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Killed for Protecting the Environment – What funders can do in the wake of Berta Cáceres’ murder

The recent assassinations of internationally renowned Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres and her colleague Nelson García have shone a tragic spotlight on the dangers facing those defending their land and traditional ways of life from powerful government and corporate interests.

Berta was a long-time grantee and friend of Global Greengrants Fund; a beacon of strength and hope for many of us. Winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, Cáceres was an example of the determination and quiet power of peaceful activism. When her organisation, COPINH, successfully stopped one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects, we celebrated her win as an example of successful grassroots campaigning. The dam, slated for construction on the sacred Gualcarque River, was pushed through without consulting the indigenous Lenca people, in violation of international treaties. It was because of Berta’s determination that the world’s largest dam developer, Sinohydro, and other international financiers initially backed out of building the Agua Zarca dam.

It is widely believed that it was this fight that cost Cáceres and García their lives. According to Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous place in the world for human rights defenders, and in particular environmental and land rights defenders – between 2010 and 2014, 101 activists were killed for their work. The brazenness of Berta’s killers, who broke into her home while she was sleeping, has focused the attention of many environmental funders on this issue. But Berta is sadly only one example of many killed for protecting their environment. On average two people are murdered every week defending their land, forests and water sources against industrial threats. Forty per cent of those killed have been indigenous people, and nearly three-quarters of the murders have taken place in Central and South America. It is widely estimated that the real death toll is higher, with many “hidden” murders in very remote rural places never becoming public.

Why are land and environmental rights defenders so particularly vulnerable? As countries strive for economic growth, the demand for natural resources, in particular land and energy, increases. Large-scale agricultural and extractive projects require the logging of forests and access to traditionally-owned land, and mega-hydro dams cut off local populations from water sources. Generally such projects are implemented by state-owned enterprises or private multinational corporations, backed by international and regional financial institutions. Environmental concerns are secondary, as is the fate of local populations who rely on the forests, land and waterways for their livelihood. Where those communities rally to campaign against the environmental destruction and demand their internationally-acknowledged economic, social and cultural rights – including the right to be consulted prior to any development projects on their traditional land – they challenge powerful interests not just in the corporate sector, but also at the state level.

Increasingly the rhetoric in many countries in the world – from India to Russia – is that protests against industrial mega-projects are “anti-development” and therefore against national interests. Governments abuse anti-terrorism laws to crack down on social movements calling for a safe and healthy environment. In that context, we are witnessing a worrying criminalisation of activism.
In the face of these trends, what can funders do to support environmental campaigners under threat? How can we keep our partners safe and ensure that their vital fight for their basic needs, and some of the world’s most endangered habitats, can continue?

1. Understand the connection between environmental protection and human rights
When I recently spoke to a number of funders at the EFN annual retreat and asked if they thought fracking in the UK was a human rights issue, the response was muted. As environmental funders, we can feel that we do not have enough understanding of human rights frameworks and concepts to make informed statements. It seems that our colleagues in the human rights funding world have better understood the link between corporate accountability and environmental rights; the movement for a “right to the environment” comes firmly from that corner. But as environmental funders, we have to make a better effort to understand the link between environmental destruction and human rights. The human rights framework gives activists a useful tool to articulate their demands. Especially in difficult political climates where calling for a safe and healthy environment is politicised because it goes against state and corporate interests, we need to understand that environmental protection work is human rights work. When we start acknowledging the linkages, we can better advocate on behalf of our grassroots partners.

You can find a good overview of the principles of human rights applicable to environmental issues here, from UNEP. This Guardian opinion piece by Ken Conca also gives a good general overview of the linkages.

2. Support global efforts
We need international pressure not just to bring Berta and Nelson’s murderers to justice, but to ensure that governments the world over understand that there can be no impunity for the criminalisation of environmental defenders. There are a number of petitions and open letters already circulating that could use more European funder signatories. Many global, regional and national environmental and human rights NGOs are doing fantastic work to raise the profile of defenders and provide a degree of protection, from petitions and open- and closed-door advocacy to physically securing people’s lives by helping them go underground or providing legal and medical assistance. This work is vitally important and needs to be supported. As we have seen with the tragic loss of Berta, even an international profile does not always protect environmental activists. It is therefore important to support those who are often the first point of call for activists in need of assistance – local organisations.

3. Fund grassroots activism
It is imperative that we strengthen the frontline efforts for environmental protection so that truly sustainable change can happen. According to the Nuffield Foundation, grants for international issues represent only nine per cent of the spending of all UK grant-making foundations. The vast majority of this funding goes to larger UK-based, international NGOs. These organisations do important work and deserve to be supported in their strategies which often aim to involve governments and corporates in large-scale projects. However, we need to complement these efforts with partnership from below, and where they go directly against the needs of local communities, we need to enable those communities to voice their concerns and be heard. That is why at Global Greengrants Fund we include small grants to grassroots environmental defence as part of our portfolio. Over more than twenty years we have seen that small sums of funding can seed, catalyse, energise and sustain local efforts. We do not presume to have the answers, but trust that people like Berta Cáceres, people physically and spiritually connected to their environment, know best how to protect it. Let’s work together to better protect them.

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