For Latin America’s environmental activists, the threat of death is always in the air — either in the form of the slow poisoning of the earth or assassination. For many, inaction simply isn’t an option.
TEMUCO, Chile — On Jan. 12, Isidro Baldenegro López traveled to his hometown for the first time in years to visit his aunt who had fallen gravely ill. As he lay down to sleep that Saturday night in Coloradas de la Virgen, a small community in the western Sierra Madre mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico, he heard a man call his name repeatedly.
When he got up to see who was there, Baldenegro was shot six times. The young gunman casually walked away when the deed was done, leaving his victim for dead. Baldenegro succumbed to his wounds hours later, dying around 1 a.m. on Jan. 16.
He lived humbly as a subsistence farmer, but Baldenegro was an internationally renowned environmental activist. One of just four Mexicans to receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, Baldenegro made a name for himself as a principled activist who was falsely imprisoned, threatened, and eventually murdered for his fight to protect the native forest and his indigenous community from predatory logging interests infecting much of Latin America, a struggle he inherited from his father who was also murdered for his activism.
Isidro Baldenegro’s work inspired activists throughout Latin America and the world, bringing international attention to the ecological wonder of the Sierra Madre’s old-growth forests as well as the fight for survival of the Tarahumara people and their rich cultural heritage.
Equally stunning as his sudden, grisly murder was the negligence of the government response, prompting many locals and international observers to allege that such carelessness was intentional. After news of Baldenegro’s death circulated, authorities did not go to retrieve his body, leaving one of his brothers to bring his remains to state police.
In the weeks since the murder, not a single authority — municipal, state, or federal — has visited the community to investigate the incident or look for Baldenegro’s killer.
A tragic, but increasingly common reality
The story of Isidro Baldenegro López, however tragic, is an increasingly common reality for Latin American environmental activists and indigenous leaders who often find themselves in the crosshairs of powerful multinational corporations and the elite who control them and the political class. These interests, as they have done for centuries, place profit over people and have cultivated violence within indigenous regions as a means of quelling dissent.
In the case of México, the drug war initiated by former President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa in 2006 made violence the norm in Chihuahua, the region where Baldenegro lived and died. In the last decade, this “war” has left over 100,000 murdered and tens of thousands disappeared while also creating an organized crime network involving CIA-connected drug traffickers, politicians, and logging interests. Logging interests have become particularly powerful in the region, especially post-NAFTA, largely because U.S. companies have come to rely on the region as a source of raw materials. These same logging interests are widely believed by locals to be responsible for Baldenegro’s murder.
In an interview with journalist John Gibler for Sierra magazine, Isela González of the Sierra Madre Alliance said:
“We are wounded and outraged by Isidro’s murder, but we don’t want for people to think that the violence was aimed only at this one individual: This is violence waged against the indigenous communities who have been struggling for years to protect their ancestral territories.”
In Latin America, an average of two activists are killed every week, a gruesome statistic that has only worsened in recent years, according to Oxfam. Despite the constant threats to their lives, many of these activists know that staying silent and giving in to the short-sighted demands of both industry and government would consign them and their communities to annihilation, ultimately giving them little choice in the matter.
For years, experts and analysts have warned of coming wars over natural resources as years of industrialization and increasing resource scarcity have left major industries scrambling for the rights to the remaining supplies of key raw materials. Yet, for Latin America, these wars have long been a harsh reality, largely the legacy of ongoing and centuries-old conflicts between indigenous communities and colonialist governments over national resources. Originally perfected by the Spanish in the colonial era, the strategy of using intimidation and fear in order to force local communities to accept a foreign agenda is a fundamental extension of colonialism, showing that colonialism in Latin America has never died but merely changed form.
Largely due to foreign meddling in Latin American affairs, particularly by the United States, several nations — most notably, Honduras, Brazil, and Peru — have made the choice to brutally repress eco-activists instead of listening to their concerns, preferring to clear the path for unregulated industrial exploitation as opposed to any potentially inclusive solution. They also have sizable police forces and even paramilitary groups that target any group that stands in the way of industrial “progress.”
Baldenegro’s death is just the tip of the iceberg.
Honduras: The world’s most dangerous place for environmental activism
Nowhere is the conflict between indigenous landholders and government-supported industry barons more stark than in Honduras. The relatively small Central American nation of 8.2 million inhabitants has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with environmental activists making up a significant portion of its many murder victims.
Though the political repression and rampant corruption that have fueled high rates of murder and violence have drawn international condemnation for decades, that didn’t prevent the U.S. State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton from supporting a military coup in 2009 that installed a far-right, industry-friendly government which has only exacerbated these problems. Immediately after the coup, the homicide rate rose substantially, particularly homicides targeting activists as government-backed land grabs triggered a spike in murders.
