The deadly cost of defending the environment

On a warm night in the Venezuelan Amazon rainforest, activist Lisa Henrito heard her name mentioned by a military officer on a state television programme, who was accusing her of “high treason” and of spearheading the formation of an Indigenous nation. 

Ten days earlier, during an assembly of Indigenous Peoples in the city of Puerto Ordaz, Lisa Henrito declared that it was the state’s duty to respect and recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their territories and resources; this had a serious impact on the advancing militarisation and financial exploitation of the Venezuelan Amazon.

The unique relationship between Indigenous Peoples and their ancestral lands is widely recognised by international human rights law. This special relationship is paramount both for their livelihoods and for the cultural integrity of their identities. Indigenous Peoples have been leading the defence of rights relating to land, territory and the environment with resilience, but this global fight is becoming increasingly fraught with danger.

In Venezuela, in an area threatened by mega-projects such as the Arco Minero—for which the prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples was not sought and for which there were no publicly accessible environmental impact assessments, meaning the potential damage to their territories could not be gauged—the danger faced by these guardians of the land and environment increases as the natural resources are depleted and the frantic search for raw materials intensifies. Violence is on the rise.

Like thousands of environmental defenders in the region, Lisa Henrito is paying a high price for defending human rights. Her name has been added to the list of individuals being persecuted for rallying against the exploitation that threatens the last of nature’s refuges on the planet.

Criminalisation and campaigns to discredit the defence of human rights have become a type of violence that is normalised by the region’s states. The stigmatising language used by Venezuelan authorities to point the finger at and “accuse” Lisa is a form of institutional violence that puts her life and physical integrity at risk, and likewise jeopardises the lives of all defenders and Indigenous leaders who expose human rights violations.

In Honduras, renowned Lenca leader and defender Berta Cáceres faced the same circumstances. A victim of the epidemic of killings of environmental defenders, the leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) knew all too well that for our Indigenous Peoples, the defence of land is synonymous with cultural preservation and the survival of a way of life that acknowledges its total dependence on nature.

As a result of its vast natural wealth, which attracts commercial exploitation, and the implementation of an economic model that has already proven to be unsustainable, the deadliest place for environmental activism is Latin America, where approximately 60% of all killings of environmental defenders are concentrated.

In 2016, 40% of these defenders were Indigenous people; in 2017, 13 out of every 15 defenders killed in Mexico were Indigenous people trying to protect their ancestral lands. On 24 October 2018, the Rarámuri Indigenous human rights defender Julián Carrillo was violently killed by an armed group in the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua, Mexico, even though protective measures had been provided by the Mexican authorities. Julián spent years defending the land and environment against illegal logging, the exploitation of resources and the presence of organised crime.

Despite international condemnation and the cosmetic measures implemented at a state level, the situation faced by environmental defenders in the region has not improved. In fact, reports by human rights organisations show that the risk of being killed while defending the environment and territory is increasing year on year.

Since 2016, Amnesty International has warned that this is the most dangerous region in which to defend human rights, with Honduras having been crowned the most perilous country for environmental defenders. Now we are deeply concerned that Venezuela is heading in the same direction. If measures are not put in place to protect human rights defenders, Venezuela could end up being added to the list of places where defending the environment and Indigenous territories means persecution and death.

In Venezuela today, Lisa Henrito and her people are dealing with an assertion of control over the Amazon—under the guise of public safety—that aims to demobilise and drive out the communities of Indigenous Peoples in order to facilitate mining operations and the exploitation of natural resources.

The militarisation of resources, particularly in the mineral- and biodiversity-rich Amazon, is not a recent phenomenon, just as the involvement of state officials in the criminalisation, harassment and even murder of environmental activists is nothing new.

This strategy adopted by the Venezuelan government is taking place in the midst of a severe economic and human rights crisis that disproportionately affects marginalised groups such as Indigenous Peoples.

Governments and companies are working together on projects that fuel inequality, putting the financial interests of a few above the human rights of the majority, and that disregard the right to life of those who stand up and defend their territory. Indeed, justice is nothing but an optical illusion for human rights defenders in the line of fire, as demonstrated by the many shortcomings in the investigations into the killings of defenders such as Berta Cáceres in Honduras, Isidro Baldenegro in Mexico and Sabino Romero in Venezuela. Likewise, the systematic harassment and criminalisation of Peruvian defender Máxima Acuña reveals just how far the government’s pursuit of and complicity in unsustainable development can go.

The political will of the region’s governments to bring this phenomenon to a halt is non-existent, but it is imperative that they commit to the protection of environmental defenders, understanding that Indigenous People need culturally sensitive protective measures that respect their special jurisdictions and national and international regulatory frameworks.

Collective and individual protective measures must respond not only to situations and threats, but also to risks that are based on gender and culture.

There is no metal or gemstone that is worth a human life or the destruction of the fragile ecological cycles on which we all depend for the exercise of our basic human rights.

As societies, it is our duty to continue to demand that the states protect defenders such as Lisa Henrito and the thousands of Indigenous leaders who safeguard and care for the environment and our shared resources, as it is they who are tirelessly working to chart our course towards a sustainable present and future.

This article was originally published in Spanish by El Nacional