Environmental defense: a risk of death in Latin America

Defending the environment has become a high-risk task. We just have to look at the figures: 164 crimes against environmental leaders reported in 2018. And as the most recent sample, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, the 26-year-old who died defending the Amazon.

The indigenous leader of Guajajara, Paulo Paulino Guajajara

The indigenous leader of Guajajara, Paulo Paulino Guajajara. / Photo: Karla Mendes - Mongabay

LatinAmerican Post | Juliana Suárez

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Leer en español: Defensa medio ambiental: un riesgo de muerte en Latinoamérica

This young indigenous lived in the Araribóia reserve in the Amazon of Brazil and together with other peoplehe was part of the so-called 'Guardians of the Forest'. Paulo Paulino was with a partner when they met five armed loggers, according to the official version. They started shooting and the young man died and his partner was injured.

The struggle of the Guajajaras, an indigenous group to which Paulo Paulino belonged, has resonated since before. It is not the first time that they attract attention, not only for their natural preservation initiatives, but for persecutions of other groups whose preservation does not suit them.

The case caught the attention of the media, of the communities that are concerned, and of the Brazilian government itself. Perhaps, in large part, because currently the filmmaker Taciano Brito works in a documentary about the struggle of the Guajajara.

But it is not an indiscriminate fact, the truth is that the 130 Forest Guardians have been the stone in the shoe of many loggers, among other groups with interests in the lands of the Amazon. In addition, indigenous people in this sector have also been involved as victims of violence with attempts to loot and illegal land purchases. According to the Cimi organization, "in the first nine months of the year there were at least 160 cases of invasions in a total of 153 indigenous lands in 19 states", BBC reported.

Being a leader in the fight for the environment is not an easy task, much less in a country like Brazil and in a territory as imposing, rich and coveted as the Amazon. For this reason, dozens of NGOs for environmental preservation have come to criticize the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who has been internationally recognized as an "anti-ecologist." On the one hand, his extraction policies that are affecting the environment to explore mineral resources and, on the other, criticisms of the lack of commitment it had with the fires of the Amazon.

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For its part, the Brazilian government has said it will exhaust efforts to investigate what is happening. According to the BBC, "the governor of Maranhao, Flavio Dino, announced for his part the creation of a specialized force to 'try to help' the guardians of the indigenous forest, given the 'obvious difficulty of the federal bodies to protect indigenous lands'".

A risk in Latin America

According to a report published in July 2019 on violence to environmental leaders in 2018 by the NGO Global Witness, of the 164 crimes against them, 83 of them occur in Latin America, being the most dangerous region to preserve the environment.

When the report was published, it seemed to be good news for Brazil, which had ceased to be the country with the most murdered activists (46 in 2017 and 20 in 2018), and now Colombia took the lead with 24 in 2018. However, DW said some experts are no longer so "positive" with these numbers. Well, after what has happened this year in the Amazon, "that reduction could be receding in the first months of 2019". This, since the decline in the numbers of murders had been proportional to the decrease in "loss of tropical forests and land invasions," which has increased significantly in recent months.

One of the most worrying cases since the last report is that of Colombia, whose figure positioned it as the first in Latin America and the second globally in assassinations of environmental leaders. And in Colombia, the murder of social leaders, for whatever reason, has been increasing in recent years. This, as interests of many groups collide with social causes. For this reason, in Colombia the struggle for land tenure has cost innocent lives.

"Environmental defenders in Colombia are touching interests that no other sector is touching, so we have a greater risk, because we face sectors with a lot of economic power," says Isabel Cristina Zuleta, spokeswoman for the Ríos Vivos Antioquia Movement (MRVA), an organization that defends the territories and communities affected by the construction of dams and mining projects in Colombia, according to GY.

Also read: The truth behind the Paris Agreement climate pledges

Why do they kill them?

Natural resources are a more valuable source of power than we often imagine. For this reason, large companies, criminal groups and in many occasions the same governments are those that attempt against these places, which for many communities are their homes, sanctuaries and livelihoods.

In the midst of this struggle for ownership of land, extraction of resources and preservation of power, the most affected are those who live there. In Paulo Paulino's example, despite the fact that he is the last and most resonated victim, there are many more affected. Not only he but all the guardians of the forest are the number one target of those who seek that territory.

In the case of Brazil, loggers play a fundamental role in violence against leaders. Illegal logging has become a profitable and growing business in some sectors of the Brazilian Amazon, so these groups have raised arms to achieve their purpose.

However, unlike what may be happening in Brazil, according to the same Global Witness report, the main reason why environmental leaders are killed and persecuted is mining. Agriculture and land tenure are other reasons.