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Human Rights

“For us, there is only death”

by Sheila Mysorekar

In brief

An activist stands at the COPINH office in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras. The civil-society organisation defends indigenous rights.

An activist stands at the COPINH office in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras. The civil-society organisation defends indigenous rights.

Approximately 450 million members of indigenous peoples live in close touch with nature. Their way of life is endangered by climate change as well as rapid industrialisation. If they get in the way of big corporations and governments, however, they are ruthlessly put down.

Economic growth is political leaders’ top priority almost everywhere. The environment, people’s needs and human rights tend to be disregarded. The impacts of climate change compound problems. A recent report published  by the German civil-society organisation Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (GfbV, Society for endangered peoples) shows that indigenous peoples in particular are negatively affected by environmental problems and massive industrialisation. Individuals who defend their natural habitats are highly at risk.  

Examples from ten different countries, including Honduras, Mexico, India and Brazil, indicate how recklessly corporations and powerful landlords proceed when indigenous groups try to protect the environment or dare to oppose construction projects. Things are particularly worrisome in Latin America. The GfbV points out, for instance, that indigenous conservationists are systematically criminalised and persecuted in Honduras. 

In this small Central American state, there are nine indigenous and Afro-Honduran peoples, altogether estimated to add up to 1.27 million persons. There is no official census for ethnic minorities. Indigenous activists have founded a civil society-organisation named COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras). Jointly, they try to resist to mega-projects which cause dispossession, displacement and environmental destruction. The dam project Agua Zarca in the Río Negro region is a case in point. It is to be built on Lenca land. With 100,000 members, the Lenca are the biggest indigenous community in Honduras. Because of the gigantic project, they are likely to be displaced. They were never consulted or allowed to take part in decision-making.

Resisting mega-projects is dangerous. According to Global Witness, 101 human-rights and environment activists were killed during protests in Honduras between 2010 and 2014. Since the environmentalists stand up for the interests of indigenous groups and often belong to those communities themselves, their murder does not generate headlines. The GfbV similarly states: “Problems of indigenous communities have little repercussion in Honduran public debate.”

Things are not much different in southern Argentina, where the Mapuche people fight against oil and gas production on their Patagonian lands. The fracking technology for gas extraction is poisoning their drinking water. Lagoons that the indigenous people depend on are contaminated with oil and metals, including arsenic. If they dare to protest, the Mapuche  are criminalised. Others die because of environmental destruction. As the late Argentinian Mapuche activist Tina Linkopán said in regard to the poisoned water of her native homeland: “For us, there is only death.”

The GfbV warns that Honduras and Argentina are only two of many countries where repression is common. “Important representatives of indigenous communities are targeted and murdered in order to weaken the base of opposition against mining projects, dams or oil production,” the recent report claims.

The GfBV wants to support the voices of endangered peoples, not least in the context of UN climate summit that will be held at the end of the year. According to the GfbV, the particular imperilment of indigenous groups must figure on the agenda.

Sheila Mysorekar

 

Links:

Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker: Report „Indigene Umweltaktivisten in Lebensgefahr“ (Indigenous environment activists at risk) (in German).
https://www.gfbv.de/fileadmin/redaktion/Reporte_Memoranden/2015/MenschenrechtsreportNr.77-IndigeneUmweltaktivisten_aktualisiert.compressed.pdf

Global Witness, report on Honduras: “How many more?”
https://www.globalwitness.org/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/

 

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