martyrs, too.
In recent days the blood of environmentalists has flowed once again. A man in China got beaten. A man in Thailand was shot dead. Both had campaigned against illegal pollution. They are just the latest in a long — and fast-growing — list of people whose exposure of environmental crimes has made powerful men their enemies. [*see six updates below]
On Monday a gunman shot Prajob Naowa-opas four times in broad daylight in Chachoengsao province, Thailand. The Bangkok Post reported that local police thought the murderer was a professional hit and that “Prajob’s public exposure of and active opposition to toxic waste dump sites was the probable cause”.
Around 2,500 kilometres away in China’s Zhejiang Province, lives a kindred spirit called Chen Yuqian, a 60-year-old resident of Pailian village. For ten years he has campaigned against paper mills he says are polluting the nearby river with toxic waste.
Last week he and other activists used online social media to challenge environmental officials to bathe in the river they were charged with keeping clean. But according to media reports this prompted a gang of men to raid his home at 6am on Sunday and beat him with their fists.
Two cases of violence against campaigners within a week might seem a coincidence but these are dangerous days for activists and journalists who speak out against powerful people whose actions harm the environment. In many parts of the world organised crime cartels, corrupt government officials and military units with muscle to flex are the powers that decide how and when to silence those who expose their greed.
Sombath Somphone, the best known environmental and development campaigner in Laos, is still missing. On 15 December 2012, men abducted him and drove him away in a van when police stopped him on a street in Vientiane. Next door in Cambodia, a military policeman shot dead Chut Wutty, a prominent campaigner against illegal deforestation in April of that year. Five months later, journalist Hang Serei Oudom was axed to death there after reporting on links between the military and illegal logging (see Journalists are dying to tell stories of environmental plunder and They kill environment journalists, don’t they?).
Intimidation, violence and murder have long been the tools that the powerful have used to cow those who oppose their lust for timber, oil, gems, fast money and even the ‘pink gold’ of farmed shrimp. But according to UK-based environmental investigators Global Witness, the death rate is rising. Their 2012 report A Hidden Crisis [PDF] described more than 700 murders over the past decade — that’s more than one each week on average. By 2011, there were 106 deaths — more than two a week.
Last year gunmen slayed five rangers in Chad whose job it was to protect the last of the region’s elephants. In 2011, in Brazil, hired killers murdered three environmental activists in a single week. And in the Philippines, since 2010, assassins have killed twenty of the forest rangers who try in vain to stop illegal logging. Professor William Kovarik of Radford University lists many more murders here.
Are the numbers rising just because of better communications? Or is there a real upsurge — and, if so, is it a sign of things to come? Either way, one thing is clear. To too many powerful and greedy men, the life of an environmentalist — or a journalist or a park ranger — is worth a lot less than some logs or some oil, a handful of diamonds or an elephant’s tusks. And between courage and cowardice we all stand or fall.
[Update: 5 March 2013. The BBC reports that Venezuelan authorities are investigating the killing of indigenous leader, Sabino Romero, a well-known campaigner for the return of ancestral land to the Yukpa tribe. Mr Romero was shot dead on Sunday when two gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on his vehicle on a motorway. He had earlier asked for police protection.]
[Update: 14 March 2013. Perween Rahman was murdered by masked gunmen on 13 March 2013 in Karachi, Pakistan. She worked with poor communities to help them gain legal title to land in the city’s informal settlements. The BBC reports that this may have made her enemies among local criminal groups intent on seizing land.]
[Update: 15 March 2013. On 12 March assassins murdered a Guatemalan activist and indigenous leader, Gerónimo Sol Ajcot, who was a senior member of the National Indigenous and Campesino Coordinating Council.]
[Update: 28 March 2013. Mongabay.com reports that on 22 March four masked men killed Onesimo Rodriguez, a Ngäbe indigenous Panamanian who opposed the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam project.]
[Update: 28 March 2013. MiningWatch Canada reports that on 17 March the President of the Xinca Indigenous Parliament and three other Xinca leaders were abducted by a group of heavily armed masked men while on their way home from observing a public referendum on Tahoe Resources‘ Escobal mine in Guatemala. Three of the men survived. Their vehicle was found with multiple bullet holes and one of the men — Exaltación Rámirez López — was found dead]
[Update: 9 April 2013. The Guardian reports that Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov — a Russian journalist who suffered brain damage and lost a leg after a brutal assault that followed his campaign about forest destruction for a road-building project — has died after choking to death in hospital, aged 55.]
Related posts: They kill environment journalists, don’t they?