SIDRO BALDENEGRO LÓPEZ, a farmer and a leader of the indigenous Tarahumara people, had spent much of his life campaigning against illegal logging in the Sierra Madre region of northern Mexico. On January 15th he was shot dead. His father died in the same way, for defending the same cause, 30 years before.
Defending nature is a dangerous occupation, especially in Latin America. According to a recent report by Global Witness, an NGO, 185 environmental activists were murdered worldwide in 2015, an increase of 59% from the year before. More than half the killings were in Latin America. In Brazil 50 green campaigners died in 2015. Honduras is especially perilous: 123 activists have died there since 2010, the highest number of any country relative to its population. Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader who was a prominent campaigner against dams and plantations, was murdered there last March.
The odds of finding the culprits are greater if the victim is foreign. Dorothy Strang, an American nun who fought to protect the Amazon rainforest, was killed in Brazil 12 years ago. Both the gunman and a rancher who had hired him eventually went to jail. But that is an exception.
Indeed, governments often take sides against the activists, even though many have signed a convention drawn up by the International Labour Organisation that requires them to consult groups affected by development projects. In December last year Ecuador’s environment ministry said it would shut down Acción Ecológica, a group that backed the Shuar people in a fight over the opening of a copper mine. The government says the group encouraged violence. Brazilian lawmakers are considering a change to legislation that activists fear could prevent the creation of new indigenous reserves.
In Honduras, politicians have been linked to attacks on opponents of a hydropower project at Los Encinos in the west, according to Global Witness. It cites Roberto Gómez, an indigenous activist, as saying that his group was “evicted by a squadron of around 15 police”, joined by civilians. They “destroyed our crops, they burnt our food”, he says. Until governments fight such violence instead of abetting it, the ranks of martyrs will grow.
11 February 2017