According to a report released on Tuesday by Global Witness, an NGO focused on the links between natural resource exploitation, corruption, armed conflict, poverty and human rights abuses, over 120 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras since 2010, including another Goldman Environmental Prize-winner, Berta Cáceres.
Cáceres, like Baldenegro, was fighting against powerful corporations seeking to exploit the territory of the indigenous Lenca people and had been recognized for her bravery. Undeterred by years of death threats, she continued fighting up until armed gunmen broke into her home and gunned her down in March of last year. As is often the case for Latin American activists-turned-martyrs, the investigation into Cáceres’ death was fraught with problems including false accusations, suspected cover-ups, and the theft of her case files not once but twice.
More troubling than the handling of the investigations themselves, however, has been the complicity of Honduran politicians and military in the increase in violence against activists. Not long after Cáceres was killed, Rodrigo Cruz, a former member of the elite, U.S.-trained branch of the Honduran special forces, said that Cáceres’ name had appeared on a government hit-list, prompting him to tell the Guardian that he was “100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army.”
The collusion doesn’t end there.
National Party president Gladis Aurora López recently oversaw the approval of two controversial dam projects while in congress, both of which are projects managed by her husband — a conflict of interest that’s illegal under Honduran law. According to the Global Witness report, local activists have accused López of staging a fake consultation regarding one of these dams, even going so far as to bus in foreigners to give the appearance that the indigenous communities to be affected by the projects had been consulted.
Another major player in Honduran politics, businessman and National Party activist Lenir Pérez, stands accused of attempting to bribe activists with $1 million. He is also suspected of being involved in the issuance of death threats against activists as well as the kidnappings of two international human rights activists in July of 2013.
Different countries, same struggle
Though the situation in Honduras is arguably the most severe, a similar situation is playing out throughout Latin America. While Honduras may be the deadliest place to defend the environment per capita, Brazil has the highest death toll of fallen activists, with local watchdog Comissão Pastoral da Terra estimating that more than 1,500 Brazilians have lost their lives in the fight to end illegal deforestation over the past 25 years.
As 68 percent of those murders take place along the border of the great Amazon rainforest, Brazilian federal prosecutor Felício Pontes noted in a 2013 interview with Men’s Journal that, “Many people from the logging and mining companies think the only way to solve problems is by killing the people who defend the forest.” Just like Honduras and Mexico, impunity is largely believed to fuel the violence.
The Brazilian government, especially in the aftermath of last year’s U.S.-backed “soft coup” that ousted President Dilma Rousseff, has actively worked to make impunity for loggers and ranchers the law of the land as the corporatist and unelected interim government led by Michel Temer has vowed to privatize as much of the public sector as possible for the benefit of the nation’s oligarchy. Just weeks after Rousseff was impeached, gunmen attacked a Guarani-Kaiowa village in northern Brazil in an attempt to forcibly remove the indigenous Guarani people from Tey’i Jusu, an area also claimed by the wealthy cattle ranchers at Ivu Ranch. According to Survival International, “The attack is highly likely to be part of escalating attempts by the powerful local agri-business and ranching interests – closely linked to the recently established interim government – to illegally evict the Guarani from their ancestral land and to intimidate them with genocidal violence and racism.”
The same situation continues to repeat itself, even among ostensibly leftist governments. Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, has carefully cultivated his image as a leftist “man of the people” who cares about the plight of Ecuador’s native population, though his actions in recent years have painted a starkly different picture. Despite the fact that widespread support from indigenous communities helped propel him to the highest office in the land, once he was elected Correa began to dismiss natives as “donkey-riders” who were stubbornly blocking access to the nation’s “pot of gold,” i.e. its mineral resources.
Such rhetoric is indicative of Correa’s sacrifice of indigenous rights for lucrative mining contracts with mostly Chinese companies. In 2009, Correa reactivated hundreds of mining permits and allowed foreign mining interests access to indigenous territory and resources for any project he deemed to be “in the national interest.”
Considering Correa’s entire economic plan is dependent on Chinese loans that use Ecuador’s mineral resources as collateral, nearly every Chinese-backed mining venture receives top priority, regardless of any and all local opposition to such projects. In order to curb local resistance, the “leftist” Correa administration has stooped to the same tactics of intimidation and militarization practiced elsewhere in order to allow foreign corporations to complete their projects unimpeded, essentially transforming large swathes of the nation into a police state shrouded in a false veneer of democratic populism.
China’s dramatic expansion in Latin America has had an impact in more countries than just Ecuador, though. In the Andean highlands of Peru, local communities face many of these same pressures and threats from government-supported corporate interests, resulting in widespread repression. In the Apurímac region not far from Cuzco, Chinese mining interests have had steep consequences for local communities.
