OPINION: Latin American leaders strike back against attacks on environmentalists

While the environmental movement commemorates the 2nd anniversary of the murder of activist Berta Cáceres, governments in Latin America and the Caribbean ink new treaty to grant environmental rights

After being on the hit list of US-trained special forces of the Honduran military, Berta Cáceres was shot dead at her home. Motive: her activism for environmental and social justice in Honduras. Cáceres, born into a family of the indigenous Lenca people, was the leader and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH).

While the death of the award-winning environmentalist on 2 March 2016 caused shock waves around the globe, she is one of many: close to 200 environmental defenders were killed last year – the vast majority in Latin America. And the numbers are at a record high as The Guardian reported recently based on the research of Global Witness. Honduras is one of the deadliest countries in the world for environmental human rights defenders, with Global Witness documenting more than 120 defenders killed there since 2010.

So when 24 countries in Latin American and the Caribbean recently signed a legally binding environmental rights pact in order to protect environmental defenders, it didn’t come too early. Will this be the turning point in better addressing environmental conflicts and reducing violence?

Cáceres and Lenca people’s fate: a typical story of struggle

From early on in activism, Berta Cáceres saw the link between negative social and environmental impacts caused by harmful business practices such as illegal logging, plantation agriculture and dams, and the violation of rights of indigenous people and women. The last decade of her life, she had been leading the grass roots campaign against the Agua Zarca dam project (see case here on the Environmental Justice Atlas). Chinese Sinohydro, the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank) and Honduran DESA planned the construction of four hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River – a plan from which Sinohydro and the IFC later withdrew due to public pressure. Even though the dams would affect the local Lenca people’s access to water and food as well as threaten their way of life, they were not consulted. Already in 2013, the Honduran military killed one and injured three protestors. Another two members of COPINH were killed and three more seriously injured in other incidents while many more – including Berta – received regular threats.

Berta Cáceres’ story is a sad reminder of the reality in many countries around the world: it is often women, indigenous or other marginalised people whose land is taken away, whose environment is polluted or whose livelihoods are destroyed by large-scale economic activities that benefit big business but undermine sustainable development for local communities. The examples span from conflicts around mines and dams to destruction caused by large factories and industrial agriculture and plantations. Affected communities have no access to information, they are excluded from planning processes and decision-making, and lack access to justice. And sadly, many environmental conflicts have in common that those protesting are threatened or even killed while the perpetrators often go unpunished.

New treaty succeeds Aarhus Convention, but may remain weaker on compliance

Officially called the ECLAC Regional Agreement to protect right of access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, the new treaty has developed from the UN’s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in 2012 under the auspices of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). It grants access to environmental information, access to justice and the right to public participation in decision making. With such a high death toll amongst environmental defenders in Latin America, the adoption of the declaration must be welcomed as an important step forward for environmental democracy.

The treaty succeeds the Aarhus Convention, which grants access to environmental information held by public authorities, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters for the public across the European region. The new Latin American treaty, however, may remain weaker than its European counterpart as one of the particular strengths of the Aarhus Convention is not reflected. While the Aarhus Convention establishes a strong and independent Compliance Committee that reviews state practices, the Latin American agreement only foresees a weaker Facilitation and Follow-up Committee.

On the innovative side, the new declaration grants particular protection rights to environmental defenders: states are asked to guarantee a safe environment for environmental defenders that enables their activities, they must protect, recognise and promote all rights of environmentalists and prevent, investigate and punish attacks or intimidations against human rights defenders in environmental matters.

Cáceres’ death goes unpunished

Two years after Cáceres death, the Honduran authorities have now arrested Roberto David Castillo Mejia, at the time of the killing the executive president of DESA, calling him the “intellectual author” of the crime. However, the authorities have so far failed to properly investigate the case and to punish the individuals who have ordered the murder. A recent report has shown that the senior executive of DESA is to be found behind the murder. Amnesty international urges that this impunity puts other activists at risk.

Whether Berta Cáceres’ family will find justice for the murder remains doubtful. Whether the new agreement can protect environmental defenders in the future will largely depend on political goodwill to implement the new treaty. A first sign of hope: Honduras is amongst the agreement’s signatories.



EEB Director for Global Policies and Sustainability

Patrizia leads the EEB’s work on sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), follows intergovernmental processes at the UN and OECD level, and supports projects on environmental democracy, EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies as well as environmental justice. She was previously Executive Director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of 19 environmental, human and labour rights organisations.