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Land grabbing in an extractive system of domination and dehumanization is impacting the lives of those on the front lines more than climate change, in many areas

October 4, 2017

Defending Nature Is a Deadly Business in Honduras (and many other countries)

Berta Cáceres fought to protect native lands in Honduras — and paid for it with her life. She is one of hundreds of victims of a disturbing global trend — the killings of environmental activists who try to block development projects.

A shrine to Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza, Honduras.

A shrine to Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza, Honduras. JEREMY RELPH FOR YALE E360

They came for her late one evening last March, as Berta Cáceres prepared for bed. A heavy boot broke the back door of the safe house she had just moved into. Her colleague and family friend, Gustavo Castro, heard her shout, “Who’s there?” Then came a series of shots. He survived. But the most famous and fearless social and environmental activist in Honduras died instantly. She was 44 years old. It was a cold-blooded political assassination.

Berta Cáceres knew she was likely to be killed. Everybody knew. She had told her daughter Laura to prepare for life without her. The citation for her prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded in the United States less than a year before, noted the continued death threats, before adding: “Her murder would not surprise her colleagues, who keep a eulogy – but hope to never have to use it.”

Austraberta Flores, Cáceres's mother, says authorities were aware of threats against her daughter, but did nothing to protect her. Austraberta Flores, Cáceres's mother, says authorities were aware of threats against her daughter, but did nothing to protect her.

Austraberta Flores, Cáceres’s mother, says authorities were aware of threats, but did nothing to protect her daughter. JEREMY RELPH FOR YALE E360

“I knew she was afraid,” said Maria Santos Dominguez, who lives in the remote indigenous village of Rio Blanco in the country’s mountainous west, where Cáceres was the national face of a campaign against a dam on a river sacred to the Lenca people. “It was too much for her. I could tell.”

Most believe it was that campaign, against the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River, that provided the motive for her murder, one of a rash of recent killings of environmental and social activists in Honduras.

Honduras, says the international human rights group Global Witness, is “the deadliest country in the world to defend the natural world.” At least 109 people have been killed for taking a stand against dams, mines, logging, and agricultural projects in Honduras since a military coup there in 2009 installed a government that was quickly supported by the U.S. State Department. Global Witness catalogues the killings of environmental and human rights campaigners around the world, and its latest report revealed that 2015 was the most dangerous year on record to be an environmental activist.

Cáceres was only the most high-profile victim of a worldwide epidemic that saw nearly 200 deaths during the past year. “The environment is emerging as a new battleground for human rights,” Global Witness found. With demand for products like timber, minerals, and palm oil on the rise, companies are exploiting land with little regard for the people who live on it, according to the report, which noted that increasingly, “communities that take a stand are finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers.”

And 2017 has already seen more. Another former Goldman Prize winner, Mexican indigenous leader and opponent of illegal logging Isidro Baldenegro was shot dead in January.

Yale Environment 360 has investigated the circumstances surrounding the killings of environmental activists on three continents — probing cases in Honduras, Malaysia, and South Africa. Two things emerge strongly: First, the frequent characterization of the activists as environmentalists only tells part of the story. Their campaigns run much deeper and are often rooted in the social identity of minority groups — in Cáceres’s case, the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras.

And second, while lone thugs and gangsters often end up in court, there is frequently a conspiracy of actors engaged in silencing the activists. As Global Witness’s chief campaigner on the issue, Billy Kyte, puts it: “These are not isolated incidents — they are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors.”

According to Honduran prosecutors, of the eight people so far arrested in connection with the death of Cáceres, six have links to government security services, including an elite military squad trained by U.S. Special Forces. And two of those charged have alleged links to the Honduran company behind the dam project, Desarrollos Energeticas SA, including a security chief and the man in charge of its environmental policiesYale Environment 360 has learned that the cases against those charged are being built based on records of mobile phone calls made around the time of the crime.

In a statement, the company said it “has not given any declaration, nor does it plan to do so, until the authorities in charge of the investigation determine the causes and perpetrators of this regrettable incident.”

