- In a recent report by Global Witness, Latin America was again identified as one of the most dangerous regions for those protecting forests, halting mining projects, opposing big dams, and taking other action in defence of the environment.
- Surprisingly, however, one country singled out for attention is Nicaragua, described by Global Witness (GW) as one of the ‘deadliest countries for activists’ because it had ‘the most killings per capita’ in the world in 2016. How accurate is this assertion?
- All of us share concerns about the planned interoceanic canal, which features strongly in GW’s new report, and would cross the southern part of the country. There have been at least 87 protest marches against the canal, and a degree of harassment of protestors. But – importantly – there have been no deaths.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Earlier this month, Global Witness published its latest annual report on the deaths of environmental defenders. As Mongabay reported, Latin America was again identified as one of the most dangerous regions for those protecting forests, halting mining projects, opposing big dams, and taking other action in defence of the environment.
Surprisingly, however, one country singled out for attention is Nicaragua, described by Global Witness (GW) as one of the ‘deadliest countries for activists’ because it had ‘the most killings per capita’ in the world in 2016. How accurate is this assertion?
I live in Nicaragua and work with a small environmental NGO, and have discussed the GW report with others knowledgeable about the country’s environmental issues. All of us share concerns about the planned interoceanic canal, which features strongly in GW’s new report, and would cross the southern part of the country. There have been at least 87 protest marches against the canal, and a degree of harassment of protestors. But — importantly — there have been no deaths.
Nevertheless, the majority of the section on Nicaragua in GW’s new report is devoted to the canal. Very misleadingly, it juxtaposes commentary on the canal and quotes from protestors (‘The only response we have had is the bullet’) with reports of killings of indigenous people. However, these killings — which GW says total 24 over two years — have nothing to do with the canal, whose route is over 200 kilometres to the south.
The region in the northeast of Nicaragua that includes the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve is under severe pressure from settlers moving from other parts of the country. They see ‘empty’ land, and either move in to occupy it, have been granted concessions under government schemes, or rent or buy the land from the indigenous communities which often have communal land rights. These land rights cannot be sold, so the titles often lack legal status. Inevitably, there are conflicts with the original owners or the indigenous communities. In a region that was one of the main arenas of the ‘Contra’ war in the 1980s, and is now plagued by narco-trafficking, both sides have ready access to arms. Reports of pitched battles, destruction of settler homesteads, and killings of individual settlers and indigenous people are frequent.
In compiling its worldwide lists of those killed each year, GW clearly has to be careful how ‘environmental defenders’ are defined. They include those who take ‘peaceful action… to protect the environment or land rights,’ among whom are ‘peasant leaders… living in remote mountains or isolated forests, protecting their ancestral lands.’ These are the parts of GW’s definition that relate most closely to Nicaragua, yet it is far from clear that the 24 deaths comply with it. We don’t know whether those killed were armed, but we do know that neither the indigenous groups nor the settlers are engaged solely in ‘peaceful actions.’ It is also clear from examining the details of some of the 24 cases that characterising them all as deaths in defence of the environment is highly questionable: one was a park ranger elsewhere in Nicaragua who apparently died in a personal feud, another was a political activist in the Bosawás area who died after being temporarily kidnapped by a rival party, and a third was a community leader whose killing was reported to have nothing to do with the land disputes.
The reason for questioning GW’s compilation and use of statistics is not to try to lessen the significance of the land disputes in Nicaragua, which are having a devastating affect on both the remaining forests and the people involved in the disputes. However, as one detailed 2015 study has said, it is wrong to see the conflicts as between ‘victims’ and oppressors,’ as on both sides there are poor people struggling to eke out a living from the land. The conflicts, and the deaths on both sides (GW only lists deaths among the indigenous communities), are an ongoing tragedy resulting from the advance of the agricultural frontier into forests that are also communal lands. Criticisms of the government for not doing more to resolve the disputes are justified, but it must also be borne in mind that the task is a huge one given that, if they are evicted, the settlers often have nowhere else to go. The communities involved are also remote: police investigating a reported murder of one family spent two days on foot to reach the scene of the crime.
The problem with GW’s latest report is that it mixes its brief reporting of these land disputes with wider criticisms of the alleged dangers facing environmental defenders in Nicaragua. For example, the canal protests take place against the ‘terrifying backdrop’ of ‘multiple murders’ that in fact occurred at the opposite end of the country from the territories through which the canal will pass. Criticisms of the government’s ineffective action in resolving the land disputes therefore appear to be much wider condemnations of government inaction on — or complicity in — death threats to environmental defenders in general.
This is very disappointing, because GW’s work in exposing the deaths of environmental defenders is vitally important. Nowhere is this truer than in neighbouring Honduras, where the death of the renowned environmentalist Berta Cáceres was recorded by GW along with 13 other deaths in the country last year. However, the situation in Honduras and indeed in other Latin American countries where activists live in danger of their lives is very different from Nicaragua. Travellers between the two neighbouring countries remark on the change in atmosphere when crossing from Honduras to Nicaragua.
Yet, in addition to reporting the 24 deaths in Nicaragua, GW says that laws restricting free speech have been ‘tightened,’ human rights defenders have been arrested, and environmental activists expelled. This is grossly misleading. For example, freedom of speech is evidenced by two main anti-government newspapers and several TV channels, active opposition political parties, and anti-government demonstrations. There is vociferous public criticism of the canal project – even the government’s own scientific adviser publicly questions its environmental impact. A while ago I went to a well-attended conference at the main university that was addressed exclusively by the canal’s opponents.
Why does this seemingly deliberate confusion by GW of two separate issues matter? First, the reports are unfair both to Nicaragua and to Honduras, where the problems are immense. Giving the impression that the authorities in both countries are almost equally bad in this respect does, quite simply, let Honduras off the hook.
Second, Nicaragua — unlike Honduras — is making real attempts to deal with environmental issues. They are far from enough, but they involve reforestation programmes by young people, protection for turtle nesting sites, being a leading country in Latin America in embracing wind, solar, and geothermal power, and so on. Few people who know Nicaragua would claim that environmental activists live in fear of their lives.
Finally, these comparisons are highly relevant in a region where policy and funding by the USA favours Honduras, largely ignoring its human rights abuses. A group of Republican senators is currently trying to get Trump to mount economic sanctions — not against Honduras, but against Nicaragua and its left-wing government. The subtleties of the reporting by Global Witness will be ignored in Washington, but their main message — that Nicaragua is trampling on human rights — is just the one the country’s opponents want to hear.
- Jhon, E. (2015). Presencia de colonos en el territorio MSBAS y las tensiones sobre la autonomía comunitaria de la tierra. Instituto de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Universidad Centroamericana.
- Global Witness. (2017). Defenders of the Earth.
John Perry lives in Masaya, Nicaragua, writes on Latin America for the London Review of Books, and works voluntarily with a local environmental NGO. His website is twoworlds.me.
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