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When gold miners operating illegally near her farm in southern Colombia fouled the stream where she watered her cows, Mary Alis Ramírez tried to have them evicted. Then the threats began. She took precautions, changing her schedule and taking unpredictable routes to and from her home.
But when the anonymous threats began targeting her children, she left her farm and moved to the nearest town. Life was more difficult and more expensive there. She had to pay rent, and with no garden, she had to purchase food. She finally decided to return to her home, despite the danger.
“For many indigenous women, their lands are the basis for everything: their cultures, their spiritualities, their livelihoods,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, in an email.
“Women are often the ones responsible for managing their communities’ resources and feeding their families,” she said. “So when their lands are threatened – often for destructive, extractive projects – they are often on the front lines defending those lands.”
Worldwide, at least 200 people were killed defending their land or their community’s territories in 2017, according to a study by not-for-profit environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness. Countless more, like Ramírez, endure threats and harassment daily, living in constant fear and uncertainty.
The study found that environmental defenders have been killed in communities resisting mining, other extractive industry, poaching and dams, or have been targeted by loggers or ranchers seeking to seize their land. Although 90 percent of the murdered environmental defenders were men, the study found that women face particular hazards because of their gender, including sexual violence and threats to their children.
“Women are targeted as a way to target entire communities. This can range from smear campaigns to outright violence, including killings,” said Tauli-Corpuz.
“Women defending their lands, territories and rights related to the environment are often at a disadvantage in their activism,” Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, wrote in January 2019 in a special report to the UN Human Rights Council.
“They are often excluded from land ownership, community negotiations and decisions about the future of their lands. When they engage in activism, they are often criticized for neglecting their domestic duties and endangering their families.”
The threats, however, have not silenced women.
Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman, was murdered in Honduras on 2 March 2016. A 2015 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, she co-founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which defended her people’s rights to their ancestral land, where a hydroelectric dam was being constructed.
Just four months later, in July 2016, Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía, another member of COPINH, was also murdered.
Cáceres’ daughter, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, left graduate school to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She narrowly escaped an attack by machete-wielding assailants in July 2017, shortly after being chosen to head COPINH.
“Indigenous women defenders are often involved in protecting their rights to their lands, territory and natural resources,” Forst reported to the UN. “They often resist the actions of corporations and local authorities that are much better resourced.”
Land grabbing for industrial agriculture – such as cultivation of cash crops like cacao, coffee or oil palm – is a growing source of lethal conflict, according to Global Witness. One-fourth of the cases the organization recorded worldwide involved people who were defending their land against takeover efforts by large-scale agricultural operations.
According to the Global Witness study, Latin America accounted for 60 percent of the 2017’s murders of land and environmental defenders, and Brazil – the world’s leading beef exporter –had the most murders, 57, of any single country.
But the country’s history with this issue started well before that year.
Maria do Espírito Santo and her husband, “Zé Cláudio” Ribeiro da Silva were ambushed and killed by hired assassins on 24 May 2011, in Pará, Brazil’s most violent state. Two decades earlier, they had lobbied successfully for the creation of an agroforestry reserve on state land, and they were defending the forest against loggers, ranchers and operators of charcoal kilns.
Also in Pará, American-born Catholic Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered on 12 February 2005, for defending the rights of smallholders and peasants in the rainforest region she worked to preserve. Leidiane Drosdoski Machado was killed in May 2015 when a driver ran deliberately into a crowd of smallholders protesting construction of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River for the deleterious effects it would have on the environment. And in May 2017, Kátia Martins, who dedicated her life to improving the livelihoods of farming families, was murdered outside her home by a group of motorcyclists.
Conflicts are exacerbated by failure to include communities in decision making; lack of respect for land rights, and particularly traditional and customary rights of indigenous groups and local communities; failure of projects to seek the free, prior and informed consent of the communities they will affect; and corruption, according to Global Witness.
It is often difficult to tell exactly who is behind the attacks or threats against people who are defending their lands.
Members of the police or armed forces were suspect in about one-third of 2017’s cases; paramilitary groups, criminal gangs, poachers, landowners and private security guards were among others. Often, perpetrators remain unknown, and many cases go either unpunished or end in courts convicting hired assassins but not those who hired them, says Global Witness.
So, what must be done to stop the killing?
“It is the responsibility of every government to immediately take action to protect land rights defenders,” said Tauli-Corpuz.
The responsibility for protecting citizens falls mainly upon governments, but businesses and investors can offer support, says Global Witness. Key measures include enforcing laws that protect land rights, ensuring that people defending their rights are protected, stopping corruption allowing perpetrators to go unpunished, and halting projects threatening local people until conflicts are resolved.
Governments must also recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to their customary lands and ensure that communities can participate in decisions, while companies must ensure that they obtain the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities before projects are implemented, said Tauli-Corpuz.
In an important step, two dozen countries negotiated the Escazú Agreement, adopted in March 2018 as the world’s first legally-binding treaty that includes measures to increase protection for environmental defenders. Formally called the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Agreement – the first legal instrument resulting from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) – aims to counter violence and help secure both environmental and human rights.
“The failure to recognize rights is often the root cause of this violence and criminalization,” she said. “It is completely unacceptable for violence to be used as a tool to silence indigenous dissent, and yet this is often what happens.”