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The Most Dangerous Place on Earth to Be an Environmentalist

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The murder of Berta Cáceres added another prominent name to the long list of environmental activists around the world—from Brazil to the Philippines, Colombia to Thailand, Cambodia to Russia—who have been killed in recent years. At least 767 people died in conflicts against extractive industries and poachers between 2010 and 2015, according to the London watchdog group Global Witness. Last year alone, 185 were slain in 16 countries, the highest annual death toll on record. 

Almost a third of those 767 killings took place in Brazil, earning the vast South American nation a dubious distinction as the most lethal place on earth to be an environmentalist. Running a close second—and a clear number one on a per capita basis—is Honduras, an impoverished country that forms one-third of Central America’s violent Northern Triangle, which also includes Guatemala and El Salvador. Between 2010 and 2015, 109 Honduran activists were killed. Last year’s per capita rate—eight out of a population of eight million—is about four times that of Brazil’s, which saw 50 environmental activists killed out of 200 million. “Hondurans are being shot dead in broad daylight, kidnapped, or assaulted for standing in the way of their land and the companies that want to monetize it,” says Billy Kyte, of Global Witness.

Few of the murderers are ever caught, and their crimes are becoming more brazen. In August 2013, three indigenous activists in one small community, Locomapa, in northern Honduras, were mowed down at a roadblock as they protested illegal mining and logging. A year later, Luis de Reyes Marcía, another activist in Locomapa, was found dead with stab wounds in the chest and neck. In May 2015, assailants gunned down Moisés Durón Sánchez, a COPINH organizer working on behalf of 25 indigenous families in the Santa Barbara department, one of Honduras’s 18 states. And in July 2016, the body of Lesbia Janeth Urquía, 49, yet another COPINH activist campaigning to stop hydroelectric projects in western Honduras, was found in a garbage dump. In perhaps the nation’s bloodiest corner, the Bajo Aguán, a fertile Caribbean valley that was once the fiefdom of the United Fruit and Standard Fruit companies, more than 100 land activists—farmers, union leaders, a Catholic lay preacher—have been killed in the past five years in violence between campesinos and the Dinant Corporation, owned by Honduras’s wealthy Facussé family, which has amassed 20,000 acres of the valley's arable land to grow palm oil for margarine and food production. A Dinant spokesman says the idea that the company’s security guards or contractors “are killing huge numbers of local farmers” is “utterly absurd.” He also claims that 19 security guards have been killed since 2010 and that a Dinant field technician was tortured and assassinated.

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