On October 2nd of last year, Honduran environmental activist Daniel Humberto Sanchez Avendaño never returned home from a trip to buy cigarettes.
The 19-year-old was a member of COSAJUCA, a youth organization in Central Colombia fighting against a local open-pit gold mine. Others in the group, which hosted workshops educating residents about the mine's heavy environmental toll, were repeatedly threatened, and Avendaño was harassed by police just days before disappearing.
He was found murdered five days later — one of 116 environmental activists killed worldwide in 2014, according to a report by Global Witness. The victims came from 17 countries, more than three-quarters of the killings occurred in Central or South America, with members of indigenous groups making up 40 percent of the global total. The number of murders increased 20 percent compared to 2013.
True figures are likely higher, warned Billy Kyte of Global Witness. Cases in remote areas with limited access to media, where authoritative regimes fiercely guard information, or where civil society groups are scarce lead to underreporting.
"It's certainly having a strangling effect on activism worldwide. Land and environmental defenders are being systematically targeted. There are false legal charges being brought against them," Kyte told VICE News. "It's not just about killings. It's about the criminalization of protests, the dilution of laws and environmental protection, and the restrictions on the freedoms of activists to be able to travel and carry out their work."
Last year, the London-based NGO found that killings of activists tripled over the past decade and of the 908 reported murders over that period just 10 killers were convicted. The spike in violence transcends borders, Kyte said.
Global Witness defines those tallied in the report as "people who take peaceful action to protect environmental or land rights, whether in their own personal capacity or professionally … and as such are afforded all protections laid out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders." Nonetheless, a 2007 UN report found that, among those fighting for human rights, environmental and land activists are the second most likely group to be killed, topped only by those working on women's rights.
Victims in 2014 came from a variety of backgrounds, Kyte said. They are often ordinary people from rural communities, fighting against natural resource extraction. But sometimes they are professional lawyers or investigative journalists.
Perpetrators are largely unknown, but among well-documented cases Global Witness linked 10 killings to paramilitary groups, eight to police, five to private security, and three to militaries. Best information suggests, according to the report, "large landowners, business interests, political actors, agents of organized crime" are often behind the violence, in countries where "assassins or thugs can be contracted cheaply and are used to conduct illegal surveillance, threaten, attack or kill activists."
For the fifth consecutive year, Honduras was the most deadly place per capita in the world for environmental activists. Twelve were killed in 2014 and 111 activists have been killed there since 2002, where both the Honduran police and army have committed human rights violations, Global Witness charges.
The country is plagued by some of world's worst corruption and has among the highest rates of deforestation. Nearly two-thirds of the population lives in poverty and private security guards reportedly outnumber police officers five-to-one, according to the report.
Berta Ca?ceres is the general coordinator for COPINH, an NGO focused on indigenous communities in Honduras, and recipient of a 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Since 2011, COPINH has battled against the proposed Agua Zarca dam, which would force the Lenca indigenous community of Ri?o Blanco from their ancestral land.
"[There's been] death threats, threats of kidnapping, threats of lynching … not just against myself but also to the indigenous council in these communities," Ca?ceres told VICE News. "The threats have brought a lot of worry and fear but they've also brought us together and created solidarity."
Violence against activists has spiked since the Honduran military coup of 2009. Investments in mining, forestry, agribusiness and hydroelectric dams have been a top priority for the new, right-wing government of President Juan Orlando Herna?ndez, Kyte said. With the rise in natural resource extraction has come an increased number of conflicts.
"The US government, although they superficially denounced the military coup in 2009, has tacitly given support to this new Honduran government," Kyte told VICE News. "It's been through aid programs, in particular to the Honduran military that are accused of a lot of these abuses."
Twenty-nine environmental activists were killed in Brazil in 2014 — the most of any nation. Four hundred and seventy-seven have been killed in the country since 2002. Columbia was second to Brazil with 25 murders in 2014. The Philippines ranked third with 15 murders, just ahead of Honduras.
Author Naomi Klein said activists might see themselves as engaged in very local campaigns to protect the environment or fight against forced relocation due to a mine or dam, but their work has far reaching benefits.
"Many of the people being killed in these struggles are not only protecting their local land and water. By keeping carbon in the ground, and defending ecological farming practices, they are showing the rest of us how to prevent catastrophic climate change," Klein told VICE News. "It is a symptom of the insanity of our age that, for growing numbers of courageous activists, the cost of defending life on earth is death."
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom
Images via Global Witness