Cáceres had been born into one of the most prominent families of the Lenca people, who live in the mountains of western Honduras. In the 23 years since she helped form the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), she had helped revive the Lenca’s cultural and political identity. Her organization, based around its stronghold in the market town of La Esperanza, had become entrenched and vocal. It had established a training center, nicknamed Utopia, and a network of radio stations, La Voz Lenca.

Cáceres had opposed a rash of development projects and concessions handed out to companies for dams, mines, and other projects.

It was unapologetically Marxist in its approach, but rooted Lenca identity in the mountains and rivers, the forests, and the plant life of the region.

“Berta was COPINH and COPINH was Berta,” says Karen Spring, a Canadian social activist based in the national capital Tegucigalpa. “Especially after the 2009 coup, she had become one of the leading people in the country. And feared. That’s why they wanted to kill her.” She had opposed a rash of development projects and “concessions” handed out, often illegally, to private companies for dams, mines, and other projects.

Cáceres had also become an important figure in the growing Latin American movement of indigenous peoples. More than 3,000 people thronged the streets of La Esperanza for her funeral. A year later, the town is still full of graffiti declaring “Berta Vive,” and shrines are visible on street corners. Strangers from across the world make their way to her grave in the town cemetery. The martyrdom of Berta is well underway.

Cáceres’s political tenacity came from generations of family politics, particularly among the women. To understand her, I visited her 85-year-old mother, Austraberta Flores, with whom she lived until the final months. Friends say she left to spare her mother from witnessing the inevitable end. Besides having nine children, Flores was a midwife. Almost everyone I met in La Esperanza claimed to have been brought into the world by her.

But she was also a politician — thrice mayor of the city and a congresswoman in the capital Tegucigalpa. She promoted into national law an international code requiring free, prior, and informed consent from communities like the Lenca before development projects such as dams and mines can go ahead on their lands. “It’s still the strongest law we have,” Flores told me proudly.

She had also been a frontline activist, making regular forays to the border with El Salvador during the civil war there in the 1980s to help female Salvadoran fighters deliver their babies while on the run. “We were helping Salvadorans to liberate themselves so they could help liberate us,” she said.

“Berta grew up with struggle. She saw it every day,” Flores told me. “It was her schooling. I knew she would be important. I was always pushing her to become what she became.” Berta and her mother made a formidable team. While Flores drafted legislation on “free, prior, and informed consent” on development projects, her daughter organized street demonstrations supporting its introduction.

‘We were born here,’ a dam opponent says. ‘It is our land and our river. If we lost the river, we’d die.’

Flores blames the state for her daughter’s death. “She had filed 40 reports of threats against her. They knew she was under threat, but they failed to protect her.” Now Cáceres’s daughters, Bertita, 26, and Laura, 24, “have the responsibility to carry on,” Flores told me.

Much of COPINH’s power lies in combining political radicalism — anti-military, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, and anti-American — with a deep conservative attachment to the Lenca peoples’ heritage and land. In COPINH’s Women’s Wellness Center, a new and heavily guarded building in La Esperanza where abused and intimidated women can take refuge, I met 75-year-old Pascualita Vasquez. She was the longtime chair of the council of elders, established by Cáceres to revive cultural traditions and links to the land. They bless rivers, bless soil before harvests, and bless new houses.

“Before Berta, our ceremonies were being forgotten. I remembered them as a child, but we no longer did them,” she told me. “But Berta emphasized for us how important it was to rescue our traditions, and to hold ceremonies before discussions of current issues like dams. We revere our ancestors, and now that Berta is dead, we see her as an ancestor, too.”

Now, reviving local herbal remedies and seeds — of corn, for instance — is central to reclaiming their land, she said. We spoke beside a shrine to Cáceres set up in the middle of the room, with candles, corn cobs, pine cones, and a flask of water from the river that Cáceres was protecting before she was killed.

The next day I traveled to Rio Blanco, the distant village that became the focus of Cáceres’s last campaign, against the Agua Zarca dam. It had been a violent and bitter struggle. In 2013, local activist Tomas Garcia had been shot dead by soldiers during protests at a camp established by Chinese construction workers set to begin work on the dam.

