Your Life or Your Freedom? The Ultimate Price to Defend the Environment

By Natalia Gomez
WASHINGTON DC, Aug 8 2019 (IPS)

For the family of indigenous Guatemalan activist Jorge Juc, the
announcement last week by US President Donald Trump of an agreement
declaring Guatemala a “safe third country” could not be more
bitterly ironic.

The deal requires central American migrants who cross into
Guatemala on their way to the US to apply for protections in
Guatemala instead of at the US border – a move immigration
advocates have called cruel and unlawful.

Juc, a 77-year-old indigenous Maya Q’eqchi community leader,
was killed in a machete attack in July as he tended his cornfield.
He was president of the village chapter of the Campesino
Development Committee (CODECA), a national indigenous-led social
movement fighting for indigenous, land and environmental rights
that are being threatened by harmful mining projects.

For Guatemalan human rights defenders, particularly those who
are indigenous – as for migrants and other Guatemalans – the
words “Guatemala” and “safe” could never belong in the same
sentence.

Their country is considered among the world’s deadliest for
environmental activists, particularly those from indigenous
communities fighting to protect their land, lives, livehoods and
rights.

A new
report
by independent rights watchdog Global Witness – coming
just days before the commemoration of International Day for the
World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9 – found that murders of
land defenders in Guatemala skyrocketed by a shocking 500% between
2017 and last year, making it the deadliest country per capita for
such activists. And most of the land and environmental activists
killed were indigenous – many, leaders of the country’s
campesino (peasant farmer) movement.

Four CODECA-affiliated community leaders were killed last month
alone, all in Guatemala’s western Izabal department. Izabal is
home to mining operations, oil palm plantations and the Maya
Q’eqchi’ community, which has suffered decades of displacement
as a result.

Isidro Perez and Melesio Ramirez were murdered on July 5 when
armed men opened fire on a land rights protest. Julio Ramirez was
shot multiple times a week later and died of his injuries.

Last December, the bodies of brothers Neri And Domingo Esteban
Pedro – both vocal opponents of a hydroelectric power project in
the Ixquisis region of western Guatemala – were found slumped on
the banks of the Yal Witz River near the San Andres hydroelectric
with bullets in their heads.

In Guatemala – as across Latin America – when indigenous
rights defenders are not murdered for activism, they are
criminalized and imprisoned on trumped up charges.

A 2018 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of
Indigenous People about the rise in criminalization of indigenous
Guatemalans found that people who filed legal petitions to demand
protection of their rights are being falsely charged with crimes
like robbery, kidnap and even murder. In a number of cases, the
report claimed, companies or landlords allegedly colluded with
local prosecutors and judges.

Earlier this year, The prestigious Goldman Prize – widely
regarded as the environmental Nobel Prize – was awarded to
indigenous Mapuche leader, Alberto
Curamil
, who was incarcerated after leading his community to
stop two hydropower projects threatening the sacred Cautin River
valley in Chile.

Ironically, while Chile preparing to host the world’s largest
environmental summit – the UN’s climate change conference COP25
– in December, it has yet to sign the Escazú Agreement, a
historic, regional treaty committing Latin American and Caribbean
nations to protecting environmental defenders and their rights.

And in another twist of irony, Guatemala was among the first
group of 14 countries to sign the Regional Agreement on
Access to Information, Participation and Justice in Environmental
Matters for Latin America and the Caribbean
(as the Escazú
treaty is officially known) in an emotional ceremony last
March.

Under the agreement, states commit to ensure a safe environment
for defenders to act, take appropriate and effective measures to
recognize and protect their rights, and take measures to prevent,
investigate and prosecute attacks against environmental
defenders.

Guatemala’s crisis for indigenous environmental defenders
stretches back decades, the Global Witness report explains. New
economic integration policies that emerged after the end of long
running civil war in 1996 led to a boom in private and foreign
investment.

As a result, large swatches of land were handed out to
plantation, mining and hydropower companies, ushering in a wave of
forced and violent evictions, particularly in indigenous areas.

A joint 2019 report by Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman and
the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that
industrial projects were routinely being imposed on communities
without their consent.

Regardless of risking their lives and freedoms, environmental
defenders continue to inspire us every day step up and act.
Governments around the world should increase their commitment to
the protection of defenders and ensure that they can develop their
role without risking their life and integrity.

Specially in Latin America, the most dangerous region for
defenders in the world, environmental activists have a fundamental
role representing the voices of millions of people suffering the
pollution of their waters, the lost of their forests and violations
to their rights to health and to life.

Just in the last years two Goldman Prize recipients from this
region have been murdered. Bertha Caceres an indigenous leader
working to protect her community in Honduras and Isidro Baldonegro
an indigenous activist who worked for the protection of forest in
the Sierra Madre en Mexico.

The violent reality faced by environmental defenders in Latin
America has already made some States in the region to commit to
their protection. On 4 March 2018, 24 states from Latin America and
the Caribbean adopted the agreement that responds to the region’s
need for a stronger environmental democracy and was inspired by the
Aarhus Convention adopted in Europe in 1998, rests on three
substantial pillars for environmental democracy: the right to
access information, the right of participation and the right to
access justice in environmental matters and adds a new pillar with
a regime of protection for environmental human rights
defenders.

Under Escazú, States commit to ensure a safe environment for
defenders to act, take appropriate and effective measures to
recognize and protect their rights, and take measures to prevent,
investigate and prosecute attacks against environmental
defenders.

The post
Your Life or Your Freedom? The Ultimate Price to Defend the
Environment
appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Your Life or Your Freedom? The Ultimate Price to Defend the Environment