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?
Nicaragua’s Caribbean region was never colonised by the Spanish, and to this day has several indigenous peoples, of whom the most numerous are the Miskitu, who have their own language and are found along the whole of the misnamed ‘Mosquito Coast’ from Honduras to southern Nicaragua. While they observe many cultural traditions their lives are otherwise not very different from those of the ‘mestizo’ (mixed race) peasant farmers found across rural Nicaragua, including the Caribbean. They do, however, retain a longstanding hostility towards governments in Managua, which have often ignored them and during the ‘Contra’ war in the 1980s carried out enforced resettlements. While the recent Sandinista governments have recognised their traditional land rights, many Miskitu regard this with suspicion because these rights are not necessarily enforced.
The Miskitu lands, along with those of other indigenous groups, are threatened by the advance of the ‘agricultural frontier’ – the relentless conversion of tropical forest to farmland, usually for cattle ranching. Much of this happens through legitimate land sales, but in protected areas and on traditional lands the colonisation (the newcomers are called colonos) is illegal. Whether through corruption or false papers or by force, it nevertheless happens. While the perpetrators might be agents or logging companies, the victims are not only the holders of traditional land rights but also – it might be argued – the colonos themselves, who invest their savings in land they believe is theirs. In some cases colonos have been accepted by the indigenous communities; but in others there have been violent disputes where deaths are alleged by both sides.
Global Witness defines ‘environmental defenders’ as including those who take ‘peaceful action… to protect the environment or land rights’. This includes ‘peasant leaders… living in remote mountains or isolated forests, protecting their ancestral lands’. Using this definition, GW’s latest report names 11 Nicaraguans who died in 2016. I have briefly investigated these deaths on the web and via newspaper reports. Three were of a father, mother and child, murdered by the man who had allegedly bought the family’s land. All except one of the 11 were involved in land disputes. The twelfth, Rudy Manuel Centeno Solís, reportedly died for uncertain reasons, possibly in a personal feud, in a different part of Nicaragua. Twelve deaths reported in 2015 were also in the area of the land disputes, although one (Mario Leman Muller) was reportedly a Sandinista murdered for political reasons. In some cases, the deaths resulted from armed exchanges, one of which occurred because the Miskitu burnt down 18 houses belonging to colonos. The Guardian also lists one community leader, Camilo Frank López, as dying this year. However, press reports quote one of his colleagues as saying his death (he was shot in a bar) was unrelated to the land disputes.
So, 21 deaths in two years resulted from land conflicts, and three appear to be unrelated to environmental issues. But land disputes of the kind found in the north-east corner of Nicaragua are unfortunately common in many countries which have an agricultural frontier. As can be seen from the photo as well of some of the local newspaper reports, both sides carry arms. Ironically, this was the subject of a detailed report in the Guardian only in March this year. It quoted farmer Alfredo Montiel as saying that the Miskitu themselves were selling the land but don’t honour the deals. It said the government had tried to address the conflict by arresting corrupt officials and agents. But there are no easy solutions in a poor country grappling with many other social problems, despite the army having an ‘eco battalion’ charged with stopping and removing colonists. Families who have settled on protected land may no longer have anywhere else to go. Preventing illegal settlement effectively will mean allocating even more resources and having a much stronger anti-corruption drive.
If that were the whole story, it would be simple to conclude that the Guardian and Global Witness have classified as ‘environmental defenders’ a number of people who seem not to meet their definition. But this goes beyond simply elevating the status of a real local conflict to the magnitude of those very different ones in Honduras, where leaders in the tradition of Berta Cáceres protest peacefully against a hostile government, the security forces, international companies and large landowners, and where assassinations are a weekly occurrence. This is because both Global Witness and the Guardian intertwine the story of these deaths with that of Nicaragua’s interoceanic canal, whose route lies well over 200 kilometres to the south (see map).
