The leader of the indigenous environmental group COPINH, Berta Cáceres led a grassroots campaign to protect the Lenca people’s rights to water, land, and resources. (Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize)

The tragic assassinations of Honduran river-protection activist, Berta Cáceres in 2016, and of Guatemalan river activist Sebastian Alonso, and Mexican forest-protection activist Isidro Baldenegro López in January this year are just a few of many violent attacks against resource rights activists in recent years. In Honduras alone, Global Witness reports that since the 2009 coup that toppled the government, at least 123 land and environmental activists have been murdered.

Like most social change leaders, the three activists mentioned above were not only defenders of the environment, but also advocates for social justice, human rights, and women’s rights. They were also all indigenous. Their murders point to a broader trend of violence and the closing of civil society space in countries around the world—a trend that both endangers people and makes communities vulnerable to deep-seeded conflict.

Three common conditions that set the stage for criminalization, attacks, and murders of environmentalists are:

Conflict resulting from states granting rights to community lands, water, and natural resources to private corporations and industry. This is happening around the world at an alarming rate, as a way of increasing national income through the commercial extraction of raw natural resources, energy production, and the large-scale cultivation of food commodities for export.

More than 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon, for example, is divided into oil and gas concessions, the majority of which overlap with the lands of indigenous peoples who cannot legally stop extractives development. And on the other side of the world in Cameroon, conflict arose with local forest communities when a foreign palm oil company was granted a 73,000-hectare concession—an area larger than Singapore—on traditional forest and agricultural lands. Local activists lifting up community opposition to the concession have been attacked physically and criminalized by proponents of the project.

Stigmatizing and censorship of environmental defenders, who are accused of holding the country in poverty, taking away jobs, being agents of foreign countries, or simply called terrorists. This takes many forms, including public addresses by officials that call out civil society organizations and individuals by name, the demonization of civil society groups in state-controlled media, and strategically leaked intelligence reports to reveal that groups are under investigation. This gives corporations and even individual citizens social license to threaten, intimidate, and perpetrate violence against civil society actors. It also creates internal conflict within communities and social movements, causing divisions and fear.

In Honduras, the local media refers to landless peasants violently displaced by paramilitaries contracted by palm oil companies as terrorists and assassins. In Russia, many environmental groups working to protect ecosystems and environmental health have been labeled “foreign agents” simply for receiving foreign funding for this work.

The formal establishment of laws and policies that restrict rights, usually on the grounds of preventing terrorism and protecting national economic interests. The most common forms of these laws include tightening fiscal control of civil society organizations, restricting funding, censoring speech, criminalizing protest, banning assembly, and revoking the registration of critical organizations. The goals of these restrictive policies are to contain protest, remove leadership, and neutralize organized opposition.

Following a conflict between indigenous protestors and riot police, a 2014 “license to kill” law was passed in Peru, granting impunity to police who use lethal force to suppress protests. In Chile, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has criticized the government for its use of anti-terrorism law to militarize indigenous Mapuche communities and try their leaders in special courts with anonymous, masked witnesses.

The combination of these conditions can be crippling, creating a climate of distrust and fear within organizations and communities. Human and financial resources become stretched thin as communities and grassroots organizations try to communicate and travel safely, document abuses, and defend criminalized leaders in court. The majority of organizations are unfamiliar with international resources and mechanisms for protection, unsure how to access them and how they can help. Many activists fear most of all for their families, who frequently become targets and must find means of survival if a family leader is imprisoned or killed.

Three strategies that can make a difference

For more than 20 years, Global Greengrants Fund has funded grassroots organizations and frontline communities working to protect the environment and advance rights to lands, forests, water, and natural resources. From the start, we have often made grants under the radar—giving them to groups that are not formally registered or that support positions counter to those of government or powerful corporate interests. In our work and conversations with local activists, communities, and organizations, we have found that a combination of strategies is necessary to protect civil society space, and ensure the safety and security of people defending their environment and human rights.

1. Focus on local resiliency. A central strategy is to support local organizations so that they have the preparation, networks, and structures they need to be resilient, and to respond and defend quickly against threats and criminalization. Organizations are less vulnerable to attack when they are connected to other groups through multiple relationships, have robust and accountable decision-making processes, and have collective leadership models in which multiple members share the responsibility of representing the organization in public.

Gloria Ushigua is a Sápara woman who coordinates Ashiñwaka, an organization in Ecuador that defends Sápara ancestral territory against oil extraction. She is part of the Saramanta Warmikuna collective. Photo by Caroline Bennett (@carobennett).

Indigenous women leaders in Ecuador who are against the development of oil and mining in their territories, for example, have established a network called Saramanta Warmikuna. The network offers support and visibility for their efforts, and strengthens women’s position as leaders in their communities. Saramanta Warmikuna is also part of the Latin American Network Women Defenders of Social and Environmental Rights, which advocates for the rights of women affected by extractive industries. Support of these grassroots spaces for national and regional connection can help local leaders increase their resilience and capacity to respond to threats.

2. Develop rapid response support mechanisms. Another critical need is to scale-up emergency human rights defense and response mechanisms, and to work to make them known and accessible to smaller, less-networked organizations and communities. The demand for fast, flexible, and discreet response funding to help people in danger far exceeds the available resources. Additionally, rapid response legal and media support are lacking for most frontline communities.

The Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights and its sister funds in Africa and Latin America are vital resources for women’s rights and environmental defenders, providing rapid response grants in security emergencies, as well as support of women’s human rights advocacy. Front Line Defenders also gives protection grants, and offers support with protection training, risk analysis, and digital security. Both organizations have developed efficiencies that allow for flexible support, without the buffer of bureaucracy that can slow down response times.

3. Get to the roots of the problem. In addition to immediate security needs, we must advance a political strategy to challenge the root causes of violence and criminalization. This is long-term work to uncover and denounce the institutions and actors that violate human rights, and pressure legal systems to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable. This work must also challenge the policies that put communities at the center of conflict, and it must create a public debate about the human and environmental costs of development. Strategies must also put pressure on corporate actors and investors—often international—that profit from human rights abuses that occur as they gain access to resources in the territories of local people.

A good example was the coordinated and timely response by Honduran indigenous organizations after Berta Caceres’s murder in 2016. In coordination with US and European NGO allies, these organizations have called for accountability from international investors financing the conflict-wrought Agua Zarca dam, prompting two European public banks—the Dutch FMO and FinnFund—to suspend investments in Honduras.

At a time when security is so often used as an excuse to silence debate and demonize those who speak out for the planet, it is important to recognize that the taking of land, water, forests, and other resources from local citizens is at the root of these conflicts. In today’s world, where corporate interests supersede the rights of communities, we see more than ever that environmental and human rights abuses are deeply linked. The solution requires that we devise a multi-tiered strategy that protects environmental defenders’ rights while changing society’s understanding of who is a criminal and where the real roots of violence lie.