A mural in the city of Altamira reinterprets Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’. Local artists came together to protest the Belo Monte Dam.

The worse is not the spoken threat, it is the feeling of persecution

By Alexandre Andrade Sampaio

For over three decades, Berta Cáceres, the Honduran activist and Goldman Prize winner, worked to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous communities. Berta had been constantly receiving threats for her opposition to the Agua Zarca Dam, a project that endangers her community’s way of life. In March this year, she was murdered in her own home by hitmen firing at close range.

Berta’s murder brings to the forefront the crisis facing human rights defenders across the world. Here in Brazil, I am reminded of the assassination of Dorothy Stang, another fierce activist for the environment and human rights. Like Berta, she fought for the environment and for the rights of disenfranchised communities. Dorothy focused on educating the children, legally empowering the poor and promoting true sustainable development. Her persistence in working for a greater cause despite the dangers it entailed was best summarised by a quote printed in one of her most worn t-shirts: “The death of the forest is the death of our people”.

Unfortunately, what happened to Berta Cáceres and Dorothy Stang is not at all uncommon.

Construction of a 20 km canal that will cut through the rainforest and divert waters from the Xingu river

This is a story that is applicable to numerous activists and especially those opposing so-called development projects. Such projects frequently harm and violate the rights of local communities, the very people they are supposed to help. Many projects also jeopardize our collective social, economic and cultural rights. The impacts include damages to our shared environment and the destruction of cultures that enrich our societies.

Chico Mendes, a Brazilian activist who was assassinated for protecting social and environmental rights, poetically captured the vital importance of this work: “At first I though I was fighting for rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

In their fight for humanity, an average of more than 3 activists working with environment and human rights are killed per week around the globe. These numbers represent only the ones that are murdered, with many more subjected to surveillance, arbitrary detention, police and military threats, physical and sexual violence, and other violations. As acknowledged by international experts such as former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and civil society organizations, this work is particularly dangerous for those activists working in the context of so-called development projects. Governments around the world are now criminalizing the actions of those opposing projects that violate human rights. In doing so, they are making way for cases like that of Berta to happen all too easily.

The human rights organization Global Witness points to countries of particular concern, where activists have paid the ultimate price for their human rights and environmental work. In the analysis, countries like Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, DR Congo and Honduras stand out as the most dangerous for activists to work. While 8 activists were killed in Honduras in 2015, 50 were killed in Brazil, 33 in the Philippines, 26 in Colombia, 12 in Peru and Nicaragua, 11 in DR Congo and 10 in Guatemala in the same period.

Indigenous people in Arara da Volta Grande are directly impacted by the Belo Monte Dam

Indigenous leader and activist Josias Munduruku, of the Brazilian Munduruku people that has its lands and culture threatened by the Tapajós complex of dams, reports receiving threats from federal agents. His tribal way of life is currently under threat as the government pushes for the construction of a complex of 7 damns without free, prior and informed consent of those affected. In the process of resistance, it is reported that one member of Josias’ tribe has already been killed by the Federal Police. In an interview, Josias confirms that the threats exist “because I am defending the rights of humanity and biodiversity against the federal government who is trying to dam our river.”

Daniela Silva from the city of Altamira in the Brazilian state of Pará reports receiving constant threats for her opposition to the Belo Monte Dam. The dam, which is financed by the Brazilian development bank BNDES, faces opposition from the Federal Prosecutors Office, a number of national and international civil society organizations that have taken the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and experts in socio-environmental impacts. But despite media attention, Daniela’s work with social movement Xingu Vivo para Sempre poses many risks. “As we are activists, we suffer not only as citizens affected by the dam, but as rights defenders” she says in a resigned manner. She reports feeling constantly persecuted by threatening stares by private and government security forces. “The worse is not the spoken threat, it is the feeling of persecution.

At the time Global Witness conducted its two latest reports, Brazil stood out as the country with the highest number of activists killed in the world. Things do not seem to be getting better as at least 6 human rights defenders were recorded as murdered in the country before we even reached the first half of 2016.

Now, Brazil approved an anti-terrorism law that will likely make matters worse, allowing for civil society organizations and activists to be considered criminal in the face of subjective legal interpretations. Financiers of projects must monitor the situation closely so that Josias, Daniela and those like them may be protected from actions that violate local communities rights and expectations. The much-needed attention for Berta’s cause never came in time, and only the pressure generated by her death and that of her colleague Nelson García were enough for financers to halt their funding of the problematic Agua Zarca Dam project.

Hopefully financiers of similar so-called development projects like Belo Monte and the Tapajós Complex will not wait for further deaths of activists in order to reconsider their investments. The title of Global Witness’s 2015 report has never been more relevant: “How many more?”

Alexandre Andrade Sampaio is the Policy and Programs Coordinator at International Accountability Project based in Brazil.

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