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Latin America had the most attacks on environmental defenders in 2022, says report

Ceremony in homage to those assassinated during the national strike of June 2022.

Ceremony in homage to those assassinated during the national strike of June 2022.

  • Almost half of the 401 murders of human rights defenders recorded in 2022 were against people involved in the defense of land and environment, according to the most recent report by the organization Front Line Defenders.
  • Latin America is the region with the highest number of cases of recorded violence against defenders.
  • The countries with the most cases are Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Honduras.
  • The violence against rights defenders has not only included murders, but also stigmatization, prosecution and constant threats to individuals and their families, said the report.

The human rights organization Front Line Defenders has published its Global Analysis 2022, a report on the state of people who have dedicated their lives to defending the environment, Indigenous peoples, women and the LGBTIQ community. According to the report, 401 environmental and human rights defenders were killed in 26 countries around the world last year.

The report also analyzes the scope and severity of violence against human rights defenders.

Latin America continues to be the region with the highest number of murders of human rights defenders, according to the organization’s interim director, Olive Moore. It is also “the most dangerous context for human rights defenders, in addition to the war between Ukraine and Russia,” she said.

Of the five countries that accounted for more than 80% of murders of human rights defenders, four are in Latin America: Colombia with 186 murders, Mexico with 45 murders, Brazil with 26 murders and Honduras with 17 murders. Meanwhile, Ukraine had 50 cases. The report states that almost half, exactly 48%, of the total number of murders last year targeted defenders of land rights, the environment, and Indigenous rights.

Nemonte Nenquimo and the Waorani community at a march.
Nemonte Nenquimo and the Waorani community at a march. Image by Mateo Barriga, Amazon Frontlines.

Colombia has the highest number of murders of rights defenders

In 2022, 46% of the total recorded murders of rights defenders worldwide took place in Colombia. The organization Somos Defensores documented 186 murders. For example, on February 22nd, 2022, in the department of Cesar, Colombia, Jorge Tafur and Teófilo Acuña were murdered for their defense of the la Zapatosa swamp, one of the country’s recognized Ramsar sites.

In 2019, Acuña and three other leaders were arrested and charged with crimes of terrorism and links to armed groups. The judicial proceedings went nowhere and they were acquitted, but the impact on their reputation and future work remained. Acuña’s arrest was used as an excuse by illegal armed groups to brand him as an enemy and subsequently assassinate him, according to members of the Comisión de Interlocución del Sur de Bolívar, Centro y Sur del Cesar (CISBCSC), the organization Acuña led.

Assassination of Indigenous leaders in Latin America.

The violence against rights defenders has not only included murders, but also stigmatization, prosecution and constant threats to individuals and their families, said the report.

In the case of Latin America, death threats were the most frequent form of aggression.

Front Line Defenders also documented the legal charges issued against male and female leaders around the world. The most frequently cited charges were related to national security, state security and sedition (at around 19%); terrorism or membership in or support for a terrorist organization (at around 12.8%); defaming or insulting the state (at about 10.1%); spreading false news or rumors/propaganda (at about 9%); and other criminal charges (at about 21.8%).

In Colombia, legal charges have been issued against members of the José Alvear Restrepo Collective as a way to stigmatize rights defenders and curtail their organizational processes and community struggles, said the collective. Lawyer Yessika Hoyos Morales, who has handled several cases of leaders who were prosecuted through the justice system, said that “prosecution comes after a protest or social mobilization where the leader must face justice. Normally, the case ends and then a struggle begins to have the defender compensated by the state. We have cases that began in 2002 and the leaders still have not been recognized as victims.”

Not long after Acuña and Tafur were murdered, their colleague José Luis Quiñonez, a defender of the Lebrija River, was also killed. The families of the six municipalities around la Zapatosa have received several death threats and faced harassment by public officials at the Mayor’s Office.

The report explained that human rights defenders in Colombia have assumed the role of implementers of the 2016 Peace Accord between the state and FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas in the territories due to the absence of the state in these areas. Front Line Defenders said this has put small civil society organizations at risk. In 2022, 72 leaders of Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal) were killed in Colombia.

