The March 31 front-page article “ ‘A lot of people wanted her dead’ ” shed light on the murder of nature’s guardians, but it missed a crucial point: Berta Cáceres Flores’s murder was rooted in her government’s catastrophic failure to recognize the land rights of indigenous people and local communities. This problem is not unique to Honduras, or even to Latin America, as the murders of Indra Pelani in Indonesia, Chai Bunthonglek in Thailand and Yunis Akumu in Uganda demonstrate. Worldwide, indigenous and other local communities have legal ownership rights to just one-fifth of their lands. This gap allows governments to sell their territories to the highest bidder, agreements that are legal on the surface but violate long-held rights and the international agreements that support them.
Environmental activists in Latin America are not trying to prevent development of “remote lands.” These lands are theirs. Many indigenous peoples and local communities, including Cáceres’s Lenca people, have lived on their lands for generations. When their lands are threatened, courageous leaders such as Cáceres often refuse to give in to intimidation and threats, and end up paying the ultimate price. It is no mere coincidence that 40 percent of environmentalists murdered in 2014 were indigenous people protecting their lands and livelihoods.
It is critical that governments bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice, but they also must solve the root issue: Indigenous and community activists will continue to be murdered until governments recognize their rights.