"These defenders are part of a global movement to protect the planet. They are on the frontline of fighting climate change, preserving ecosystems and safeguarding human rights. They stand up for causes that benefit us all: sustainability, biodiversity and justice." - Global Witness
2017 was the deadliest year on record for land and environmental defenders, according to a new report released on 24 July 2018 by NGO Global Witness. The report reveals at least 207 killings throughout the year, 60% of them in Latin America.
For PBI, the organisations we accompany defending land and environmental rights are frequently the most vulnerable and marginalised. Here, we shine a spotlight on three who have resisted assassination attempts, death threats and criminalisation to continue their struggles to protect their land and resources.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó
On 29 December 2017, German Graciano Posso and José Roviro López, members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia, narrowly survived an attempt on their lives when five armed men, allegedly members of the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces neo-paramilitary group, broke into the Community’s storehouse intending to kill them. The attack was emblematic of the alarming escalation of killings of human rights defenders following the Colombian peace agreement, as illegal armed groups struggle for dominance over the territories where the FARC-EP previously exercised control. Once again, land and environmental defenders have found themselves on the front line.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is a collective of over 500 peasant farmers in the Urabá region of North-West Colombia. The community has faced massacres, assassinations and displacements, despite declaring itself neutral in the midst of the Colombian civil war. Their collective protection mechanism has been a pioneering example of non-violence, subsequently emulated by other communities in Colombia. Since its formation in 1997, 320 members of the Peace Community have been murdered. Caught between the paramilitaries, guerrilla and the army, they have been targeted for various reasons: the community publically denounces illegal activity by armed groups in the region; their lands are sought after by economic interests including cattle ranching and mining; and it is a strategic region for cocaine production and trafficking.
The Global Witness report reveals 24 killings of environmental defenders in Colombia in 2017 – the second deadliest country on earth.
The Chortí Campesino Coordinator "Nuevo Día"
During the early hours of 22 May 2018, unknown actors shot at a vehicle owned by Omar Jerónimo, spokesman of the Chorti Campesino Coordinator “Nuevo Día” (CCCND), based in Eastern Guatemala. They also left a message on newspaper that was taken as evidence by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The attack was the latest in a series of threats and plots against the life of Mr Jerónimo, warning him of severe consequences for his continued championing of the indigenous communities resisting hydroelectric and mining projects in the region.
CCCND work in Chiquimula department providing support and legal representation to local communities campaigning on issues related to land, environmental, and cultural rights, particularly in the context of major extractive projects. Several hydroelectric plants are either planned or already under construction in the Department of Chiquimula. Community members are worried about potential environmental impacts in what is one of the driest regions of the country. Inadequate information and a lack of transparency about these projects, as well as the failure to consult the affected communities, has affected the social fabric and foments situations of conflict and tension.
Mr Jerónimo is not the only member of CCCND to have suffered attempts on his life. Numerous local indigenous leaders also receive regular death threats, attacks and harassment, and the communities suffer frequent intimidation from armed men. Such events are particularly alarming given the context of spiralling assassinations of land rights defenders in the country. In 2018, seven have already been killed.
The Ejidos and Communities Council Opposed to La Parota Dam
On January 7 2018, after a violent incident in the community La Concepción (Guerrero, Mexico) that caused the death of eight people, a security operation took place where three people lost their lives and at least 25 were detained, the majority of whom are members of the Ejidos and Communities Council Opposed to La Parota Dam (CECOP). The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico obtained important evidence that human rights violations were committed during the detention, including torture, a lack of respect for the right to defense, fabrication of evidence, and break-ins without judicial orders. In addition, various journalists claimed to have been hit and harassed to stop filming during the operation. Given these incidents, the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, accompanied by PBI, took on the legal representation of those detained and emitted information about the irregularities that accompanied the investigation as well as the precarious detention conditions and solitary confinement of the community leader Marco Antonio Suástegui.
These violent incidents provoked public pronouncements from the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Center for the Right to Justice and International Law (CEJIL) showing serious concern for the arbitrary detentions and the excessive use of force by the police and military in a context of criminalisation of those who oppose the building of the La Parota dam. Since 2003, when the process of revindication of the rights of the communities affected by the hydroelectric project begun, three members of CECOP have been killed and another six have been incarcerated. Among them, Marco Antonio Suátegui Muñoz was arbitrarily detained in a high security prison on 17th June 2014 for the crime of theft, and freed on 21st August 2015, given there was no proof upon which to accuse him.
The construction of La Parota dam was initated without the required consultation of the local indigenous peoples. The CECOP has won land judgments to stop the construction of the dam. In 2007, CECOP called a community assembly in accordance with human rights standards and their own indigenous normative system, where the decision to allow the project was negative and unanimous. Tlachinollan believes that the current tensions are the result of deliberate tactics to divide the communities and weaken their internal organization. Their investigations suggest that the Mexican state is now using these tensions as a pretext to disproportionately and illegally target members of the resistance. Tlachinollan’s members have also received threats and harassment as a result of their human rights work.