Memorial Day: Who Is Killing Latin America’s Environmentalists?

  • Published on May 25th, 2020

While the environment has been recovering in many places around the world due to the coronavirus slowdown, in Latin America, threats against nature’s biggest protectors are only increasing. The beginning of 2020 has seen an acceleration of high-profile killings of environmentalists in some of the region’s most biodiverse countries. Their deaths jeopardize the fight against climate change and species extinction.

“Guardians of the Forest” Paulo Paulino Guajajara (left) and Laércio Guajajara (right) pose for a photo before going on patrol in the Araribóia indigenous reserve, in Maranhão state, on Jan 30, 2019. (Photo: Karla Mendes/Mongabay)
“Guardians of the Forest” Paulo Paulino Guajajara (left) and Laércio Guajajara (right) pose for a photo before going on patrol in the Araribóia indigenous reserve, in Maranhão state, on Jan 30, 2019. (Photo: Karla Mendes/Mongabay)

By Paul J. Angelo, CFR Expert and David Gevarter
Council on Foreign Relations

What’s happening?

Each month of 2020 has proven more dangerous than the last for environmental activists. In January, two employees at a butterfly reserve in Mexico were assassinated; officials suspect illegal loggers or members of organized crime are to blame. That same month, six members of an indigenous community were killed at a nature reserve in Nicaragua.

February saw the killings of a Colombian national park ranger and a Costa Rican indigenous land activist who had previously survived an attack by illegal loggers. In Brazil, five members of the Guajajara tribe have been assassinated in recent months, including a prominent leader murdered at the beginning of April. Several were activists affiliated with the Guardians of the Forest, a group of Guajajara who fight illegal logging on their reserve.

What is driving these attacks?

Latin America’s nature preserves contain a wealth of natural resources. Environmentalists have come to blows with loggers, petroleum workers, gem and metal miners, and organized crime affiliates, all of whom seek to control the land and extract the resources that these activists seek to protect.

Some activists have been killed while attempting to interrupt illegal extractive activities. Others have stood in the way of lucrative business deals and been victims of contract killings. Weak law enforcement and overburdened justice systems across Latin America seldom deter those waging war on the environment and its defenders. The failure of state authorities to crack down on deforestation and unauthorized agriculture led to huge forest fires in the Amazon last year—one of the largest natural disasters to ever hit the region.

Has this happened before?

The deadly risk of environmental activism in Latin America is not new. The region recorded more than half of all killings of environmentalists worldwide in 2018, and assassinations of prominent activists have occurred for decades.

The murders of Brazilian conservationist Chico Mendes in 1988 and of U.S.-born environmentalist Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005 elevated their cause of protecting the Amazon Rainforest. International outrage erupted following the 2016 murder of Berta Caceres, a lauded indigenous Honduran environmentalist. Caceres was killed after her opposition to a dam on indigenous land forced builders to call off the project.

The wide array of people implicated in Caceres’s case—hit men, an army major, and employees tied to the company building the dam—highlights the sinister nexus of business, government, and organized crime colluding to impede activism. Caceres’s murder also stands out because it is one of the few assassinations of Latin American environmentalists for which justice has been served: those responsible were sentenced to thirty or more years in prison.

What is the overall climate for activism in Latin America?

These killings occur against a regional backdrop of generalized hostility toward activism. Latin America was the world’s most dangerous region for human rights activists in 2019, according to Amnesty International, with 208 people killed for their activism. This tally includes LGBTQ+ advocates, women’s rights defenders, and anticorruption champions. Latin America is also the deadliest region for journalists. In 2019, twenty-two members of the press were murdered.

At the core of this tragedy is the plague of state weakness afflicting Latin American countries. Organized crime, militias, and predatory businesses operate with impunity, and the region’s governments have struggled to respond. Widespread corruption further endangers activists, as security forces and justice officials are susceptible to bribery and intimidation by criminal enterprises that threaten, torture, and murder the activists who stand in their way.

So long as this broader insecurity goes unaddressed and governments fail to prioritize the protection of activists, environmentalists and other social leaders will continue to work at great risk to themselves for the benefit of some of the region’s most defenseless populations.

(Reprinted CC from the Council on Foreign Relations blog, In Brief.)

About the Author