My host was villager Maria Santos Dominguez, local leader of opposition to the dam. She had a nasty scar on her face. She explained how the villagers had become divided between those for and against the dam. One family in particular had complained that she “spoke too much.” It was her fault, they said, that they couldn’t get economic development in the village.

“They saw me go past on the way to my children’s school one day, and they hid for my return. Then they attacked me with a machete. I had taken my phone out to talk to my husband. He heard it all and came running. He had my son with him and told him: ‘They are killing your mom.’”

Dominguez spent six months recuperating at the Wellness Center in La Esperanza. “She was on the brink of suicide,” aides there told me. But now she was back home, as determined as ever. She broadcasts every week on the Lenca radio station, from a location that is kept secret to prevent attacks.

“We were born here. It is our land and our river,” she said. “If we lost the river, we’d die. We need its water to bathe, for fish, for water, for our crops and animals.”

She took me to the river, to a gorge where a quiet pool formed between two rapids. It was a beautiful spot and, in engineering terms, an ideal place for the dam they had so far been able to prevent. Dominguez often bathes her children in the clear, cool mountain waters. “The river is sacred to us. We believe in the spirits in the river – they are three little girls, and they give us strength to fight the dam builders,” she said. For Dominguez and others, it has become an existential fight.

A few days before her murder, Cáceres had come to Rio Blanco. “There were dam people on the river, working with machinery. It looked like they might be about to begin work on construction. So we went to see them,” said Dominguez. “But they accused her of stirring us up, and they threatened to kill her. A few days later she was dead. The dam people haven’t come back to the river since.”

Will the Agua Zarca dam ever be built? Some now doubt it. It would only have delivered a modest 22 megawatts of electricity. After the outcry over Cáceres’s death, international funders, including Dutch financier FMO and the Finnish Finnfund, announced that they were pulling out of the project. The Chinese are gone, too. But elsewhere on Lenca territory, dams are going ahead.

‘The president wants to sell our land and our rivers, and the clean air in our mountains. He would sell the birds in the trees.’

In La Paz province, the Lenca have been fighting a rash of hydroelectric schemes on mountain streams, being promoted by a local politician and vice president of the Honduran Congress for the ruling right-wing Nationalist Party, Gladys Aurora Lopez, and her husband Arnold Castro. These projects are proposed for mountains that locals say have been illegally taken from them. Local leader Ana Mirian Romero had her home burned down. “They call us stupid Indians,” said La Paz activist Margarita Pineda Rodriguez. “But these projects offer us no benefits, only loss of our natural resources.”

“We are seeing the recolonization of our country,” says Tomas Gomez Membreño, Cáceres’s successor as interim COPINH’s coordinator, as we talked at length in the training center in La Esperanza one evening. “More and more of our natural resources are being handed out to foreign corporations. There is more and more repression of people who fight back.”

This is a wounded community. Cáceres’s brother Gustavo, hovering in the background as I interviewed her mother, seemed a broken man. Another of her former lieutenants, Sotero Chavarria, told me that he could not bear to go to the cemetery to see her grave.

But their tenacity in the face of continuing violence remains remarkable. In March 2016, less than two weeks after the assassination of Cáreras, another COPINH activist Nelson Garcia was shot dead outside his home south of La Esperanza, after spending the day defending local Lenca people against efforts to evict them from their land.

In July, activist and mother-of-three Lesbia Yaneth Urquia was found dead near a garbage dump in the town of Marcala, with deep cuts to her head. One day in October, COPINH’s Membreño was shot at in the street, and someone opened fire on the home of another local leader, Alexander Garcia, while he and his family were asleep inside.

The day I arrived in Honduras a La Paz activist, Victor Vásquez, was shot in the leg by a policeman while taking video footage of an eviction in the village of San Pedro de Tutule. “They tell us this is not our land, but we have been here for 500 years,” Vásquez told me a couple of days later at his home, where he was recovering. “The president wants to sell our land and our rivers, and the clean air in our mountains. He would sell the birds in the trees.”

