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Honduran Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres, pictured here, is among the 58 human rights activists killed in Latin America between January and May of this year. (Photo via Global Witness)

Honduran Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres, pictured here, is among the 58 human rights activists killed in Latin America between January and May of this year. (Photo via Global Witness)

Human Rights Defenders Face 'Unthinkable Spiral of Violence' in Latin America

2015 marked the deadliest year for activists, particularly women and environmentalists fighting extractive industries

Lauren McCauley

Last year was the deadliest year for human rights activists in Latin America—particularly women and defenders of the Earth—according to a new report by Oxfam International, which suggests that governments co-opted by economic elites are partly responsible for driving this "unthinkable spiral of violence."

Citing data from the independent investigative organization Global Witness, the report, The Risks of Defending Human Rights (pdf), found that of the 185 human rights defenders killed worldwide in 2015, 122 were murdered in Latin America.

And this trend appears to be continuing, with 58 additional murders occurring in that region between January to May of this year. Even worse, those numbers do not include the recent assassinations of Brazilian environmental official Luiz Araujo, Honduran Campesino movement leaders José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionisio, nor the recent attack on Goldman-Prize-winning environmental activist Máxima Acuña de Chaupe in Peru.

"Oxfam is deeply concerned about the worsening trend of violence and repression against defenders in recent years; and believes that this situation is linked to an economic model that creates extreme inequality and undermines people's fundamental rights," the report states.

The study highlights three key factors driving this increase in violence.

First, the report notes that female defenders are more exposed to violence, due to the prevalence of a patriarchal culture across Latin America. "El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras have all reported an increase in attacks against female human rights activists; the great majority of these cases remain unsolved and the perpetrators act with impunity," it states.  

Secondly, Oxfam highlights the connection between human rights violations and "the expansion of extractive industries as a national revenue model for Latin American and Caribbean countries."

It reads:

The constant increase in land seizures by the agro-industrial and speculation sectors, together with the implementation of mining and energy mega-projects, has placed those who live in these areas in an extremely vulnerable situation and given rise to forced displacement, loss of livelihoods, dispossession of land and environmental impact for rural  communities and indigenous peoples.

"Without a doubt, the dynamics of extractive industries fail to respect the right to free, prior and informed consent, as these businesses undertake large-scale projects without authorization from the communities, triggering widespread violence against citizens who oppose these projects in their territories," said Asier Hernando, Oxfam's regional deputy director in Latin America and the Caribbean, who contributed to the report.

According to a September report from the group Frontline Defenders, 41 percent of murders of human rights defenders in 2015 were related to protection of the environment, land, and the rights of Indigenous people.

"What is worse," Hernando continues, "is that in the majority of these cases all of this occurs with the acquiescence of the governments, who grant licenses without regard for international protocols."

Indeed, Oxfam notes that the regional economic slowdown has further entrenched this dynamic as governments have relied heavily on extractive industries, ceding power to private companies and consequently limiting their ability to protect human rights.

This ties into the third driving factor highlighted in the report, which is "the co-optation of state institutions in favor of de facto power," as outside actors, such as mining companies, "use their informal authority and capacity to exert pressure thanks to their economic and political strength."

The most recent, high-profile killing of this kind was the March assassination of Honduran Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres, whose murder sparked global protests but has seemingly done little to stem the tide of violence in her country.

Among the recommendations set forth in the report are for nations to "take urgent actions to prevent these attack and combat the impunity with which these crimes against human rights defenders are committed." Oxfam also calls on extractive industries to "respect human rights and comply in all cases with free, prior, and informed consent and consultation processes with affected communities."

"If governments, companies and investors don’t change the way they do business, then more environmental activists will die and the planet will be exposed to irreversible destruction," said Michel Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, who put forth another report (pdf) on the rash of violence against environmental defenders.

Forst's study recommends preventative measures, namely making local communities active participants in project planning. He concludes, "Never has the defense of the planet’s environment been more important and yet never have those leading this struggle faced greater risks."

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