Killed 'for defending our planet': Latin America is deadliest place for environmentalists

·6 min read

MEXICO CITY — Diana Gabriela Aranguren could not believe what the news was saying. She looked at the TV screen over and over, trying to understand how it was possible that her friend had been killed.

“He had just made a post on Facebook at 6 p.m. to participate in an activity and a bit later, the tragedy came on the news," Aranguren, a teacher and environmental activist, said about the death of Oscar Eyraud Adams, an Indigenous Mexican activist and leader who was killed on Sept. 24, 2020, in Tecate, Baja California.

Eyraud Adams fought for the water rights of the Indigenous Kumiai, who have been affected by the excessive use of the region’s aquifers by large beer and wine companies.

His social media post, which were the last words he wrote, was a call for an event called “Looking for rain in the desert.”

A group of armed men entered his residence and shot him dead; the only thing they took was his cellphone and a notebook with his notes. At least 13 bullet casings, of different calibers, were found by authorities at the crime scene.

The case of Eyraud Adams, and many others, are chronicled in “Last Line of Defence: The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against land and environmental defenders,” the latest report from Global Witness, an environmental rights organization which is calling out the increase in attacks against activists.

“You never think that defending our right to water and life will lead to death,” Aranguren said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo. “In Mexico, the people who defend their territory and natural resources are being killed, they make us disappear and they criminalize us.”

In 2020, there were 227 deadly attacks, an increase in the historical figures since 2019, the deadliest year for environmental activists, with 212 murders.

The most chilling data is in Latin America, where 165 deaths took place — three-quarters of the attacks.

Almost 3 out of 4 attacks occurred in the region, which includes 7 of the 10 deadliest countries.

Colombia, with 65 deaths, and Mexico, with 30, lead the world ranking of murders of land and environmental defenders. Other countries with worrying figures are Brazil and Honduras, with 20 and 17 murders, respectively.

Killed 'for defending our planet'

At least 30 percent of the attacks are related to the exploitation of resources in activities such as logging, the construction of hydroelectric dams, mining projects and large-scale agribusiness.

“The people who are killed every year for defending their local populations were also defending the planet we share. In particular, our climate. Activities that flood our atmosphere with carbon, such as fossil fuel extraction and deforestation, are at the center of many of these murders,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote in Spanish in the report's foreword.

The logging and deforestation industry is linked to the highest number of murders in 2020, with 23 cases recorded in countries such as Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines.

Global Witness claims its data doesn't reflect “the true dimension of the problem” because restrictions on press freedom and coercive tactics such as death threats, illegal surveillance, intimidation, sexual violence and criminalization can contribute to an underreporting of assaults.

Colombia and Mexico lead in killings

According to the organization, since the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, an average of four environmental defenders have been killed each week.

For the second consecutive year, Colombia registered the highest number of activists killed, totaling 65 executions. The attacks occurred in “the context of generalized attacks against human rights defenders and community leaders," the report stated. "In many of the most remote areas, paramilitary and criminal groups increased their control through the exercise of violence.”

Almost half of the country's homicides were against people engaged in small-scale agriculture and a third of the activists were Indigenous or Afro-Colombians.

The entrance to Kumiai territory in Juntas de Nejí, Baja California. (Felipe Luna / Global Witness)
The entrance to Kumiai territory in Juntas de Nejí, Baja California. (Felipe Luna / Global Witness)

Countries used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to implement repressive methods against their populations — “an opportunity to take drastic measures against civil society while companies advanced with destructive projects," the researchers state.

The closures and quarantines made it easier to locate activists, "and that is why many of the homicides were perpetrated in their homes or in their surroundings,” Lourdes Castro, coordinator of the Somos Defensores program, said in an interview with Mongabay Latam.

“Paradoxically, the violent people had the possibility to walk freely through the territories," Castro said.

Another worrying case is the situation for Mexican activists. Global Witness registered 30 lethal attacks in Mexico, which represents an increase of 67 percent compared to 2019 when 18 deaths were counted.

“Forest exploitation was linked to almost a third of these attacks and half of all attacks in the country were directed against Indigenous communities,” the researchers said. Moreover, most of them go unpunished, since 95 percent of murders in the country don't result in a legal case.

Gabriela Carreón, human rights manager of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), said 2020 was the most violent year for environmental activists during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As of July, Cemda has registered 14 murders against environmental activists. That same month, the Mexican Ministry of the Interior acknowledged that at least 68 human rights defenders and 43 journalists have been assassinated so far during López Obrador's tenure.

Fighting the hellish heat in Baja California

Heat kills in the Mexican state of Baja California. In 2019, at least eight heat-related deaths were recorded in Mexicali, the state's capital; in 2020 they were 83.

“In the last 70 years, the temperature in Mexico has a clear and conclusive increasing trend," Jorge Zavala Hidalgo, general coordinator of the National Meteorological Service, told Noticias Telemundo. "In the last decade it has increased very rapidly and that rise is even higher than the average for the planet."

The slain environmental activist, Eyraud Adams, had lived through the region's searing temperatures and lack of water.

In 2017, he had opposed the installation of the Constellation Brands brewery, which according to the company would use about 1.8 billion gallons a year for their production.

“Big companies have access to water much easier. This is not fair because we need water to survive,” Eyraud Adams had said, his comments quoted in the report. He promoted solutions to guarantee the preservation of water resources for the Kumiai and avoid the exodus of young people from the region.

“He helped us make what is happening in Baja California visible, but he paid for it with his life," said his friend Aranguren, who is part of Mexicali Resiste, an environmental rights organization.

"It is sad because these murders take away our children's future security," she said.

“We feel great fear because we have to keep fighting. There are still megaprojects in this area that take away our water," Aranguren said. "But if we don’t protest, no one will come to help us."

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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