Human rights defenders in northern Colombia gather after the assasination of José Luis Quiñonez.
Human rights defenders in northern Colombia gather after the assasination of José Luis Quiñonez.

According to the Front Line Defenders report, in areas where homicides have occurred, there is a presence of legal and illegal armed groups, as well as companies that have worsened the humanitarian situation. In addition to physical violence, locals have faced smear campaigns and setups leading to false legal charges.

Javier Giraldo of Colombia’s Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP) explained that the dynamics of attacks on social leaders in the country have changed. “Before, the aim was to eliminate relevant players in the fight for human rights in the territories,” he said. “Now, the armed groups want to exterminate grassroots leaders.”

Giraldo also said that the new ways in which armed groups are committing murders of human rights defenders makes it difficult to clarify the facts. “Now, the murders are being carried out by hooded men on motorcycles so that they can’t be identified. That’s why it’s necessary for the authorities to investigate the social causes that the victim was leading, as that may provide clues as to who’s behind the crimes,” he said.

An indigenous community in the Colombian Amazon.
An indigenous community in the Colombian Amazon. Image by Juan Carlos Contreras.

Indigenous populations are most affected 

In Mexico, Front Line Defenders found that the states most affected by violence are Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas. Francisco Cerezo, coordinator of the Mexican organization Comité Cerezo, says that these three states have larger Indigenous populations than the rest of the country. Cerezo asserts that in 2022, 10 of the 22 cases of extrajudicial executions in Mexico occurred in Oaxaca alone.

“Currently, the conflicts in these states mainly follow state and municipal patterns, [and] paramilitary groups working for mining companies are the ones committing the most serious human rights violations,” Cerezo said.

The report mentions the cases of Juan Carlos Flores Solís and Miryam Vargas Teutle, environmental defenders and members of the People’s Front in Defense of Land and Water in Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala (FPDATMPT, the Frente de Pueblos en Defensa del Agua y de la Tierra de Morelos, Puebla y Tlaxcala), states that were besieged by illegal paramilitary activity in 2022. Flores Solís, along with the members of FPDATMPT, oppose the Morelos Integral Project, which includes the construction of a gas pipeline and two thermoelectric plants. Flores Solís was accused of rioting, looting, extortion and crimes against water infrastructure, resulting in 10 months of incarceration.

Communities affected by extractive activities in Latin America.

Cerezo stated that the violence surrounding the Morelos Integral Project has provoked “extrajudicial killings and several attacks and death threats against activists who oppose the project.”

The situation of environmental and human rights defenders in Guatemala in 2022 was quite similar. In the second half of the year, there were judicial and extrajudicial evictions of at least eight communities in the department of Alta Verapaz. By the end of the year, more than 125 families had been displaced for protesting illegal logging.

The department of Alta Verapaz faces enormous challenges; home to the largest number of Indigenous groups in the country, it has a poverty rate of 83%, with 53% of residents living in extreme poverty, according to the most recent National Survey of Living Conditions (for the year 2014).

However, the main problem faced by the population of Alta Verapaz is their conflict over land.

“The land issue is the most prominent, resulting in recurrent evictions which in most cases have been forced,” according to a study entitled “Forced evictions in Alta Verapaz in the context of human rights.”

A banner expressing opposition to the Morelos Integral Project.
A banner expressing opposition to the Morelos Integral Project. Image by Marlene Martínez, LADO B.
Marta Raquel Fernandez, 25, an environmentalist and political activist, hangs a t-shirt with the image of Berta Cáceres out to dry at her home
Marta Raquel Fernandez, 25, an environmentalist and political activist, hangs a t-shirt with the image of Berta Cáceres out to dry at her home in the village of Gualojito, Santa Bárbara, Honduras. Image by Simone Dalmasso.

In Brazil, in the state of Maranhão, the Ka’apor indigenous community has been harmed by ongoing illegal logging, mining, and the expansion of agribusiness. The Front Line Defenders report explained that the community has been under attack by criminal organizations with alleged collusion by local politicians.

Since 2015, seven community members have been killed and investigations have failed to identify those responsible. In December 2022, the Federal Police of Brazil reopened its investigation into the death of Indigenous leader Sarapo Kaapor. The Indigenous community says Kaapor was murdered for opposing corporate projects that resulted in the destruction of the rainforest.

