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The Hidden Epidemic of Murder

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A woman arranges memorial candles in honor of the five people killed during anti-mining demonstrations that turned violent earlier this month.
Environmentalists are being killed in record numbers (and those are just the deaths we know about)

Three weeks ago, photographer Ron Haviv and I were in Cajamarca, Peru, where the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation plans to spend $4.8 billion on a new gold mine, Conga, in an environmentally sensitive area of the high Andes. The project has provoked massive opposition, and as I described in my last column, Haviv and I were detained by security officials when we tried to visit the mine site and later tear-gassed by riot police during a demonstration protesting the killing of five opponents of the Conga project earlier that day.

But the story doesn’t end there. When we went back to our hotel later that night, we went online to find details of the newly declared state of emergency. What we found sharing the day’s headlines was a wire service story reporting that Chinese officials had halted work on a new molybdenum-copper alloy plant in Sichuan province after mass demonstrations in which 13 people were hospitalized after being attacked by riot police. A couple of minutes on Google then took us in quick succession to two people (or perhaps four -- reports are contradictory) killed in protests in late May against a giant copper mine in the southern Peruvian province of Cusco. And from there to the bodies of two Brazilian environmental activists found tied up and drowned 50 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. The two men had been involved in protests against a huge new petrochemical complex, financed by the state oil company, Petrobras, which would threaten the rich fishing grounds of Guanabara Bay. (Ironically, the men disappeared on June 23, one day after dignitaries from around the world were putting their initials on the final Rio+20 declaration [pdf], with its ringing reaffirmation of the world’s commitment to people-centered sustainable development).

And so it went on, case after case, country after country, a veritable worldwide epidemic of killing. Most of it is provoked by opposition to the competitive stampede by powerful corporations making multi-billion-dollar investments to dig up, cut down, and ship out the world’s remaining natural resources, a disproportionate amount of which lie beneath the soil of developing countries and more often than not (as in Peru) in the territory of indigenous peoples. These are frequently places with feeble judicial systems, limited or non-existent environmental laws, and a culture of collusion between governments and foreign corporations who promise that at least a little of the wealth from their gold and copper mines, their logging operations, their oil and natural gas plays, or their giant soybean or palm oil plantations will trickle down to the impoverished locals.

A report [pdf] last month by a London- and Washington, D.C.-based group called Global Witness, timed to coincide with the Rio+20 conference, summarizes some of the known facts. I’ve been a fan of Global Witness since they started off in the 1990s, making their name with a campaign against the “conflict diamonds” or "blood diamonds" that were fueling ruinous wars throughout Central and West Africa. Their new report says that 106 environmental activists were killed in 2011, the highest number ever recorded, up from 96 the previous year; 711 deaths have been documented in the last decade, in 34 different countries. Many of these were targeted assassinations; others occurred in the violent suppression of protests like those we experienced in Peru.

In all, 592 of the recorded killings were in Latin America, 108 in Asia (almost half of them in the Philippines), and 11 in Africa. Brazil alone accounts for 365 deaths, more than half the world total. Peru comes in second, with 123. (The worst single incident recorded was a clash between police and indigenous protesters in the northern province of Bagua in June 2009 -- on World Environment Day, if you have any further taste for irony -- which left 33 people dead. The protests were sparked by two legislative decrees -- later rescinded -- that would have opened up a huge area of the Peruvian Amazon to mining, hydropower, and oil and gas development).

I chose the phrase known facts deliberately, because it implies more facts that are unknown. The striking regional disparity among those numbers needs some explanation. Are disputes over natural resources more widespread in Latin America than in Africa or Asia? No. Are Latin American security forces more murderous than others? Probably not. The main reason for the egregious number of killings in Brazil and Peru is that those countries have relatively more developed institutions and more sophisticated ways of tracking human rights violations -- an ombudsman's office, the Defensoria del Pueblo, in the case of Peru, and the Catholic land Commission in Brazil. There are few equivalents in Africa. And in Asia, little or no data are available from Myanmar, the Central Asian republics, or the Indonesian province of West Papua. In all of these countries, there is runaway natural resource extraction, but human rights reporting is banned or severely restricted.

Just as the phrase known facts is suggestive, so is the title of the Global Witness report: “A Hidden Crisis?” Frankly, I don’t know why they needed the question mark. With the exception of occasional celebrity cases -- like Chico Mendes, shot dead in 1988 for his efforts to preserve the Amazon rainforest, or Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged in 1995 by the Nigerian government after criticizing Shell Oil’s abuse of his native Ogoniland -- the killing of environmental activists opposing large-scale extractive industries is happening out of sight and out of mind. In the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, a distinguished Ugandan magistrate named Margaret Sekaggya, suggests one reason why. In Mexico, she told the U.N. Human Rights Council last December, a journalist was killed after reporting critically on the activities of mining companies. In Central America, a number of environmental reporters were beaten, intimidated, and threatened, and one was murdered. In Iran, a reporter was charged with espionage. In Nigeria, a documentary maker covering land and environmental disputes was arbitrarily detained without access to a lawyer. And the perpetrators of abuse have literally gotten away with murder: even in Brazil, with its sophisticated monitoring system, fewer than 10 percent of cases involving the killing of activists ever make it to court, and barely 1 percent have led to a conviction.

A hidden crisis indeed. Kudos to Global Witness for raising the veil on it, and long past time for others to follow suit.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
How does one protest this "hidden crisis"? Who should be notified, emailed, called, etc? These are huge international companies. They and their investors are only interested in profits. Once again I feel helpless and hopeless to make any change in downward spiral of the earth's health and people's safety.