In a quavering voice, his young son sat on his bed and sang me a song of defiance. Flying high on a tall tree above his village was a Honduran flag, its placement there a sign of indigenous resistance, he told me.

Cáceres’s modest bungalow stands empty today. The only sign of her violent end is a dent in the wire fence where the assassins had climbed over. A “Berta Vive” poster hangs in the window. Some want her home to become a museum of her life, to seal her martyrdom. The river she died to protect may or may not get dammed. But the battle for her legacy — and for the future of the Lenca and their lands – goes on.

In the interview below, from 2012, climate, science and environment author Fred Pearce discusses a growing global threat.  Just in the decade 2002-2012, Oxfam reports that more than two million square kilometres were grabbed, two-thirds of them in Africa. That’s like Spain, France, Britain, Italy and Germany put together.

Read an extract from Fred Pearce’s book The Land Grabbers

ethiopia villagers

An Ethiopian family in the small town of Abobo in Gambella province. Fred Pearce visited the area as part of his investigation into land grabbing. Photograph: Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images

What inspired you to write The Land Grabbers?

Over the last few years, I became aware of this hidden revolution taking place around the world: the buying up of vast swaths of land by foreign entities from beneath its occupiers. Soaring grain prices in 2007/2008 led to countries such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea worrying about their national food security and buying up overseas land. Then speculators and investors started piling in on the back of that. The net result is that poor farmers and cattle herders across the world are being thrown off their land. Land grabbing is having more of an impact on the lives of poor people than climate change. No one has put together the global picture of land grabbing so I wanted to take a closer look.

How much land has been grabbed?

No one really knows. A lot of reported deals never happen and a lot of the largest are done secretly. Oxfam says more than two million square kilometres in the last decade have been grabbed, two-thirds of them in Africa. That’s like Spain, France, Britain, Italy and Germany put together.

Who’s doing the grabbing?

A vast and colourful cast of characters: Gulf sheikhdoms, jumpy governments worried about food security, Chinese state corporations, Wall Street and City speculators, Russian oligarchs, Gaddafi’s henchmen among many. Also some big conservation funds. Most likely your pension fund has a slice of the action too.

How did you research the book?

I’m an old-fashioned reporter – I want to go see. So I’d read about a big land deal in the papers and go to find what was going on. I travelled to 10 or so countries where the most egregious grabbing is taking place: the savannah of Brazil, the forests of Indonesia, the inner Niger delta of Mali.

Some governments bend over backwards for the grabbers…

If you drive into one region of Tanzania your mobile phone beeps with a text welcoming you to the United Arab Emirates. A major general in the UAE army has bought exclusive hunting rights to a 400,000-hectare national park there. There are stories of them using spotlights off vehicles at night to shoot leopards with AK47s and burning the bush to beat the game towards the guns. And the Tanzanian government’s elite paramilitary unit keeps the Masai families off the land.

Who’s losing out?

Wherever I went, people were being moved off with little or no regard for their historic or cultural rights. The grabbers want big spaces – 50,000 hectares – and you can only get that if you take commonly owned ancestral lands. They come in and put in an airstrip and a compound and roads and canals and the villagers are told to go to the nearest town and they lose absolutely everything.

You wrote the first popular book on climate change, Turning up the Heat, in 1989. How’s that story going?

We have political consensus; the clean energy technology is there; it’s in our interests environmentally and economically; smart corporations can make a profit from the change; and we have shown with the banking crisis that if there’s a trillion dollar price-tag, we can pay it. But still nothing. If we can fix the banking system, then why not the climate system? It’s governments that lack the balls.

What about the theory that what the west does is irrelevant, what with the eastern economies growing so rapidly?

Well, the Chinese have an environmental movement. There’s huge concern about local pollution – smog, kids with high levels of lead from smelters, chronic poisoning and so on. It’s like eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall came down – environmentalism was how political space was developed. It was the channel by which you could attack the political system. It wasn’t directly attacking the state or the Communist party but it was a damn good way of coming in the side door.

In 2006, you wrote The Last Generation, a book about tipping points rapidly speeding up climate change.

