What’s Driving the Violence Against Latin American Environmentalists?

Image credit Miranda Smith via Wikimedia Commons.

It was three days before Christmas in 1988. Much of the world—following a blisteringly hot summer—had really begun to worry about rising global temperatures. That night, Chico Mendes stepped outside of his cottage in Xapuri, Brazil only to drop dead moments later.

Mendes, a unionist rubber tapper and environmentalist, was gunned down by a cattle rancher, presumably because Mendes posed a threat to the expansion of cow pastures in the West Amazon and, more broadly, the domination of landowners against the landless, often indigenous poor.

25 years later, and right across the border from where Mendes’ body once lay cold, four pro-poor, indigenous environmentalists have been assassinated. These activists happened to be from Peru, which is currently readying itself for hosting another UN climate summit this December in Lima.

The four individuals killed in Peru hailed from the indigenous Asháninka tribe, which had, under the leadership of Edwin Chota, been preparing to bring a case against illegal loggers to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. According to sources on the ground, it was these very loggers who made sure that Chota would never be able to do that. And rightly so—just a few years prior the Asháninka were successful at blocking a bilateral energy agreement between Peru and Brazil that would install several dams in the Ene river valley and inevitably displace thousands of Asháninka in the process.

Neither Mendes’ nor Chota’s deaths are isolated incidents, but instead represent a growing trend of the forced disappearance and/or killing of environmental activists—many of whom are from indigenous groups—throughout Latin America. Global Witness reports that, from 2002 to 2013, 908 known people from 35 countries have been killed because of their work on environmental or land-related issues, with two-thirds of the documented killings taking place in Latin America. In Peru, 57 environmentalists are known to have been killed since 2002, and over 60 percent of the murders have taken place within the last four years. Of these killings, only ten perpetrators have been tried and convicted for murder.

Approximately 300,000 indigenous people call Peru their home, but only 28 percent hold a formal title to the land they inhabit. This, coupled with a government which has yet to respond to indigenous claims to 50 million acres of land, makes indigenous people in Peru—regardless of their preference to preserve or exploit the resources they consider to be theirs—particularly vulnerable to the wills of the more powerful.

Protecting the environment for its own sake has never been an easy sell, especially when the advocating is done by those who lack the necessary social and physical capital to influence governmental decision makers. It’s an even harder sell when big agribusiness, mining and other extractive firms have set their sights on Latin American countries whose leaders continue to clamor for economic growth and increased foreign investment.

Like a number of Latin American countries in the 1990s, Peru made constitutional changes to open itself up to the global market, entering free trade agreements with numerous countries around the world, passing laws that gave foreign investors the same rights as Peruvian investors, and more recently making agribusiness in the Andean region tax free to encourage development at high altitudes. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that since 2000 the equivalent of 50 soccer pitches of the Amazon rainforest have been lost every minute, with the global illegal logging industry (in Peru, it’s “illegal” to log in protected natural areas) raking in a cool $30 billion USD every year.

These are the same forests on which 60 million indigenous people wholly depend to survive; these are the same people whose sovereignty Chico Mendes—and now, Edwin Chota—died trying to defend.

Unfortunately, defenses like those of Mendes and Chota seldom bear any significant fruit, as sovereignty is something we tend to recognize only when we consider another person, or group of people, to be our equal.

Appearing to exist outside of a temporal understanding of what society “looks like”, indigenous people have long captured the interest of the “civilized”, from Hernán Cortés’ conquest of La Malinche, to Disney’s pixelated princess Pocahontas, to Paul Gauguin’s sensual depiction of Tahitian women. Their perceived foreignness renders them objects of intense fascination: how is it possible that, in a world filled to the brim with consumer goods and services, they have managed to exist outside of it and forge their own alternative? Are they aware of something we aren’t, something bigger that transcends our consumption-obsessed frame of vision; or have they just not yet seen the modern, market light? Shall we reify them, or teach them?

The answer is, of course, “neither”. And yet, dichotomies like these persist and continue to shape present-day relationships with and treatment of these groups. For centuries, indigenous people around the world have altered and exploited their environments, sometimes sustainably, sometimes not. Nevertheless, people in positions of power have historically failed to recognize this, mistaking indigeneity for either primitive purity or—like a child—a lack of “development”.

For every extractive firm that tramples on indigenous land claims and autonomy, there’s another “pro-indigenous” NGO whose protectionism can be better defined as paternalism, with both the “exploiters” and “protectors” robbing indigenous people of their humanity—that is, their ability to make decisions for themselves and by themselves, good or bad—all the while.

Arguably more obsessed with a pristine, Walt Whitman-esque wilderness fantasy than they are the reality of a manmade nature, conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International have been known to push the “problem” of the indigenous out of protected areas. Their thinking is presumably that, as children, indigenous people do not know how to manage or protect the environment and thus must be removed from it should the environment itself stay intact.

Indigenous people are not blind to those sentiments, either. At a meeting of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping in 2004, the 200 delegates present signed a declaration which said that the “activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands”.

Meanwhile, land clearance and violence against pro-environment and indigenous groups—coupled with a stony silence on behalf of the state—continue in the name of bigger, more profitable goals that are only as “green” as the dollar bills on which they are printed. That’s why, the day after the Rio Earth Summit ended in 1992, environmental activists who had been campaigning to protect Rio’s fishing communities from the expansion of oil operations were abducted, only to be found dead four days later. That’s why in 2011, months after kicking out corrupt police, blocking roads that lead to illegally logged oak timber and establishing an autonomous, indigenous-governed community, Cherán, Michaocán, native Domingo Chávez Juárez’s body was found burned and decomposing on the foothills of a nearby volcano in Mexico. That’s why, mere weeks before an international climate summit is to be held in Lima, Peru, Edwin Chota is dead.

So much, and so little, has changed since Chico Mendes’ death in 1988. Global concern has shifted from the greenhouse effect to climate change writ large. Traces of Mendes-led “empates”—or human barricades to prevent bulldozers from tearing into trees—have since gone global, and are not dissimilar to events seen during September’s massive Climate March. Indigenous knowledge is becoming both valued and valorized by international organizations and investors. And, as the science behind understanding a climate-changed future becomes more sophisticated, we have begun looking more frequently to experts of the indigenous kind for lessons they have learned in the past.

Following the murder of Chico Mendes, his adviser and agronomist Gomercindo Rodriquez said: “Those who killed Chico got it wrong. They thought by killing him, the tappers’ movement would be demobilized, but they made him immortal”. The same can be said for Edwin Chota, for Chávez Juárez, and the hundreds of others whose belief in a socially just use of the environment has resulted in their death.

The Lima Climate Change Conference begins on December 1st. Let’s see what lives on there.

Further Reading

A worthy ancestor

The world is out of joint and Immanuel Wallerstein, one of its great public intellectuals, has left us—albeit with tools to battle the dying kicks of capitalism.