Both the latest report from Global Witness and the Guardian’s list of recent murder victims make direct links between the deaths in land disputes and the canal (the Guardian’s list is headed by a photo of the site of the Pacific exit from the canal, which is at the opposite corner of the country – see map). Of course many environmentalists in Nicaragua are critical of the canal project, despite extensive official impact assessments (carried out by a British firm) and the changes in the plans that have resulted. The government responds to such criticisms with the argument that the canal depends on rainfall, which depends on the forests, so will require a massive injection of resources into expanding Nicaragua’s tree cover, and that this is the only way to give forests the level of protection they require. In other words, the canal can’t be built without an effective solution to the conflicts along the agricultural frontier, and this means the environmental benefits will outweigh the costs.
Many observers (me included) remain sceptical. But it can’t be denied that the canal and the investment it promises remain popular with the general public, although in the corridor through which it will pass opinion is much more divided. There have been 87 protest marches, some of which have been blocked by the police. The organisers, legitimately called ‘environmental defenders’ in the sense that they are confronting both the government and the Chinese company behind the canal, say that they have been harassed, marchers have been detained by the police and violent incidents have occurred. GW says that more than 100 protestors have been imprisoned. Whatever the truth about the protests, however, no one has yet been killed.
Nevertheless, Global Witness accuses Nicaragua of becoming one the world’s deadliest countries for environmentalists. Its new report cites the eleven deaths in land disputes alongside a quote from Francisca Ramírez, one of organisers of the canal protests, saying ‘The only response we have had is the bullet’. This gives the unavoidable impression that the two issues are linked. It says that laws restricting free speech have been ‘tightened’, human rights defenders have been arrested and environmental activists expelled. This is grossly misleading. The ‘expulsion’ of international activists related to six people who caused an explosion in a community where they were demonstrating eco-stoves. There is freedom of speech – as evidenced by two main anti-government newspapers and several TV channels, let alone opposition political parties and anti-government demonstrations. There is vociferous public criticism of the canal project – even the government’s own scientific adviser, Jaime Incer Barquero, publicly questions its environmental impact. A while ago I went to a well-attended conference in the country’s main university which was addressed exclusively by the canal’s opponents.
Why does this seemingly deliberate confusion of two separate issues matter? First, the reports are unfair both to Nicaragua and to Honduras, where the problems are immense. Giving the impression that the authorities in both countries are almost equally bad in this respect does, quite simply, let Honduras off the hook. It detracts from the Guardian’s own investigations into the country’s human rights abuses, notably by Nina Lakhani.
Second, Nicaragua – unlike Honduras – is making real attempts to deal with environmental issues. They are very far from being enough, but they involve reforestation programmes by young people, protection for turtle nesting sites, a huge number of public and private reserves, and being one of the leading countries in Latin America in embracing renewable energy. It deserves criticism for doing too little to resolve the land conflicts involving the Miskitu, but few people who know the country would claim that environmental activists live in fear of their lives.
Finally, these comparisons are highly relevant in a region where US policy, funding and military assistance favours Honduras, largely ignoring its human rights abuses. A group of Republican senators is currently trying to get Trump to mount economic sanctions – not against Honduras, but against Nicaragua and its left-wing government. The subtleties of the reporting by the Guardian and Global Witness will be ignored in Washington, but their main message – that Nicaragua is trampling on human rights – is just the one the country’s opponents want to hear.
The Guardian and Global Witness should put this right. They should look more carefully at how much of the evidence about the conflicts on Miskitu lands really does involve the deaths of environmental defenders, as GW defines them. They should continue to call for more effective government intervention in these disputes. They should also of course continue to report on Nicaragua’s controversial canal project, but not in the context of the deaths of environmental defenders. They should, above all, focus their attention on Nicaragua’s neighbour Honduras, where environmental defenders are gravely at risk, and where the continued support of Global Witness and other international organisations is absolutely vital.
The writer, John Perry, is both a subscribing member of, and occasional contributor to, the Guardian. This blog has also been posted by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, and by the Nicaragua Network’s Nicanotes. The Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign has also published comments on the Global Witness report.