There’s huge concern about this. Historically, climate change does not happen in a gradual way, we have periods of stability and then a lurch. Over the last few years, we’ve been losing dramatically more Arctic sea ice in the summer than was predicted. There are concerns that the monsoons could switch off as a result of current changes in the Atlantic and that warming could cause methane to bubble out of the melting Siberian permafrost, which would then speed up warming even more. So things could get out of control much quicker than predictions suggest.

What makes a good science writer?

Some see themselves as part of the scientific priesthood, but you should be independent, like a political correspondent looking at politicians. This got me into trouble over “Climategate”. There was some disturbing stuff in terms of people taking shortcuts, trying to ensure that rival scientists didn’t get their stuff published, colluding against freedom of information requests. It didn’t undermine the climate change science but it deserved the light of day. A lot of people didn’t like me writing it up.

In Confessions of an Eco Sinner, you traced your own environmental footprint. Did you change lifestyle after that?

Not a great deal, I have to admit. My house leaks energy and in my work I fly a huge amount, which means my carbon footprint is sky high. My wife is still a better recycler than I am.

But the journey made you think as much about your social footprint as your environmental one?

It made me realise there’s a kind of green imperialism where we are just screwing up a lot of lives for uncertain benefit and a sense of personal virtue. For example, the carbon footprint of flying green beans from Kenya is no greater than that of growing them in a hothouse in the Netherlands. And there is huge benefit attached to the farmer. How dare I decide that I want to penalise them to make myself feel a little bit better?

What’s the least green thing a person can do?

Well, drinking Fiji Water, which has been shipped around the world from the South Pacific, doesn’t make much sense. It rains here too.

Most of the stories you cover seem full of pessimism.

I’m interested in the life-support systems of the planet and they can be in peril without us knowing it. Take the ozone layer. Once scientists found that chlorine-based refrigerator chemicals were causing the problem we responded quickly and basically we only just caught it in time. Scientists say we might easily have used bromine-based chemicals in refrigerators instead, in which case we would have destroyed the ozone layer before we realised the problem.

Does all this keep you up at night?

No. You can plan for the future, but you can’t predict it.

And finally, an article from Fred Pearce from July 2017 in New Scientist:  Large carnivores have lost more than 90 per cent of their range

Tiger in vegetation
Ever more restricted – Steve Winter/National Geographic/Getty

Lions, tigers and the red and Ethiopian wolves have lost more than 90 per cent of their hunting grounds in the past 500 years. But while these charismatic hunters are up against it, hyenas are doing much better, finds the first global study of the ranges of big terrestrial hunters.

Chris Wolf and William Ripple at Oregon State University looked at historical accounts of large carnivores and maps of their preferred habitat around AD 1500, and found that they are now present in just a third of the land area they occupied back then. Of the 25 species analysed, all weighing more than 15 kilograms, 15 had lost more than half their range.

Up to nine of these species once roamed South and South-East Asia, but today large areas have lost them all. The smallest declines were in the tundra and northern forests, where the relative scarcity of humans gives bears and wolves space to hunt.

(Learn more at New Scientist Live: See Alice Roberts’ talk on 10 species that changed our world)

Most of the big beasts are now skulking on the margins of their former ranges, making them more vulnerable to extinction, says Wolf. But there are exceptions.

The Eurasian lynx and Australia’s dingo have lost only 12 per cent of their range. Striped, spotted and brown hyenas have conceded only 15, 24 and 27 per cent respectively, and the grey wolf 26 per cent. In between, with losses of between 30 and 90 per cent, are various species of bears and big cats such as leopards, pumas and jaguars.

Not surprisingly, Wolf and Ripple found a “strong positive relationship between range contractions and rural human population density, livestock and cropland”. But again, there are exceptions.

In parts of India, leopards and hyenas persist in farmland areas where the population density exceeds 300 people per square kilometre. And there are some signs of recent recovery, often involving reintroductions organised by humans. Wolves are returning across Europe and North America, for example.

Elsewhere, smaller hunters have filled the gap created by the demise of bigger beasts. “Coyotes have had major range expansions,” Wolf told New Scientist, although they did not form part of the study.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society BDOI: 10.1098/rsos.170052