Under a picture of the renowned environmentalist Berta Cáceres, murdered in Honduras last year, the Guardian has launched a major and much-needed project looking at worldwide deaths of environmental defenders. It’s doing this in collaboration with Global Witness, which keeps an ongoing register of such assassinations. To do this it needs to make some difficult judgements. Who qualifies as an ‘environmental defender’? And do the statistics and the way they are presented give a true picture of which countries are most dangerous for them?
GW’s 2015 report focussed on Honduras, then ‘the deadliest country in the world to be a land and environmental defender’. Twelve activists had been killed in the previous year, and 111 in total since 2002. GW’s next report recorded eight deaths in Honduras in 2015. And the latest, covering 2016, reports Berta’s death and that of 13 others.
For those knowledgeable about Central America (I live in Nicaragua) there was nothing surprising about these figures. Since the military coup in 2009, Honduras has been notorious for repression of political and community activists, LGBT people, lawyers, journalists and anyone who gets in the way of a corrupt government and big business. Everyone who travels between the two neighbouring countries remarks on the change in atmosphere when crossing from Honduras to Nicaragua.
Imagine, then, the shock on reading that Reuters were reporting GW’s new figures as showing that ‘Nicaragua has overtaken Honduras as the [world’s] most dangerous place for activists per capita’. While GW had recorded no deaths in Nicaragua in the years up to 2014, in 2015 it suddenly reported 12 deaths and in 2016 eleven more. Where and why are these deaths occurring?