When the death threats increased, Amaru Ruiz decided to leave. The environmentalist, president of the Fundación del Río, an organization that has campaigned for the sustainable development of biological reserves in Nicaragua for 30 years, saw the government remove the NGO legal entity – which prevented it from operating on the territory – and their colleagues emigrated out of fear.
“It was a forced migration that made me want to stay away from my son and family,” he told Folha over a video call from Costa Rica. “Nevertheless we continue to work in exile. With less capacity, however, we continue to support indigenous communities and monitor the reserve. “
The fuse came in 2018: This year, an eleven-day fire devastated part of the Indio Maíz reserve – one of the largest rainforest areas in Central America. Organizations such as the Fundación del Río denounced the government’s apparent neglect, which took a long time to recognize the problem, and the criticism fueled a subsequent wave of protests.
The friction between Nicaraguan environmentalists and the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega has persisted since 2013, when they spoke out against the construction of an interoceanic canal in the middle of the country. The project, which had Chinese capital, was unsuccessful – but the visibility the movements gained began to turn into death threats.
The tone of intimidation of environmental officials has become a constant not only in Nicaragua but in other Central American countries as well. In these countries the NGO Global Witness records the highest murder rates per capita of these activists every year.
In 2019, 32 environmental and land defenders were killed in the region. There were 212 worldwide – an increase of 29% compared to the previous year. At the top of the per capita ranking are the Central Americans: Honduras in first place, Nicaragua in third place and Guatemala in fourth place.
Marina Comandulli, campaign officer for the Global Witness Defenders of Land and Environment program, explains that part of the problem lies in the vulnerability of states on the continent that have few control and accountability mechanisms.
Although nations like Colombia, the Philippines and Brazil lead in absolute terms with 64, 43 and 24 murders, respectively, the context is different. “In these countries, despite the high absolute number, there is usually an answer. There is a more consolidated state power than in Central America, where these killings usually don’t lead anywhere. “
For the researcher, part of the problem has historical origins. “Guatemala, for example, was in a civil war until 1996. In other words, it is a country that should be institutionalized.”
Honduras, on the other hand, saw a military coup in 2009. Nicaragua, on the other hand, has been experiencing an intense political crisis since 2018.
The rise in violent repression of activists comes at a time when they are most needed. The continent is one of the places in the world hardest hit by extreme effects of climate change, such as: B. the exacerbation of hurricanes, droughts and heavy rainfall that cause floods and landslides.
“The climate changes that were expected in 20 or 30 years are now occurring,” says Edwin Castellanos, co-director of the Center for Environmental and Biodiversity Research at the University of the Valley of Guatemala.
Examples of this are hurricanes. Since the continent is on the border of five tectonic plates, they have always been present; However, as the temperature of the oceans rose, they became more common and intense. The 2020 hurricane season was the most active on record with 31 cyclones, 30 storms and 19 hurricanes.
In November, only Hurricanes Eta and Iota left at least 200 dead and 100 missing on the continent and caused a loss of USD 5.5 billion (R $ 29.4 billion), according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Central Americans are particularly vulnerable to these events due to the poverty that affects more than half of the population in Guatemala and Honduras.
For farmers, whose survival depends on the climate, the situation is even more drastic. “The rainy season, which used to come in May and June and which was very necessary for irrigating the fields, now takes place in September and October and is much more intense,” says Castellanos. “We went very quickly from a period of drought to a period of excessive rain and flooding.”
Although most of the soil in Central America is of volcanic origin – very fertile and conducive to agriculture – much of the continent is in what is known as the arid corridor, the region most affected by erosion and most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The consequences of poor harvests include increasing food insecurity, which affects more than 60% of coffee farmers on the continent during the harvest cycle, violence and increasing migration.
According to the World Bank, the continent could have up to 4 million internal migrants by 2050 due to climate-related reasons. A New York Times projection, done in collaboration with investigative agency ProPublica and the Pulitzer Center, predicts the United States will host 700,000 climate migrants from Mexico and Central America by 2025, which could reach 1.5 million by 2050.
This migration has been going on for the last decade, but is difficult to quantify due to the scarcity of data and the fact that it is often quiet – especially in regions where violence is a problem.
“A big reason why corruption and violence [no continente] The deterioration in economic conditions, which are essentially environmental, is so widespread, ”says Miranda Hallett, anthropologist and professor at the University of Dayton, USA. “By 2014, more men of working age had migrated. What we see from this year are whole families migrating, often due to a situation of violence. “
These crimes are not limited to the murders of environmental officials. For example, you can target farmers who live in strategic areas for criminal organizations. “It is more frightening now than it was 20 years ago because the violence is more targeted and carried out in complicity with state agents.”
This is the case in Guatemala, where the main culprits in the killings of environmentalists are state agents – such as police officers – and private security guards, usually hired by mayors or companies involved in polluting projects such as hydroelectric plants.
According to Jorge Santos, director of Udefegua (Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala), this is all under the direction of the government.
“In the past few years we have seen the reorganization of the mafias conquering Guatemalan institutions,” he says. In 2015, corruption investigations overthrew the president, vice president, politicians and senior business people. But in the following year, according to Santos, these criminal groups had conquered the state again and carried out an authoritarian setback. “Today we are faced with the installation of a dictatorial process, the restriction to democratic spaces.”
In Honduras, the world leader in the per capita ranking of murders of environmental defenders, the state supports hydropower and mining projects in indigenous areas.
“Neither the pandemic nor the hurricanes or anything stopped the intentions to continue the process of land invasion by indigenous and peasant communities,” says Bertha Zuñiga Cáceres, general coordinator of Copinh (Citizens’ Council of People’s and Indigenous Organizations in Honduras). . She is the daughter of Berta Cáceres, an environmentalist whose murder achieved international prominence in 2016.
According to Bertita, there are, as she is called, at least 51 concessions for hydropower and wind projects only on the territory of the Lenca municipality. Other projects, many of which target tourism and oil exploration, also lead to clashes with the Afro descendants Garifuna on the coast.
According to Bertita, one of the main problems is the lack of or manipulation of previous consultations with indigenous communities in order to get their consent on projects that may affect their land, culture or way of life.
Although Honduras has signed ILO (International Labor Organization) Convention 169 on the subject and adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, which reiterates the issue, consultations rarely take place and in the Country respected.
The environmentalist says that little has improved since her mother was murdered – on the contrary, the scenario has worsened in recent years.
“Structurally nothing has changed. The state continues to act as a repressive entity for the interests of the people, and the impunity protecting those who kill, assault, and threaten the integrity of human rights defenders remains. “