The situation of Indigenous communities in Brazil worsened under the administration of former president Jair Bolsonaro. In 2021, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) brought a case against Bolsonaro before the International Criminal Court for his use of Indigenous territories and reserves for industrial exploitation.

In Ecuador, Front Line Defenders said that attacks against the Shuar Indigenous people continue unabated. The report explained that throughout 2022, state and non-state actors threatened the community over its opposition to oil and mining companies.

The Shuar have been fighting to defend their territory against ExplorCobres S.A., a subsidiary of the Chinese company CRCC-Tonguan Investment. The company was granted almost 42,000 hectares (103,784 acres) by the Ecuadorian government for mining activities.

In August 2016, Ecuadorian police evicted Shuar families, stating that they were on land owned by ExplorCobres S.A., despite the fact that the Shuar had been living on the site for a decade. A court ruling last year upheld the Shuar people’s claims about the lack of prior informed consent in the mining process. Following this decision, the Shuar have continued to oppose the San Carlos Panantza open pit copper mine in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which is run by ExplorCobres S.A.

At an assembly, the president of the Shuar Arutam People shows banners saying “No to mining.”
At an assembly, the president of the Shuar Arutam People shows banners saying “No to mining.” Image by Lluvia Comunicación.

Attacks on environmental defenders

In Guatemala in March 2022, Mayan Q’eqchi’ reporter Carlos Ernesto Choc Chub from the community news outlet Prensa Comunitaria Kilómetro 169, had a complaint filed against him by 13 members of the National Police and the Izabal Public Prosecutor’s Office for “incitement to crime.”

The report stated that the charges against Choc Chub are related to his reporting work. He covered a violent eviction of the Mayan Q’eqchi’ people after they protested the activities of subsidiaries of the Swiss company Solway Investment Group: Guatemalan Nickel Company (Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel – CGN) and Izabal Nickel Processing Company (Compañía Procesadora de Níquel de Izabal – PRONICO).

Solway owns Guatemala’s largest nickel mine. On November 28, 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Solway for corruption and influence peddling in Guatemala. In March of this year, subsidiaries CGN and PRONICO announced the suspension of mining operations in the country due to the sanctions.

The murders of British journalist Dom Phillips (left) and indigenous defender Bruno Pereira (right)
The murders of British journalist Dom Phillips (left) and indigenous defender Bruno Pereira (right) in the Brazilian Amazon are emblematic of the plight of journalists and activists across Latin America as violence in the region escalates. Images by João Laet/AFP/Getty Images (left); Daniel Marenco/Agência O Globo (right).

In the words of Front Line Defenders Director Olive Moore, governments have used legal charges against leaders to shut down grassroots organizing processes.

“Repressive governments around the world used the law as a weapon against human rights defenders in an attempt to silence them and hinder their work. In that sense, these individuals bore the brunt of legal and other persecution, as well as a large number of digital and physical threats,” she said.

On June 5th of last year, British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous rights defender Bruno Pereira were murdered after an expedition in the Amazon to conduct research on fishing in protected areas. The two were working on a book about environmental conservation in an area with the largest number of indigenous people in voluntary isolation.

Both Phillips and Pereira had received death threats for their work to protect Indigneous communities in the Amazon from drug traffickers, miners, loggers, and poachers.

In most cases, especially in the Amazon, crimes against human rights defenders continue to be met with impunity. Despite the multiple forms of violence suffered by these activists and leaders, they continue their struggles to defend their territories, land, ecosystems, and human rights amidst hostile contexts.

This article was first published here on our Latam website on April 5, 2023.

This publication is part of a collaborative reporting project by Rutas del Conflicto and Mongabay Latam.

Banner image: Ceremony in homage to those assassinated during the national strike of June 2022. Image by Jerónimo Zúñiga / Amazon Frontlines.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at how the Shuar Indigenous community in Ecuador recently won a major victory to protect its ancestral territory of Tiwi Nunka Forest from cattle ranchers, loggers and miners. Listen here:

Scientists call for end to violence against Amazon communities, environmental defenders

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