Culture

"Berta didn’t die. She multiplied...”

Bearing witness to assassinated environmental defenders and activists

A crime-fighting organisation launched a campaign to remember victims of assassination this week.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC) marked the #AssassinationWitness launch with a new book and database on 15 June. Faces of Assassination assembles 50 profiles of people killed by criminal groups since the start of the 21st century.

The lives of journalists, community activists, political leaders, police officers, whistleblowers, lawyers, educators and many more are documented in the book, which features interviews with their loved ones by journalists from around the world.

One emerging theme that the authors note is that: “environmental defenders and activists are among those most frequently targeted for criminal assassination.” According to a study in Nature Sustainability last year, as many as 1,558 people in 50 countries were killed for protecting their environment and land between 2002 and 2017.

Amongst their number is Berta Cáceres, a lifelong activist for indigenous rights in Honduras, murdered in 2016. Her international acclaim – she won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 – gave friends and family a false sense of security that Cáceres was above the lawless. But a powerful alliance of business and political elites opposed her work.

In 1993, Cáceres co-founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a group fighting for indigenous Lenca rights in the face of illegal logging and government-backed mining and energy projects. Through demonstrations, blockades and legal action, COPINH and Cáceres fought the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would endanger local communities - potentially cutting off their water supply. The activists succeeded in making two of the dam’s major backers withdraw support.

After years of constant harassment, death threats, mass arrests and violence carried out by paramilitary actors and private security contractors, Cáceres was aware of the danger she was in, when two gunmen broke into her house in March 2016.

Her family’s long fight for justice resulted in several convictions in 2018, though many believe the real architects of her assasination have not yet been tried.

Faces of Assassination is presented with a positive, human message. GITOC states that: “the victim’s stories show how assassinations can galvanise communities, sustain resilience and fuel hope, as people react to a killing and rally round the victim’s cause.”

Cáceres’s brother carries this message: “Berita’s soul is what keeps us in this struggle,” he told a journalist in 2018.

“Berta taught us that fear paralyzes the actions of the people. Despite all the great efforts to persecute us and try to inject fear into our lives, we double our efforts. We will never give up, even if we get killed, even if they murder us.

“That’s why we say, Berta didn’t die. She multiplied.”

A report by NGO Global Witness, shows that more than three people were murdered each week in 2018 for environmental motives.

Last year the investigative journalist Mark Schapiro gave memorable expression to the work of environmental journalists, likening it to the “trophic cascade” in ecosystems.

“One classic example: rising temperatures lead to new bugs following the heat, which leads to new crop diseases, which in turn leads to declining crop yields, which lead to higher food prices - all of which can lead to heightened social tensions and conflict.

“Environmental journalists simply follow the cascade, except in reverse. They become aware of evidence that environmental degradations are taking place,” Schapiro wrote.

“Then they work their way backwards to find out: how did it happen? Who did it? And pretty soon you have reverse engineered yourself straight into the highest ranks of financial and political power.”

Following the cascade of illegal logging in Myanmar cost journalist Soe Moe Tun his life in 2016. The day before his body was found, the 35-year-old reporter had gone on a trip and posted the names of police and government officials involved in timber trafficking to his Facebook page. Myanmar has lost roughly 20% of its forests since 1990, according to an assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

In March 2018, the killing of Indian journalist Sandeep Sharma was caught on the blue-tinged footage of a security camera, as a dump truck mowed him down on a quiet street. Sharma had secretly filmed a senior police officer accepting bribes from the ‘sand mafia’: a violent organized crime group that traffics sand - a lucrative commodity in India’s booming construction industry. The sand mafia had been menacing a protected wildlife sanctuary since 2012, and previously killed police and rangers who got in their way.

The interactive side of the campaign enables viewers to search for and connect the deceased across regions, professions, motivations. This ability to trace and analyse victims’ stories gives an impression of order – held in tension by the book’s opening words: “organized crime is indiscriminate in who it targets”. What we see is not the fingerprints of a shadowy syndicate, but the blunt end of systems designed to protect their economic and political interests at the cost of life.

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