The body of environmental and indigenous activist Lesbia Yaneth Urquía was discovered on July 6, outside a dump in the town of Marcala, Honduras. Urquía, 49, was working to halt the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the municipality of San José, La Paz, and had been an active member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (1). Her murder is only the most recent in a string of killings of environmental activists in the country. Four months earlier, the high-profile assassination of her colleague Berta Cáceres, 45, cofounder of COPINH and recipient of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, sparked international outrage over the targeting of activists who oppose megaprojects and resource extraction in Central America. (2)
In a statement released on July 7, Honduran judicial officials said that Urquia had suffered a severe head injury and that a possible motive for her murder was “the supposed robbery of her professional bicycle,” which she was planning to ride before her disappearance (3). A week later, Jorge Galindo, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said “three men suspected of the crime have been arrested, including a brother-in-law of the deceased” (4). According to Galindo, Manuel Lopez, the brother-in-law, had threatened to kill Urquía over a family property dispute and was suspected of hiring two other men to execute the crime (5).
A statement issued by COPINH directly contradicts these official accounts and labeled the death of Urquía “an act of political feminicide” and “confirmation that a plan has been set into motion to do away with those who are defending nature and the commons” (6). COPINH held Gladys Aurora López, current Vice President of the Honduran Congress for the ruling Nationalist party, and her husband Arnold Castro, owner of Los Encinos S.A. dam company, responsible for Urquía’s assassination, calling them “a permanent source of threats and conflicts deriving from the hydroelectric construction projects” in La Paz (7). Castro and his company stand to profit from the energy that Aurora I, the dam Urquía fought against, would generate, and the Honduran government’s reluctance to connect Urquía’s death to her activism seems to indicate a conflict of interest that renders it unable to conduct an unbiased and just investigation.
In June, The Guardian published claims made by a former soldier who said that Cáceres, along with dozens of other activists, appeared on a hit list distributed to special forces units of the Honduran military in the months before her death. Honduran officials denied these allegations (8). Cáceres received repeated death threats related to her work, which most recently focused on fighting the construction of Agua Zarca, a proposed hydroelectric dam project which was to be built on the Gualcarque River in the territory of the indigenous Lenca people. These threats were serious enough to prompt the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to call on the Honduran government to provide her with protection, which never materialized (9).
Global Witness, an international NGO that works to expose natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses, named Honduras as the most dangerous country per capita for environmental activists in the last five years, with 101 deaths taking place between 2010 and 2014 (10). However, this crisis is not unique to Honduras; environmental activists are being murdered worldwide, with the problem being especially acute in Latin America and Asia-Pacific. According to Global Witness’s report Deadly Environment, which was updated in January 2016, “on average two people are killed every week defending their land, forests and waterways against the expansion of large-scale agriculture, dams, mining, logging and other threats” (11). 2015 became the deadliest year on record for environmental activists, as at least 185 people were killed in what is nearly a 60% increase on the previous year (12). But even these figures are likely greatly underestimated: many environmental defender deaths go unnoticed because of a lack of public records, and there is also significant under-reporting in countries like Myanmar and China, where human rights monitoring is prohibited or restricted (13).
This death toll is rising in tandem with increased pressure on natural resources and demand for commodities like timber, beef, and palm oil (14). As the global economy expands its reach into previously inaccessible rural and unindustrialized areas, large corporations and governments of developing countries are choosing to meet the demands of the growing human population through methods that are convenient rather than sustainable, especially in areas with long histories of corruption and exploitation. This creates both higher need and higher stakes for environmental activists.
Indigenous populations are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, especially since action in their communities can escalate before their stories receive national or international attention. “Most repression—by the state or wealthy private-sector interests—targets campesino and indigenous communities defending their lands, lives, and environment,” says Grahame Russell of the US- and Canada-based NGO Rights Action (15). Forty percent of activist victims in 2014 were indigenous, with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining, and agribusiness (16). The majority of these people are grass-roots leaders who “become involved because they’re fighting for what’s being taken away from their communities,” says Jane Cohen, an expert in environmental health at Human Rights Watch in New York City (17). According to Billy Kyte, senior campaigner for Global Witness and author of its 2015 report, “Communities that take a stand are increasingly finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers” (18).
