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Amnesty: Honduras, Guatemala Deadliest Countries for Environmental Activists

Indigenous rights activists are increasingly being murdered with impunity.

Slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres posters are carried  during a International Women's day demonstration in Tegucigalpa on March 08, 2016.     AFP PHOTO /Orlando SIERRA. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA        (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres posters are carried during a International Women's day demonstration in Tegucigalpa on March 08, 2016. AFP PHOTO /Orlando SIERRA. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 2, 2016 Berta Cáceres, a prominent Honduran environmental activist, was shot to death in her home. For many who followed her work, fighting against hydroelectric projects that imperil the livelihood of Lenca indigenous communities, the news was shocking, but not exactly a surprise. Cáceres had long received threats: her activism was so contentious, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered the Honduran government to implement precautionary measures to protect her last year. But the harassment continued unabated. 

Cáceres wasn’t alone. An Amnesty International report released Thursday paints a picture of pervasive hostility toward environmental campaigners in both Honduras and Guatemala, calling them “the world’s deadliest countries for environmental activists” on a per-capita basis. Last year eight activists working on environmental and territory issues were killed in Honduras, and 10 were killed in Guatemala.  According to the NGO, so-called “precautionary measures” afforded to activists like Cáceres often fail miserably to make any progress in limiting harassment and intimidation.

“The tragic murder of Berta Cáceres seems to have marked a deadly turning point for human rights defenders in the region,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, in a statement. “The lack of a transparent and effective investigation into her killing has sent the abhorrent message that shooting someone, point blank, for standing up to powerful economic interests is actually allowed.”

Indeed, the trend lines point to a deteriorating climate for activists in the region. According to a report earlier this year from Global Witness, an NGO, the number of people killed for environmental activism worldwide in 2015 jumped 59 percent from the previous year, to 185. Almost two-fifths of those were indigenous people trying to protect their own ancestral lands. Fueling the uptick in Honduras and Guatemala are a tangle of factors: The increase of extraction projects in the region; the intensification of the drug wars, pushed from Colombia and Venezuela into Central America; the militarization of policing; and a judicial system rife with impunity and corruption.

In their report, Amnesty catalogued a bevy of failures by the state: Weak protective measures for activists facing threats, intimidation, and a widespread failure to carry out independent investigations into their deaths. The NGO also pointed to the stigmatization of human rights workers, often victims of smear campaigns, as contributing to the increase in violence.

“How many more human rights defenders like Berta have to die until the authorities take action to protect people who defend our planet?” asked Guevara-Rosas.

Photo credit: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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