For our August Top of the Month, Global Americans focuses on environmental activists in Latin America. Due to the region’s abundance of natural resources, Latin America attracts mining, extractive or hydroelectric enterprises. Extraction projects tend to operate in Latin America’s most vulnerable ecosystems and usually on indigenous land, where according to many states’s international obligations require governments to consult local communities.
It’s no coincidence, then, that environmental activists in Latin America also tend to be Indigenous rights activists.
Environmental activists don’t have an easy job; in fact Latin America is the deadliest place for environmentalists. According to a report by the NGO Global Witness, 185 environmental activists were murdered worldwide in 2015, with half the killings in Latin America. Environmentalists have been threatened, beaten or continue to be persecuted for speaking out against extraction projects. As you’ll see below, almost all of our top five environmentalists have at one point or another been a victim of threats or violence in an effort to silence them.
Bertha Zuñiga (@BerthaZuniga1), 26, is an environmental and indigenous rights activist in Honduras. She is the daughter of the late Berta Cáceres, an award winning environmentalist and indigenous rights leader who was murdered a week after receiving threats for opposing a hydroelectric project. Co-founded and formerly led by her mother, Zuñiga is now the leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), an indigenous rights organization that works to defend the environmental, cultural, economic, social, health, educational, and indigenous rights of the Lenca people.
According to COPINH, the organization has stopped at least 50 logging projects and 10 hydroelectric dams that have threatened Lenca communities. They have also pressured the government of Honduras into signing the International Labour Organization Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous People. But just as Zuñiga continues with her mother’s legacy, she too is receiving threats for her environmental justice activism. Last month, Zuñiga and other members of COPINH were attacked by men with machetes as they drove back from a community visit in central Honduras.
Maxima Acuña de Chaupe joined the world of environmental activism by accident. In 2011, the Peruvian government had granted a 7,400-acre mining concession for the controversial Conga Mine to U.S. firm Newmont Mining and Peruvian mining company Buenaventura. The plan was supposed to mine two freshwater lakes for gold and copper while draining two more to use as dumps in the northern region of Cajamarca. But Acuña and her farm stood in the way. Despite numerous death threats, alleged beatings, intimidation and court proceedings, she refused to sell her 60-acre plot of land.
In attempts to evict Acuña from her land, Newmont accused her of illegally squatting on the land which it claims to have bought. Local courts ruled in Newmont’s favor, sentencing Acuña and her family to three years in prison and a fine of about $2,000. However, in 2014 Acuña appealed the decision arguing her family had owned the land since 1994. A higher court ruled in her favor and stopped its eviction proceeding. Until 2016, Acuña continued to be summoned to local court. Since then, the campaign of intimidation and harassment has continued with private individuals raiding her home, mine security personnel preventing bus drivers from allowing her or her family from using the bus and even attacks on her dog.
In 2016 Acuña received the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award, for work she has done to prevent the mine from destroying the two lakes, her farm and the supply of fresh water to her community.
Rodrigo Tot, 59, is an indigenous Q’eqchi leader in Guatemala. He is the recipient of the 2017 Goldman Environmental Award for leading his community to a landmark court decision that ordered the government to issue land titles to the Q’eqchi people, and keep destructive nickel mining from expanding in his community.
At the age of 19, Tot followed a group of 64 Maya Q’eqchi and settled on Agua Caliente Lote 9, one of 16 lots in the departments of Izabal and Alta Verapaz that were demarcated in the late 19th century. They took steps to legalize their land rights, and as of 2002, Lote 9 was fully paid for. However, the community still lacked a definitive land title. Different mining companies, such as Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel (CGN) and Solway Group, a Russian conglomerate, have claimed ownership of part of Lote 9.
Efforts to obtain a definitive land title have faced numerous challenges, including the mysterious disappearance of official documents critical to the titling process. But in 2011, the case made its way to the Constitutional Court, where it ruled the documents that had been removed be restored. Tot played an important role in finding legal support from the U.S.-based Indian Law Resource Center and Defensoria Q’eqchi, a small human rights organization in Guatemala. As one of the few people to speak Spanish in Lote 9, Tot was able to translate the details of the proceedings for the community in order to gather evidence and field questions from villagers.
The victory came at an enormous personal cost for Tot when in 2012, two of his sons were shot on a bus in what appeared to be a staged robbery. One of them died, and the other suffered grave injuries. The community continues its fight to secure its land title. The Guatemalan government has yet to enforce its court ruling and the mining company continues to pursue its expansion.
Bianca Jagger (@Biancajagger), 72, is the founder, President and Chief Executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, a Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador, and an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bonn Challenge Ambassador, a member of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council of Amnesty International USA, a member of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).
For more than three decades Jagger has campaigned for human rights, civil liberties, peace, social justice, environmental protection, and indigenous rights around the world. She has received multiple humanitarian awards for her work. In 1991, Jagger fought to stop a logging concession that would have endangered the Miskito Indians’ Habitat in Nicaragua. She has also supported the Guarani people in southern Brazil protect their land from cattle ranchers, and the Yanomami people in northern Brazil from invasions by gold miners. In 2004, Jagger received the Right Livelihood Award for her work in helping the Cofan, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa, and Huaorani people in their battle against the oil company Texaco.
Currently, Jagger is campaigning against the construction of a 30 meter deep, 178 mile, $50 billion shipping canal that would cut through Nicaragua. Critics of the canal say the project was expedited without legitimate consultation, environmental studies or political debate. Regarding the canal, Jagger has said “the canal is not financially viable, it is an insane project that would cause harm to the people of Nicaragua, irreparable damage to our water sources, to our rainforests, to our environment. If allowed to go ahead, it will be an environmental crime.”
Isidro Baldenegro was a prominent indigenous activist, a leader of the Tarahumara people. Murdered by gunman on January 18th of this year, Baldenegro had worked to protect the Mexico’s Sierra Madre range, one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems from drug traffickers and loggers. His work had won him the 2005 prestigious Goldman Environmental Award.
His battle against logging goes back decades. In 1993, Baldenegro formed an advocacy group that began to organize sit-ins and marches to force the government to put an end to logging. In 2003, Baldenegro was jailed on false charges of arms and drug possession. After fifteen months in prison, he continued his work and won two more government logging suspensions.
Baldenegro was forced to leave his community after receiving threats from armed men who arrived to clear the forest and plant marijuana. He returned to visit his uncle, when he was shot several times by a gunman.