In the Crosshairs of Development

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Berta Cáceres, 1971-2016 (Goldman Environmental Prize)

When we learned that Berta Cáceres, a leader of the indigenous Lenca people, was murdered in Honduras, we were shocked but not surprised. A violent death is the all-too-frequent fate of indigenous activists who defend their rivers and lands against dams, logging and other forms of destructive development.

Berta's murder is just the tip of the iceberg. Her organization, the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras, has lost no less than 14 members in its history. In Brazil, 138 indigenous activists were killed in 2014 alone. Several other indigenous leaders around the world have been killed in the last few weeks, including at least two anti-dam activists in the Tawang District of Northeast India today. We can only wonder who may be in the crosshairs next.

Why are indigenous peoples and their lands being targeted? Native communities are often highly self-sufficient, and so their territories appear to be empty spaces on the maps of government officials who award dam and logging concessions. What's more, indigenous peoples often practice communal land ownership. They don't have a concept of private land titles, and many governments don't recognize their traditional land rights. This makes their territories appear ripe for the taking by dam builders, loggers, and their financiers.

As a consequence, indigenous lands are being plundered. According to the World Commission on Dams, almost all large dam schemes in the Philippines were built or proposed on indigenous territory. In India, tribal people make up just 8% of the population but 40-50% of those displaced by dams and other development projects. The current dam building boom on the Amazon and the Mekong, in Burma and the Himalayas again affects indigenous peoples disproportionally.

These developments are exacting a heavy toll. The livelihoods and cultures of indigenous peoples are closely tied to their lands, rivers and forests. Many rivers are not only a source of water, fish and medicinal plants, they also host ancestral spirits. As Berta Cáceres once said, the rivers of the Lenca people have "spiritual importance" because they are inhabited by the spirits of their female ancestors.

Not surprisingly, indigenous peoples often put up strong resistance to projects that violate their rights to self-determination. The Lenca people organized numerous protests against dam projects proposed on their rivers, and blocked the construction site of a hydropower plant for more than a year. Similar protests and blockades have happened from the Amazon to the Himalayas, from Burma to Malaysia in recent years.

When big developers move in, money often trumps the law, and indigenous peoples don't have the power to protect their rights. Treaties that recognize native entitlements to rivers and lands have been broken from the American West to the Amazon when economic interests were at stake. And resistance is often violently suppressed by security forces. According to John Knox, the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, indigenous peoples who get in the way of development projects "are considered almost expendable by the powers that be." Our murdered colleagues from Honduras to Brazil bear witness to this shocking reality.

In recent years, indigenous rights have found stronger recognition at the international level. The United Nations in 2007 adopted a declaration that recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior informed consent regarding projects on their territories. Yet this right is frequently ignored. Honduras supported the UN declaration in 2007, but the dam projects on the rivers of the Lenca people are moving forward without their consent. And activists like Berta Cáceres who stand up for their rights pay the price.

The violence that engulfs many dam and logging projects on indigenous lands is a blatant injustice. It is also a lost opportunity for all of us. While our modern consumer society sacrifices valuable ecosystems for short-term gain, indigenous peoples have been careful custodians of their rivers and forests for generations. They have created rich knowledge systems about native plant and animal species, and have evolved practices of managing their natural resources sustainably. At a time when critical ecosystems are at the brink of collapse, we need to learn from such practices rather than persecuting their indigenous custodians.

Rivers, Berta Cáceres once explained, embody the historical knowledge and ancestral culture of indigenous peoples. In an emotional ceremony, the Lenca people released her spirit to their local river so that she could look after them after she was murdered. Too many of Berta's fellow activists have preceded her. We can not allow one more murder to follow hers.

This commentary first appeared in Mongabay on May 2, 2016.