Defame, criminalize, murder
Latin America has the highest rate of murders of environmental and land defenders in the world. According to the organization Global Witness, at least 200 defenders were killed worldwide in 2016 and 60 per cent of those were in Latin America.
Defenders face a series of tactics to silence dissent. Murder is the final rung in a ladder which begins with manipulation of communities and can proceed through stigmatization and criminal prosecution – all steps which corporations use to suppress opposition to their activities, mostly with state collusion.
In countries with neoliberal agendas, like Peru and Colombia, free-trade agreements signed in recent decades have given favourable conditions to transnational corporations which operate extractive projects. As the number of mining, hydropower, agro-industry and other projects multiply, resistance also rises to defend common goods such as land, forests and water.
In one case in Peru, indigenous Aymara and Quechua people who prevented their territory being contaminated by a silver mine were labelled ‘backward’ and ‘against development’. Several face criminal charges for protesting. Peru currently has 39 mining conflicts.
In Colombia, Jakeline Romero Epiayu, a Wayuu indigenous woman, is being harassed and threatened with death for leading opposition to the expansion of Latin America’s largest open-cast coalmine which will damage her community. Colombia has the third-highest number of murdered defenders, after Brazil and the Philippines.
These examples – just two out of thousands around the world – illustrate some of the tactics used against individuals and communities: stigmatization in the media; police brutality and indiscriminate arrests at marches and demonstrations; criminal prosecution in the courts; and the threat and reality of violence, including sexual violence, particularly towards women.
As Cesar Padilla, co-ordinator of the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, points out: ‘Nearly every new mining project generates a conflict in the local community. That makes it more difficult for the mining companies, so they develop different strategies. The latest strategy, given that all the others have failed, is the criminalization of social protest.’
Protestors face charges of anti-social behaviour or disturbing the peace – often they are charged with several crimes at once.
Padilla believes criminalization is designed to halt further resistance. Although it serves corporate interests, prosecution is not carried out privately but through the publicly funded state judicial system. Often pre-existing patterns of discrimination based on gender, race and class are reinforced. Many murdered defenders are indigenous.
Huge protests in 2011, against a proposed Canadian-owned Bear Creek silver mine on the southern Peruvian border with Bolivia and against all mining expansion in that region, resulted in several deaths and many injuries. Some 18 Aymara and Quechua community leaders were charged with ‘Extortion against the state’ in addition to three other charges. This was retaliation for obliging the state to rescind the mine’s permit after massive protests sealed off the city of Puno for long periods of time.
This saga finally came to an end in July 2017, when all but one leader was acquitted. But the indigenous leaders had been forced to spend six years with the threat of jail hanging over them. At a 2016 protest against the leaders’ prosecution, one woman asserted; ‘We’ve never stolen or killed people, we don’t lie and we’re not lazy. With our own hands we work so that we can eat.’ Her words were in reaction to the racist stigmatization of indigenous people as criminals or lazy, all too common in Peru.
The media play an important role in painting protestors as violent criminals. Padilla believes: ‘The media are the echo chamber of the conceptualization of criminalization, meaning that when communities are criminalized people think, “oh yes, they’re the ones that are anti-development, that don’t want progress”.’
Women activists against extractivism are particularly subject to negative stereotyping and are frequently accused of neglecting the wellbeing of their children and safety of their families. They also face the threat of rape when they stand up to corporations and the state. Sexual violence in these contexts remains largely invisible, as the burden of proof falls on a victim who is not in a position to press charges due to lack of resources and the stigma around rape.
Environmental defenders become ‘criminals’ in the public imagination, and therefore any violence done to them seems justified. Even winners of international prizes such as the Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres in Honduras are not immune. No-one has been found responsible for the 2016 murder of the brave environmental activist.
This impunity comes from, and gets legitimized by, the state. Earlier this year, Global Witness announced: ‘Following a two-year investigation into who’s behind these murders [in Honduras] we can reveal how projects at the heart of conflicts are linked to the country’s rich and powerful elites, among them members of the political class.’
In another example, Peru’s police can legally enter into private contracts with transnational corporations to provide security services, and police officers cannot be prosecuted if they kill people during protests.
As Padilla says: ‘For those who want to stop these kinds of activities [protests], there are some countries where it’s easier to kill people than go through legal proceedings.’
While the state is complicit in criminalizing defenders and allowing their murderers to go unpunished, it is extractive corporations that are driving this violence. Most are corporations from the global North whose shares are traded on rich world stock markets. ‘Let’s not forget that mining corporations’ shares are in the hands of pension funds in Canada, in Europe…,’ says Padilla. ‘The question is: what’s the ethical responsibility of those societies when their pensions are stained with our blood? Their benefits have real costs.’
People in the global North have the opportunity to demand that pension funds divest from corporations driving environmental destruction and criminalization of the people most affected. Many banks also own shares in these corporations – customers can move their accounts if they find that their banks are investing in corporations carrying out activities they don’t agree with.
In July 2017, two European development banks withdrew their funding for the Agua Zarca mega-dam in Honduras that Berta Cáceres had been campaigning against. In that case, it was too little, too late.
After the Agua Zarca divestment, some headlines read ‘Berta won!’ She didn’t win – she’s dead. But the work of forcing investors to pull out of extractive projects is still alive.
It speaks to a different kind of power – a people’s power to follow the money and make sure it’s not funding projects that cause destruction and death.