The Las Bambas mine, set to soon become the world’s second-largest copper mine, serves as the most recent and egregious example. Though the mine initially brought 18,000 jobs to the region during the construction phase, more than 75 percent of those jobs have disappeared since the mine started production in the first quarter of 2016.
Local anger exploded not long after the job cuts were announced, resulting in a labor strike and open protest. The peaceful protests were forcibly quelled three days later, when a force of 1,500 police officers fired tear gas and live ammunition into the crowd of protesters, claiming the lives of local community leader Beto Chahuayllo and others.
Following the display of force, then-President Ollanta Humala placed four provinces under a state of emergency while soldiers patrolled the streets of major cities and a ban on any type of political gatherings was put into effect for an entire month. The Humala administration mocked the protesters, with then-minister of the interior José Luis Pérez telling reporters that “a few thousand people led by a few cannot stop a project this size.” Though acts of local resistance declined following the violent crackdown, the local community around Las Bambas knows full well that doing nothing is just as deadly as fighting back.
The role of colonialism in state-sanctioned violence
As the violent repression of environmental activists by state and corporate parties repeats itself on such a vast scale throughout all of Latin America, it is clear that the origins of the problem have their basis in the five centuries of exploitation that the region has faced since the dawn of the colonial period. Indeed, the similarities between colonial-era governments and their modern counterparts are numerous.
The only noticeable difference is the alleged separation of predatory corporate interests and government, though the examples above prove that this is an illusory arrangement at best. The end result, however, is still the same – the state’s continued service to its own interests to the detriment of the local communities.
In an interview with MintPress News, Ben Leather, an Environmental Defenders campaigner for Global Witness, explained, “Historically unequal land distribution, particularly in indigenous territory where many resources are found, means these conflicts are exacerbated in Latin America […] entrenched corruption and widespread impunity make attacks against those who dare challenge abuses more common.”
The issue of unequal land distribution is another legacy of the colonial era, but one that has changed form as the industrialized world finds itself with an increasingly dwindling supply of natural resources.
With most of the territory traditionally held by European colonists having been almost entirely stripped of resources, those lands that were left in indigenous hands are often the only remaining sources of certain key raw materials, particularly lumber, minerals, and metals.
Centuries of indigenous repression by the state have left these communities with a lack of representation in national governments and resulted in their overall disenfranchisement. Their land holdings are viewed as “easy targets” by predatory industrial interests with powerful political connections.
Many national media outlets, often themselves state- or elite-controlled, obediently serve the system by cultivating ignorance of these key issues at the national level by offering scant or biased coverage of environmental and social justice issues.
Even the successes of the activists themselves have been blamed for fueling the repression and violence.
“It is also possible that the very strength of civil society in the region, where NGOs and social movements have been successful in exposing both state and corporate violations, has put them at increased risk,” Leather said.
This begs the question: What, if any, viable course of action is available to local environmental activists in the face of such overwhelming opposition?
‘We will give our lives to defend the land’
As many indigenous and environmental activists are well aware, staying silent is not an option. In 2015, Guarani elder Tunico Benites stated the reality of the situation rather bluntly when he told the BBC that the repression of activists is part of “a deliberate policy of genocide.”
“It’s a long legal process designed to kill our people, slowly but surely,” he added.
The same sentiment was echoed by Domingo Ankuash, a leader of Ecuador’s indigenous Shuar people, who commented during a 2013 interview with Salon that “we will give our lives to defend the land, because the end is the same for us either way.”
Numerous case studies have proven them right. For instance, in northern Colombia, the nation’s largest indigenous group – the Wayuu – were unable to prevent construction of the Cercado dam in 2011. The project was originally touted as a major job creation project meant to improve local water infrastructure, but it was expressly intended to divert the entire Ranchería River to the continent’s largest open-pit coal mine, located nearby.
Upon its completion, the Wayuu, who had not been consulted about the project nor compensated for its drastic impact, have now been left to live off of less than 0.7 liters of water a day per person. Most of that water is contaminated with deadly bacteria and salt that makes it both dangerous and difficult to drink. Meanwhile, the mine – known as Cerrejón – consumes more than 17 million liters of water a day.
The end result is nothing short of genocide. In less than six years, over 14,000 Wayuu children have died from lack of access to clean drinking water as well as from preventable diseases caused by the consumption of tainted water. Even the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and other similar organizations have been unable to improve their situation as the Colombian government has chosen to be complicit in the needless deaths of children due to their continued silence on the issue.
Regardless of whether the projects involve mining, dam construction, or deforestation, local communities throughout Latin America face similar fates if they choose not to resist. Though activism may result in assassinations, those who stand in opposition to these project know that the only alternative to resistance is a slow death, not just for themselves, but for their entire communities. Ultimately, the plight of Latin American eco-activists is just latest act in the long, tragic drama of indigenous genocide.
The only difference now is that colonialism has given way to corporate feudalism.