Mongabay Series: Endangered Environmentalists

Killing of Guatemalan activist in the Maya Biosphere Reserve raises alarm

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Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios was shot on March 16. Officials and activists close to him believe he was killed because of his community leadership and environmental activism by illegal land and resource theft groups operating in the region.

Killing of Guatemalan activist in the Maya Biosphere Reserve raises alarm
  • Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios led a farming cooperative involved in sustainable timber harvest and actively opposed hydroelectric dams in the department of Peten. Reports filed by him contributed to the arrest of wildlife poachers and land usurpers.
  • The 36-year-old father of six had been receiving threats since last year, according to media reports.
  • His murder on March 16 was just the latest in a string of killings of outspoken community and cooperative leaders, as well as park rangers, during the 26 years since the Maya Biosphere Reserve was created.
Other stories in Mongabay’s series on the Maya Biosphere Reserve:
Successes and many challenges in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve
Communities lead the way in rainforest conservation in Guatemala
Controversial park plans in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve

The violent death of an environmental activist and community leader in northern Guatemala two days ago has sparked consternation and concern among communities and organizations working in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios was shot on the morning of March 16 while on his way to his plot of land inside Sierra del Lacandón National Park, one of the core zone areas of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. He died as a result of his gunshot wounds while being transported to a hospital in San Benito, the central town in the northern area of the Peten department.

Méndez Barrios was the president of the La Lucha Cooperative, one of a cluster of farming cooperatives in the southeastern part of Sierra del Lacandón National Park. Established in the late 1970s, La Lucha later also became involved in the sustainable harvest of timber and non-timber forest products. The cooperative works closely with the governmental National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) and non-governmental organizations, including park co-administrator Defensores de la Naturaleza.

“We energetically condemn the cowardly murder of Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios, a well-known community leader who distinguished himself as a defender of nature and a visionary of sustainable development in the Peten region, notably in the communities of the Sierra del Lacandón National Park in the Maya Biosphere Reserve,” Defensores de la Naturaleza wrote in a March 16 statement condemning the killing.

Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios. Photo courtesy of Defensores de la Naturaleza.
Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios. Photo courtesy of Defensores de la Naturaleza.

Méndez Barrios was a member of the board of directors of the Association of Forest Communities of Peten (ACOFOP), a community-based organization comprised of 24 local groups and co-operatives, including La Lucha. The 36-year-old father of six was also an active member of the Peten Front against Dams. He had been receiving threats since last year, according to media reports.

“He was shot three times,” said Salvador López, CONAP regional director for the Peten. López spoke with Mongabay in the institution’s regional office in San Benito hours after Méndez Barrios’s death on March 16. He and other officials were getting ready to go offer their condolences to Méndez Barrios’s family. Between its release from the morgue and its return to La Lucha, Méndez Barrios’s body was taken briefly to the ACOFOP office so people could pay their respects.

“He was a leader who was totally convinced that human beings can only get ahead if we protect natural resources,” said López. Reports filed by Méndez Barrios contributed to the arrest of wildlife poachers and land usurpers, according to a note published March 17 by CONAP’s executive secretariat in Guatemala City.

Police have opened an investigation into the shooting of Méndez Barrios, but López and many others believe he was killed because of his community leadership and environmental activism. The identity of his attacker or attackers — and of any powerful groups suspected to be behind the crime — remains unknown.

“He was killed by the murderous bullets that don’t want natural resources to be protected — people who are trafficking timber in the area, people who are trafficking wildlife in the area, people who are causing deforestation,” said López.

Salvador López, regional director of Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas, speaks at a March 17 press conference to condemn the murder of Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios. Photo courtesy of ACOFOP.
Salvador López, regional director of Guatemala’s National Council for Protected Areas, speaks at a March 17 press conference to condemn the murder of Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios. Photo courtesy of ACOFOP.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve covers the northern fifth of Guatemala. At 2.4 million hectares — nearly 1,000 square miles — it is larger than the U.S.’s Yellowstone National Park and Death Valley National Park combined. CONAP has broad management responsibilities in all zones of the reserve, from national parks to communities’ sustainable forestry plans. The Maya Biosphere Reserve encompasses areas bordering Mexico and Belize, and is affected by complex pressures and threats, including heavily armed actors in remote areas. CONAP and non-governmental environmental organizations in the Peten agree: the institution’s budget is woefully inadequate.

“It’s necessary to understand that 30 percent of Guatemala’s territory is protected areas,” said López. Two-thirds of that is the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The lack of political will to provide adequate funding and personnel for monitoring and enforcement sends a message, he said. “The message for these organized crime people is, ‘okay, go for it.’”

Environmental and community activist Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios was killed on March 16 in northern Guatemala. Photo courtesy of ACOFOP.
Environmental and community activist Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios was killed on March 16 in northern Guatemala. Photo courtesy of ACOFOP.

Méndez Barrios is not the only community leader in the Maya Biosphere Reserve to meet a violent death. Other outspoken community and cooperative leaders affiliated with ACOFOP have been killed in the villages of Carmelita, Uaxactún, and beyond in the 26 years since the Maya Biosphere Reserve was created, ACOFOP technical director Teresita Chinchilla told Mongabay. CONAP park rangers have also been killed in the past, and in certain areas rangers regularly receive death threats, said López.

ACOFOP, the regional CONAP office, and four of the main environmental NGOs working in the Maya Biosphere Reserve held a joint press conference on March 17 to condemn Méndez Barrios’ killing and to call for justice so that his death does not go unpunished.

“We demand of the appropriate authorities… a timely and efficient investigation to clarify this brutal and cowardly murder that once more intimidates and unsettles communities that struggle for the defense of their natural resources and especially of their territories,” the groups wrote in a joint statement.

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