Murdered Activists, Government Collusion, and Environmental Injustice
A historic pact is built on the legacy of murdered environmental activists
Just this week, 33 Latin American and Caribbean governments came together to sign the world’s first legally binding pact in defense of environmental activists. The objective of the pact is to guarantee access to environmental information, environmental justice and cooperation, and “the protection of the right of every person of present and future generations to live in a healthy environment and to sustainable development.”
This pact also guarantees safety for human rights defenders in environmental matters, “so they are able to act free from threat, restriction and insecurity.” Why, you might ask, is this necessary?
Well, here’s a staggering statistic: in 2017, nearly 200 environmental defendersacross the globe were killed – nearly four per week. All of these deaths were linked to some sort of industry. The majority of deaths were linked to agribusiness, mining, poaching, and logging, with the highest number of defender deaths being recorded in Brazil and the highest death rate per capita recorded in Honduras. This is a problem the Guardian has been tracking in conjunction with the international human rights organization Global Witness. Since the list was first started in 2002, the death toll has risen fourfold, and underscores, as Jonathan Watts observes at the Guardian, “the violence on the frontiers of a global economy driven by expansion and consumption.”
Death, by the way, is not the only threat environmental activists face. As Watts reports in that same article, “The EU-funded Environmental Justice Atlas has identified more than 2,335 cases of tension over water, territory, pollution or extractive industries, and researchers say the number and intensity are growing.” Tension meaning beatings, imprisonment, harassment, and threats.
The issue here really came into the spotlight in 2016, when indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, was shot in her home in Honduras. Cáceres had been awarded the Goldman Prize for building a grassroots campaign that “successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.” She received death threats from lots of different quarters: politicians, police, development interests. The Honduran government has been accused of collusion in her death, although they deny it.
A question worth asking: if governments are at times involved in the murders of activists, how can environmentalists expect government protection? An important stipulation in the pact necessitates third-party oversight for transparency’s sake, but it’s hard to know to what end this will guarantee protection. Either way, this treaty is being viewed as an important step forward in the fight against environmental injustice.
The decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument was not just about land access. It was also about mineral resources.
Last fall, you might remember, the Trump administration enacted the largest reversal of monument protections in history. Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah contains more than 100,000 cultural and archeological sites, and is deeply significant to indigenous populations in the area. Despite these facts, the White House went ahead and shrunk the monument, citing land access as its reason.
Through the Freedom of Information act, The New York Times gained access to all Bears-Ears-related internal documents, and reported this week that, contrary to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s claims, oil and gas played a big role in the decision.
Shrinking the monument was first proposed in March of 2017, when Senator Orrin Hatch’s office (R-UT) proposed a boundary change to “resolve all known mineral conflicts.” Utah has a standing program, the Trust Lands Administration, that funnels funds from mineral rights sales into state institutions (mainly public schools), and wanted to shrink Bears Ears to raise state funds. John Andrews of the Trust Lands Administration claimed that the Trump administration’s decision to reduce Bears Ears reflected his group’s request, but by “a much larger amount than his organization had sought,” signifying that there were other factors involved in the decision. Factors likely excluded from the decision are the millions of public comments, 96% of which opposed review of Bears Ears National Monument.
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header image: "berta cáceres's daughter, bertha zúniga cáceres," daniel cima / flickr