The Deadliest Year Yet

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More environmental activists were murdered in 2015 than any other year on record. With the high-profile assassination of Berta Cáceres in March, this killing crisis may finally get the attention and action it requires.

By Jimmy Tobias


Relatives and friends carry the coffin of murdered indigenous activist Berta Caceres during her funeral. (Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

Berta Cáceres, the slain Honduran environmental leader whose name has recently ricocheted around the world, is just the beginning of the bloody story. The mass grave for green activists is giant, and it keeps growing.

In a new report, the anti-corruption group Global Witness announced in June that at least 185 environmental defenders were murdered last year. The scope of the slaughter stuns: Each week, on average, three environmentalists were shot, stabbed, or otherwise dispatched somewhere across the globe. That body count makes 2015 the worst year on record for killings of “people struggling to protect their land, forests and rivers through peaceful actions, against mounting odds,” according to the report.

Last year’s dead are diverse: Rigoberto Lima Choc was shot down on the steps of a local courthouse in Guatemala in September after denouncing a palm oil company’s alleged pollution of an important fishing river. Police bullets ended the lives of four protestors opposed to the Chinese-run Las Bambas Copper mine in Peru that same month. Over the course of an entire year, paramilitary and other forces murdered, and in some instances publicly executed, more than 22 indigenous Lumad activists in the southern Philippines as a result of their opposition to coal, nickel, and gold mining on ancestral lands.

Gunman, meanwhile, killed Cáceres at her home in March 2016. The 44-year-old mother of four faced death threats for days before the bullets hit her. Though she died this year, her assassination is emblematic of the factors that made 2015 so perilous for people trying to protect the planet from industrial pollution, climate change, mega-developments, and more.

What differentiates Cáceres’ death from others is that it drew attention. Most don’t. Her martyrdom and the furious solidarity it has inspired may finally spur the sort of action that can stop this growing crisis.

Of the 10 countries with the most murders last year, seven were in Latin America. Brazil alone was home to 50 slayings. Most of the 2015 violence took place in communities where natural resource conflicts around mining, logging, agribusiness, and dam development rage. Forty percent of the dead were indigenous.

Cáceres’ killing fits the profile: She was murdered in La Esperanza, Honduras, after years spent fighting a proposed dam that threatened local waters sacred to her indigenous Lenca community.

The Global Witness report also found that paramilitary groups, national armed forces, police, and private security were the most common perpetrators of environmental murder. Again, Cáceres’ death is a case in point: In late June, a former Honduran soldier told the Guardian that the Lenca leader’s name was on a “hitlist distributed to US-trained special forces units of the Honduran military months before” she was assassinated.

What differentiates Cáceres’ death from others is that it drew attention. Most don’t. News coverage and protest rallies continue to invoke her name around the world, and so her martyrdom and the furious solidarity it has inspired may finally spur the sort of action that can stop this growing crisis.

“Never before have we seen such a strong international reaction to the murder of an environmental activist,” says Billy Kyte, a campaigner with Global Witness, which is based in the United Kingdom. “For the first time, environmental groups, human rights organizations, anti-corruption outfits, indigenous rights groups, journalists, and women’s rights groups came together in outrage at the killing of Berta Cáceres.”

The immense international pressure on Honduras led to the arrest of four suspects, two of which had ties to the dam-building company that Cáceres opposed. Her family, however, has questioned whether the men apprehended are the real intellectual authors of her assassination.


People attend the funeral of murdered indigenous activist Berta Caceres. (Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

“If there is true justice for her murder,” Kyte says, “I think it could be a turning point for the environmental movement in terms of trying to fight back against this wave of killings.”

Already, green groups both international and domestic are soul-searching and strategizing about how best to combat the murderous spree. Specifically, and significantly, Kyte says a number of organizations based in the United States are in early talks to create an emergency fund that would be used to finance independent investigations into the killing of environmentalists. Such a fund, he said, would allow environmental groups to help hold perpetrators accountable in instances where local authorities decline or are unable to do so on their own. Kyte declined to identify the groups involved in this budding project, but it’s welcome news nevertheless.

Besides a well-stocked emergency fund, there are other ways to push back against the global butchery: Environmental groups could mobilize and support human rights accompaniment teams, like Peace Brigades International and other organizations that send volunteers abroad to shadow imperiled activists. And, as I wrote in a February column, an organization modeled on the Committee to Protect Journalists but dedicated solely to monitoring and advocating for endangered environmentalists could be of great use. The Global Witness report also offers suggestions, many of which focus on strengthening national and international human rights treaties and policies.

Reflecting on the environmental murder epidemic in a blog post in 2014, Kumi Naidoo, the former international executive director of Greenpeace, repeated a standard environmentalist slogan: There are no human rights on a dead planet. No gay or women’s rights, no racial or economic justice. They are all bound together.

Of course, the reverse is true too: Without human rights — the right to protest, to speak, to protect one’s land, to live in peace — the planet is in deadly danger. Murdered and mutilated environmentalists — many indigenous, most from Latin America, Africa, and Asia — are a tragic reminder of that reality, and a warning to those who would ignore it.