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Report warns of rising violence against environmental defenders in Mexico

  • A new report from the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA) says the country is experiencing a rise in violence against environmental defenders, who suffer everything from intimidation to kidnapping to murder.
  • The violence spans the country and numerous economic sectors, including mining, urban expansion, infrastructure, logging, agriculture and energy.
  • In total, CEMDA counted 197 instances of aggression in 2022 — nearly double from the previous year — of which 24 resulted in death.
  • CEMDA called on the government to improve protections for sensitive ecosystems and cultural patrimony while deprioritizing harmful industries like mining and hydrocarbons.

MEXICO CITY — Protecting the environment is no easy task. But in Mexico, it can often be deadly.

The country is seeing a rise in violence against environmental defenders, who suffer everything from intimidation to kidnapping to murder while trying to prevent encroaching deforestation, pollution and other threats to local habitats, according to a report from the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA).

“Different interested actors in our territories look for ways to weaken us on our own land,” said Samir Flores Soberanes, an activist from the state of Morelos. “That includes engineering conflicts, dividing the community from within and polarizing the situation, or even creating shock groups and using coercive state forces.”

The violence isn’t limited to one region or industry in Mexico. Across the country and in numerous economic sectors, people who decide to speak out are subjected to abuse. In Oaxaca state last year, a resident was shot down for opposing a hydroelectric dam. Another in Hidalgo state was murdered for speaking out against contamination from a landfill. Activists in states like Puebla, Chihuahua and Campeche received threats for resisting urban expansion, infrastructure development and agriculture, the report said.

Extractive industries, most notably mining and logging, have led to some of the worst violence. Earlier this year, a community leader in San Juan Huitzontla, in the state of Michoacán, was kidnapped and murdered, reportedly for defending the area from iron ore mining. The community had managed to cancel a concession because Indigenous Nahua residents hadn’t been properly consulted about potential impacts.

Filogonio Martínez Merino, an activist defending the Verde River in Oaxaca, was killed in October. (Photo courtesy of Copudever)

Last year, at least 16 people were killed defending protected areas, cultural patrimony and forests from mining, illegal logging and similar activities. In total, CEMDA counted 197 instances of aggression across the country in 2022 — nearly double from the previous year. Of those instances, 24 resulted in death.

“Poverty and marginalization go hand in hand with the multiple agents of violence who have diversified their illegal activities: the production and trafficking of drugs, illegal logging, extortion, interest in mining and other economic sectors, in many cases with the complicity or compliance of government authorities,” the report said.

Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately affected. More than half of the recorded instances of aggression against defenders last year involved Indigenous groups, including the Nahua, Zapoteca, Rarámuri, Wixárika, Purépecha, Chatino and Mixteca.

There are 71 Indigenous groups and communities across 20 states in Mexico, often living in or around protected areas or ecosystems that are under threat. Many of the groups have limited economic resources and struggle to access legal avenues for defending themselves against large mining companies and government projects encroaching on their land.

In Guerrero, a mountainous state on the southwest Pacific coast, Indigenous communities have been fighting off illegal mining, logging and drug trafficking by organized crime groups like Los Ardillos, which often have more power over the area than law enforcement.

At least seven residents there were killed last year trying to defend their territory, according to the report.

“The violence in our territory doesn’t stop, and at the same time this evil government looks on us with contempt,” the Indigenous and Popular Council of Guerrero-Emiliano Zapata (CIPOG-EZ) said in a November statement following the death of several community members. “More and more murders are added to the long list that weighs on our communities.”

The government has a major role to play in the violence against environmental defenders, both because officials are often the ones carrying out the violence and because federal and state agencies have failed to address the problem, the report said.

A mural protesting mining in Magdalena Ocotlán, Oaxaca. (Photo courtesy of Roxana Romero).

Last year, there were 89 instances of aggression against environmental defenders by government officials, including federal, state and municipal law enforcement and members of prosecutors’ offices. Seven defenders were believed to be killed by government officials, some with connections to organized crime groups, the report said.

In the state of Puebla, where communities continue to resist deforestation, urban development and mining, three activists were attacked by state law enforcement, who created a roadblock and then opened fire on their pickup truck. The event has since resulted in the arrest of nine state police officials.

Twenty-two of the 24 murdered environmental defenders last year had applied for or received some form of protection. Investigations after the fact rarely bring results, the report said.

CEMDA urged Mexican government agencies to continue to implement the Escazú Agreement, an international treaty aimed at protecting environmental defenders by improving public access to information about the environment.

The organization also called on the government to improve protections for sensitive ecosystems and cultural patrimony while deprioritizing harmful industries like mining and hydrocarbons.

“There is a window of opportunity for rethinking the state and its actions,” the report said. “Doing so could open important and necessary paths towards sowing peace and building increasingly secure environments so that defenders and communities can carry out their work without violence.”

Banner image: Residents meet to protest Mexico’s mining law. Photo courtesy of CEMDA

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