FRONT LINE DEFENDERS has documented 821 human rights defenders (HRDs) who have been killed in the four years since we started producing an annual global list in cooperation with national and international NGOs. Seventy-nine percent of this total came from six countries: Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines. The vast majority of these cases have never been properly investigated, and few of the perpetrators of the killings have been brought to justice. Political and economic power across these countries is controlled and manipulated by an entrenched elite, with close links to the army and the security services, who block reform initiatives to protect their own interests, and are often behind targeted attacks on HRDs who expose their corruption or oppose their exploitation.
According to the Carnegie Endowment for Democracy, “It is no longer possible to think of corruption as just the iniquitous doings of individuals, be they street-level bribe payers, government officials, or business executives. Corruption is the operating system of sophisticated networks that link together public and private sectors and out-and-out criminals—including killers—whose main objective is maximising returns for network members. Corruption is built into the functioning of such countries’ institutions.”
The lethal combination of entrenched violence, state indifference to attacks against HRDs, and the lack of investigations into complaints, creates a situation in which HRDs are killed with impunity. An analysis of the work done by those killed is instructive: of those killed in 2017, 67 percent were engaged in the defence of land, environmental, and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and nearly always in the context of mega projects linked to extractive industries and big business.
It is important also to note that those who are killed are predominantly those activists who come from poorer or more marginalized backgrounds. The level of discrimination and racism faced by Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized communities is an important part of the context. The contempt and hatred of corrupt elites for those they consider to be their inferiors is a factor in the use of extreme violence against those who get in their way.
Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities are routinely marginalized in Brazilian society.
Their lands and territories are usurped by land grabbers, farmers, and by the state itself. While a number of laws protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples came into effect following the introduction of the 1988 Constitution, the fact remains that after more than 25 years, there is still much to be done to implement these rights, especially with regard to access to and recovery of land. Even the limited progress achieved to date is under threat from government proposals to reduce the amount of Indigenous Peoples’ land and to undermine the work of FUNAI and INCRA (the bodies responsible for protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples) to demarcate and grant titles to Indigenous Peoples’ land.
The violence against Indigenous Peoples in the state of Maranhão, which is home to the Gamela people, is typical of the crisis across the country. There are currently some 376 communities in the state of Maranhão that are experiencing rural violence and conflict. In 2016 alone, 196 incidents of violence against rural communities were reported. Maranhão was the state with the highest number of murdered Indigenous Peoples in 2016. In Bahia, the Tupinambá Indigenous Peoples suffer all kinds of prejudice and physical and cultural violence. Death threats are constant and their leaders are persecuted, attacked, and imprisoned.
The failure of the state to acknowledge or address the issue of attacks on Quilombola (Afro-descendant) and Indigenous Peoples and their leaders indicates that there is a real risk of these Indigenous Peoples being further marginalized in order for their lands to be appropriated to facilitate the exploitation of their natural resources. The Indigenous Peoples of Brazil and their leaders are more at risk now than at any time in their recent history.
In Colombia most of the HRDs killed were working in defence of the right to land or to protect the territory of Indigenous Peoples.
At particular risk are members of ethnic minorities, peasant communities, Indigenous Peoples, people of African descent, or members of local community action boards in rural areas. These murders are committed in places where the presence of the state is limited and people cannot fully exercise their human rights. In terms of the official response, state officials need to take into account the impact of a killing not just on the immediate family of the HRD, but also on the broader community. As a result of killings, and the general climate of violence, communities are displaced, families are broken up and lose their means of earning their livelihood.
The departments with the highest number of killings of HRDs are Cauca, Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, Córdoba, Bogotá, Putumayo, Norte de Santander, Risaralda, Bolívar, Chocó, Meta, Huila, and Arauca. Ninety percent of these territories have been historically affected by the armed conflict. Despite the peace process, abuses such as the targeted killing of members of Afro-Colombian communities and Indigenous Peoples, collective forced displacements, confinement of communities to certain areas, forced recruitment of children into paramilitary groups, sexual violence, and the use of anti-personnel mines persist in these areas.
The ruling elite in Guatemala use their entrenched political and economic power to exploit the natural resources of the country for their own benefit and to block any initiative for reform.
Peasant communities and Indigenous Peoples who defend their right to the land or who campaign to protect the environment from the devastation caused by large scale mining projects are the target of smear campaigns and direct attacks. Indigenous Peoples who insist on their right to free, prior, and informed consent are particularly at risk. This has provoked acts of aggression and violence across the country, in which HRDs have been killed. In January 2017, 72-year-old Sebastián Alonzo was shot dead when unidentified gunmen opened fire on a peaceful demonstration against a proposed major hydroelectric scheme.
There have also been numerous instances of criminalization of HRDs, such as the case of Professor Abelino Chub Caal. On June 6, 2017, the judge of the Criminal Court of First Instance of Puerto Barrios ruled that Abelino should remain in detention even though both the defence and the prosecution had agreed that no evidence had been found against the HRD to justify the charges of aggravated land grabbing and arson. Abelino works with 29 communities in Sierra Santa Cruz, Izabal, whose land, environmental, and cultural rights are threatened by mining interests.
