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The murder earlier this month of the Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres has highlighted not just the rising death toll of campaigners in Latin America, but also the fact that, these days, it is often women who are dying for their cause.

Berta Cáceres was shot dead on 3 March, after years of intimidation and death threats. Most agree her murder is linked to her campaign against a spate of highly controversial hydroelectric projects given the green light by government — including the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River, a sacred symbol and water source for the Lenca people whose rights Cáceres championed.

Environmental activism in Latin America is a particularly risky business, with over 100 known murders in Honduras alone since 2010. [1] It is often indigenous people who die as they campaign against hydropower, agribusiness or mining.  And human rights specialists I have spoken to believe women are increasingly the victims.

I asked Robert Hårdh, executive director of the Swedish NGO Civil Rights Defenders (CRD), which has developed tech to support activists, what can be done to protect women on the front-line of environmental movements.

After the abduction and murder of Russian journalist Natalia Estemirova in 2009, the group launched an alarm and locating system for human rights campaigners. Those who sign up receive security training and are given a bracelet that emits signals if tugged, spreading the alarm across local and social media networks.

It now has 100 activists on its books, including 40 women from Kenya, Kosovo, Myanmar and Uganda. Hårdh says women can be particularly vulnerable and subjected to “very targeted campaigns” because, in addition to their normal campaigning risks, they often battle social disapproval about their role or the fact they are working at all. Security threats can even come from their relatives, he adds. 

“It’s probably fair to say Latin America is the worst [security situation] in the world just now for human rights defenders.”

Robert Hårdh, CRD

Hårdh explains that when a human rights defender signs up to the scheme, they firstly undergo security training and are interviewed in detail on the nature of threats.

“The most important issue is where are the security threats most likely to come from,” says Hårdh. “Many times the defender has a very clear view on what the security threat is, and it turns out that the threat is really something else” — so interviews help CRD tailor the support activists need as accurately as possible.   

The interview also clarifies whether it is best for the activist to have a public or concealed bracelet. While CRD’s first bracelets were designed to be visible deterrents, demand for a concealed version has emerged.

Until now, no bracelets had been distributed in Latin America but Civil Rights Defenders expects to announce its first members there within a year.

But there could be problems. Although the system uses 2G rather than 3G, it still requires a mobile network to function.  In countries across Latin America mobile signals can be erratic. CRD is working on ways around this — including the use of satellite technology. There will also be political barriers. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, with impunity for perpetrators and corruption rife across public institutions.

“It’s probably fair to say Latin America is the worst [security situation] in the world just now for human rights defenders,” Hårdh says. CRD’s approach is to make it harder for perpetrators to commit crimes, but it’s just one tool in the fight against violence — a campaign that will also need a broad, concerted political response.  
Aisling Irwin is a science journalist and writer based in the United Kingdom, and a former SciDev.Net news editor. She is contactable on [email protected]