Honduras became significantly more hospitable to such killers after the 2009 coup d’état that replaced Manuel Zelaya with Roberto Michelietti as president. Zelaya’s administration had introduced moderate land reforms and had successfully blocked many hydroelectric projects, but not only did the coup create a political atmosphere of terror and instability conducive to environmental crime, the new government approved forty contracts for a series of dams in June of 2010 (19). This mentality has been perpetuated by current President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose rallying cry coming into office in 2013 was “Honduras Is Open for Business.” In January of 2015, the Honduran government announced its plans to grant rulings on environmental feasibility within twenty-four hours and similarly expedite granting environmental permits in order to encourage development (20).
These actions, along with the government’s nonexistent reactions to the murders of Urquía and Cáceres, are representative of the ongoing preference of Honduras—as well as Latin America and the world as a whole—to disregard human life and the natural environment in favor of profit. In its Deadly Environment report, Global Witness calls on national governments and the international community to protect the environment and the people who defend it. To stop this cycle of death and destruction, the international community will have to make its perpetrators understand that the consequences of human and environmental devastation far outweigh the monetary benefits—even if doing so must involve creating sanctions or other punishments.
(1) "World Anger over Honduras Activist Lesbia Yaneth Urquia's Death." BBC News. July 10, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36756937.
(2) Mackey, Danielle Marie. "Drugs, Dams, and Power: The Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres." The Intercept. March 11, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016.
(3) Agren, David. "Honduras Confirms Murder of Another Member of Berta Cáceres's Activist Group." The Guardian. July 07, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/07/honduras-murder-lesbia-janeth-urquia-berta-caceres.
(4) "Three Held over Murder of Another Environmental Activist in Honduras." Reuters. July 13, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-honduras-crime-idUSKCN0ZT2MY.
(6) "Cloc-Via Campesina Honduras Statement on Assassination of Lesbia Yaneth Urquía." Cloc-Via Campesina Honduras Statement on Assassination of Lesbia Yaneth Urquía. July 18, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://viacampesina.org/en/index.php/main-issues-mainmenu-27/human-rights-mainmenu-40/2098-cloc-via-campesina-honduras-statement-on-assassination-of-lesbia-yaneth-urquia.
(8) Lakhani, Nina. "Berta Cáceres's Name Was on Honduran Military Hitlist, Says Former Soldier." The Guardian. June 21, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/21/berta-caceres-name-honduran-military-hitlist-former-soldier.
(9) Mackey, Danielle Marie. "Drugs, Dams, and Power: The Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres." The Intercept. March 11, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/03/11/drugs-dams-and-power-the-murder-of-honduran-activist-berta-caceres/.
(10) “How Many More? | Global Witness." Global Witness. 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/.
(11) "Deadly Environment | Global Witness." Global Witness. April 15, 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/deadly-environment/.
(12) "New Report: 2015 Sees Unprecedented Killings of Environmental Activists | Global Witness." Global Witness. June 20, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/2015-sees-unprecedented-killings-environmental-activists/.
(13) "Deadly Environment | Global Witness." Global Witness. April 15, 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/deadly-environment/.
(15) Holmes, Oliver. "Environmental Activist Murders Set Record as 2015 Became Deadliest Year." The Guardian. June 20, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/environmental-activist-murders-global-witness-report.
(16) "How Many More? | Global Witness." Global Witness. 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more
(17) Wallace, Scott. "Why Do Environmentalists Keep Getting Killed Around the World?" Smithsonian. February 2014. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-do-environmentalists-keep-getting-killed-around-world-180949446/?no-ist.
"Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal." Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal. January 7, 2015. Accessed July 31, 2016. http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/article/home/Honduras_Environmental_Licenses_Accelerated.
(18) Holmes, Oliver. "Environmental Activist Murders Set Record as 2015 Became Deadliest Year." The Guardian. June 20, 2016. Accessed July 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/environmental-activist-murders-global-witness-report.
(19) Mackey, Danielle Marie. "Drugs, Dams, and Power: The Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres." The Intercept. March 11, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/03/11/drugs-dams-and-power-the-murder-of-honduran-activist-berta-caceres/.
(20) "Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal." Honduras: Environmental Licenses Accelerated - CentralAmericaData :: The Regional Business Portal. January 7, 2015. Accessed July 31, 2016. http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/article/home/Honduras_Environmental_Licenses_Accelerated.
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