Since the 2009 military coup in Honduras, the perpetrators of violations against defenders of environmental, land, and Indigenous Peoples' rights are often influential landowners or logging companies.
Quite apart from the violence linked to repression of the protests against alleged election fraud, Honduras has continued to be one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas generally for HRDs, especially those who work for the protection of the rights to land and territory, or the protection of the environment. HRDs working on these issues are smeared as being anti-development and an obstacle to the exploitation of the economic resources of the country. They are targets of defamatory campaigns, orchestrated both by state and non-state actors to discredit their work. They are frequently intimidated, threatened, and attacked.
In June 2017, members of the Honduran Civic Council of Peoples and Indigenous Organisations (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras – COPINH) were the target of an armed attack when they were driving back from a meeting. COPINH is an indigenous Lenca organization representing 200 Lenca communities in the western Honduran states of Intibuca, Lempira, La Paz, and Santa Barbara. It has defended communities and their natural resources from logging, dams, mining projects, and other mega projects that would destroy their way of life and the environment. There have been continuing attacks, threats, and intimidation against COPINH members and supporters, which have intensified following the murder of Berta Cáceres on March 3, 2016.
The case of Berta Cáceres encapsulates the many problems that HRDs face in Honduras. Berta Cáceres, General Coordinator of COPINH, was killed in March 2016 by armed men who broke in to her home in La Esperanza, Intibuca Department. Berta Cáceres was an internationally-recognized leader of a campaign against the environmental and health impacts of the building of the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River. Berta had reported 33 death threats to the authorities and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had called on the government to intervene to protect her. Police did not investigate any of the threats against her prior to her assassination. In May 2017, the authorities detained five men for their alleged participation in Berta’s killing, including an army major and the official responsible for social and environmental affairs of the company contracted to build the Agua Zarca dam. The prosecutor maintained that the killing formed part of a conspiracy by the company.
In September 2017, a sixth person was detained and in March 2018, Honduran authorities arrested Robert David Castillo, executive president of Desarrollos Energéticos Ltd (DESA), as the alleged intellectual author of the killing of Berta. However, the investigation has been marked by numerous irregularities. According to local media, the case file, which contained evidence against various suspects, was stolen from the judge’s vehicle on September 29, 2017. Although the Supreme Court of Justice announced that it had copies of the case file, the manner in which the government handled the incident was heavily criticized. The International Advisory Group, in its report into the killing of Berta, concluded that senior business executives and Honduran officials had coordinated her murder, underscoring the extent of criminal collusion between the state and private enterprise.
Serious human rights violations against Indigenous Peoples and communities in Mexico occur in three main areas: violence in the context of mega projects on ancestral lands and territories authorized without the due process to ensure free, prior, and informed consultation and consent; in the context of title claims affecting their land; or the lack of due process in criminal cases against HRDs.
Indigenous Peoples have repeatedly denounced the granting of state concessions to private companies in violation of their right to prior consultation. As a result of the struggle for their lands there have been repeated attempts to criminalize the work of defenders of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, who are portrayed as obstacles to the economic development of the country. In both 2016 and 2017, 37 percent of the HRDs killed were indigenous activists.
During an Indigenous Peoples' Summit in Davao City in the Philippines on February 1, 2018, President Duterte stated that Lumads (Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines) should leave their ancestral domains as he would broker investors, particularly in palm oil or mining, to invest in these lands.
“We’ll start now, and tomorrow I will give something to you. Prepare yourselves for relocation,” came his cryptic warning. Lumad leaders are concerned that the harassment their communities experience is due to this plan. In the past two decades, nearly 500,000 hectares in Mindanao have been swamped with large-scale mining, agribusiness, and energy projects.
Now the move is towards the ancestral lands of Indigenous Peoples, which are rich in natural resources, offering developers the potential for large profits. In one incident in December 2017, eight Lumad people were killed in what was initially presented as an armed confrontation with the army, but according to an independent investigation conducted by the Philippine church and human rights groups, was in fact a mass killing.
The main target of the attack was Victor Danyan, killed because he was vocal in his community’s claim to a contested piece of land. It appears that Victor was deliberately targeted to silence dissent in the area. Victor was chairman of Tamasco, a tribal group formed in 2006 to reclaim 1,700-hectares of ancestral land that was planted with coffee. The organization was also protesting against coal mining operations on their ancestral land.
Army claims of having been the target of an armed attack have been discredited by the evidence collected by Dr. Benito Molino, a forensic expert who said “at least 300 empty and live shells from M14 and M16 rifles were recovered from various sites where soldiers apparently fired their weapons.” He concluded that, “there was no clash—all the shooting came from the army”.
What is happening now across the world is nothing less than a systematic attack on peasant communities and Indigenous Peoples. In their insatiable greed for wood and oil and gold the corrupt elites, who have no ambition beyond their own enrichment, risk not only destroying the lives and culture of Indigenous Peoples, but also destroying the environment on which our collective future survival depends.
 Fundação Nacional do Índio
This blog was originally published as part of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) They Should Have Known Better campaign.