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Court Rules in Favor of Mexican Environmentalists

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled against Mexico and its army in the case of two Mexican farmers who were persecuted as a result of their environmental advocacy. The Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), Earthjustice’s partner organization in international environmental law, submitted an amicus brief in the case supporting the farmers.

Teodoro Cabrera García and Rodolfo Montiel Flores were imprisoned and tortured by the Mexican Army in 1999 after the pair formed the Organization of Peasant Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP). The group’s mission was to defend the environment in southern Mexico’s Guerrero state where industrial logging was destroying the region’s landscape and threatening the livelihood of local farmers. Cabrera and Montiel were eventually released from prison in 2001, but were forced to leave the country following threats to their lives.

Last week, the court found that the Mexican government violated the rights of Cabrera and Montiel, that the pair was denied due process of law, and that the torture allegations must be investigated. However, a key section in AIDA’s amicus or “friend of the court” brief asked the court to rule that governments must respect the work of environmental defenders and protect their rights to such advocacy. Unfortunately, the court issued no statement recognizing that the human rights violations were linked with Cabrera and Montiel's work protecting the environment, a connection that is clear; even the case is commonly referred to as "los ecologistas" (the environmentalists).

Requiring governments to protect the rights of environmentalists is an especially salient point in Latin America, where coordinated violence against environmental advocates has become more frequent. The prevalence of the disturbing trend was further illuminated by documents contained in the recent WikiLeaks release. The documents revealed that Chile is facing resistance from an indigenous group that opposes environmentally destructive mining, logging and dam projects on its ancestral lands. The response from the Chilean government has been to meet with U.S. ambassadors and begin an investigation into alleged connections between terrorist organizations and the indigenous environmentalists. Critics claim the FBI-orchestrated investigation is politically motivated and dubious in nature.

As the trend of violence and persecution of environmentalists continues in Latin America, AIDA’s role becomes exponentially more vital. An international law organization with goals of defending the environment and building capacity among communities and attorneys in Latin America, AIDA will continue to be at the leading edge of the hemisphere’s environmental issues and serve as a resource for environmental activists throughout the Americas.