The price of our groceries isn’t just what we pay at the checkout counter ― it’s also the violent killings of environmental activists that reached record levels last year.
Paramilitaries, government troops, hired gangsters and smugglers killed 207 people trying to protect the environment from the spread of businesses like cattle ranches and sugarcane plantations in 2017, according to a new report by international NGO Global Witness. That’s approximately four environmental defenders killed every week of the year.
For the first time, agribusinesses that produce commodities such as beef, palm oil and coffee overtook mining and natural resource extraction as the most deadly sector for the (mainly) indigenous people who work either voluntarily or professionally to protect environmental or land rights.
Ramón Bedoya’s father, Hernán, was one of those 207 victims. Colombian paramilitaries shot him 14 times after he protested oil palm and banana plantations expanding onto his community’s lands, Global Witness reported.
Bedoya told HuffPost that his father “was constantly being threatened – that they were going to kill him, that they were going to remove him from the land because he was a leader [...] Then they assassinated him.”
Colombian authorities knew about the threats, recounted in the award-winning documentary “Frontera Invisible,” but this did not protect Hernán.
Now, says Bedoya, his community and others like it need support to prevent more murders. “We don’t want to see any more bloodshed,” he said.
Latin America is by far the world’s most dangerous place to be an environmental defender. Almost 60 percent of the environmental killings recorded in 2017 took place in the region.
Mexico’s tropical forests, for example, have been ravaged by everything from illegal cattle ranching to avocado farming. In January 2017, Isidro Baldenegro López, a prominent indigenous activist who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his work protecting the forests of the Sierra Tarahumara mountain range in northern Mexico from logging, was shot dead.
Isela González, head of the Sierra Madre Alliance, an organization that has defended indigenous rights in the Sierra Tarahumara for the last 20 years, says she has received several death threats. She now travels with a police escort but says she does not feel entirely safe, not least because the panic button and satellite phones provided by the state do not work in remote areas.
González told HuffPost that the murders “generated a lot of stress, long, long days of work, because you have to be constantly alert to what could happen next. It’s also had an impact on my health.”
Referring to the recent victory of Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, she added: “Precisely because we are about to have a change of government, it’s fundamental that the [diplomatic] embassies show they care about the human rights crisis ― the disappearances, the torture ― and that they speak out about the risks that are facing land and environmental defenders.”
In Europe, efforts to staunch deforestation and human rights violations are being held back by poorly implemented laws restricting illegal timber imports and by the accommodations that European officials have provided Southeast Asian palm oil producers to protect Europe’s wider trade interests.
In May, a draft European Commission study warned that the European Parliament’s vote for a palm oil ban by 2020 had “triggered strong reactions” from palm-producing nations like Indonesia and was “raising questions on potential fallouts on the Free Trade Agreement negotiations.”
A month later, the EU agreed to delay the phaseout of palm oil for fuel by a decade. Last week, the bloc’s ambassador to Malaysia declared that Europe was still “open to palm oil.”
The statement was “shocking to hear when so many forests are disappearing precisely because of the palm oil industry,” said Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz, from the anti-poverty charity War on Want. “Another decade of deforestation will have unprecedented effects on global warming and violent impacts on indigenous communities.”
Regulation can and should play a role in halting environmental crime, the new Global Witness report says. Consumers can also contribute by calling out companies and governments on social media, in letters to political representatives and in solidarity campaigns.
“Concerned consumers [...] can phone their MP and ask what the government is doing to regulate businesses abroad,” said Ben Leather, a senior campaigner at Global Witness and the report’s author. “They can ask businesses how they can guarantee there are no human rights abusers along their supply chains. They can demand that their consumption does not fuel the killing of land and environmental rights activists.”
Amid a welter of worrying developments in the new report, Leather said that female environmental defenders were now facing “specific and heightened threats” of sexual violence, abuse and harassment ― sometimes from within their community.
He also noted that there were more killings that claimed multiple lives at once in 2017, potentially because perpetrators felt emboldened to kill openly with impunity.
“They don’t feel there will be consequences, so they don’t fear carrying out mass atrocities to send fear through whole communities,” Leather said.
The Global Witness report records several massacres in countries such as Brazil and the Philippines ― in the latter country, the military reportedly killed at least eight indigenous people in December as they tried to protect their land from a coffee plantation.
Brazil remains the most deadly country for environmental activists, with 57 murders last year ― the highest ever recorded by any country. Twenty-two members of one tribe ― the Gamela ― were assaulted in one land-grabbing incident. Some had their hands cut off.
The U.K. export credit agency this year announced $3.9 billion in guarantees for trade with Brazil, covering the food and drink, mining, oil and gas sectors. But while the U.K. Department for International Trade’s guidance notes mention that “organized crime is a significant problem in some parts of Brazil,” they do not reference deforestation or environmental crime.
“The business community has demonstrated what it is willing to do to guarantee its investments in Latin America, but the people have said that to defend our land is to defend our subsistence.”
One of the few positive signs in the report was a decrease in the number of killings of environmental defenders in Honduras ― from 14 in 2016 to five last year. Yet political repression has intensified, and the Central American nation retains the worst human rights record per capita, with 128 environmental activists murdered this decade.
“We have reached a critical point in which the business community has demonstrated what it is willing to do to guarantee its investments in Latin America, but the people have said that to defend our land is to defend our subsistence,” said Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of slain environmental defender Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in Honduras 2016 and dramatically raised the global profile of environmental defenders and the dangers they face.
Responding to the Global Witness report, environmental writer and campaigner George Monbiot said that “environmental defenders are on the frontline of a generational battle against climate change.”
“We can never be serious about building a greener, cleaner and more sustainable planet if we fail to speak out when governments and big business work hand in glove to forcibly seize, rip up, drill and intensively farm land that is not only vital for carbon capture, but also supports rare species of plant and wildlife.”
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