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Latin American Environmentalists Risk Imprisonment, Torture


La Oroya is one of the most contaminated cities on the planet. Doe Run Peru’s smelter emits such enormous quantities of pollution that many residents suffer from chronic respiratory illnesses and nearly all the children in the city have lead poisoning. AIDA is committed to continuing its efforts to protect the human rights to health, life, and a healthy environment in La Oroya until the crisis is resolved. View photo slideshow.  (Photo: AIDA)

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Earthjustice's Sister Organization Intercedes in Human Rights Case

On the morning of May 2, 1999, Teodoro Cabrera García and Rodolfo Montiel Flores met at Cabrera’s modest home with members of the Pizotla community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Cabrera and Flores, both farmers, had recently founded the Organization of Peasant Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP). The group was determined to halt illegal logging in the region and to defend the environment that local farming families relied on for sustenance.

But, as they sat discussing the issues facing their community, a battalion of Mexican soldiers was quietly creeping into Pizotla. The OCESP’s mission to stop deforestation and protect the environment represented a threat to the profits of timber giant Boise Cascade and, in turn, the Mexican government. Big money was at stake and certain corporate and government leaders were not about to allow a band of peasant farmers to stand in the way.

At around 10:30 a.m., the soldiers opened fire on Cabrera’s home, forcing those inside to flee. Hours later, the soldiers flushed Cabrera and Flores from their hiding place with fire and arrested them. They endured hours of torture by electrical shocks, vicious beatings and threats of execution—and were subsequently imprisoned.

The men were not released until 2001, after being forced to sign false confessions claiming they had cultivated marijuana and possessed illegal firearms. Eventually, the two farmers had to leave Mexico because of ongoing death threats. (Listen to an audio interview with Flores.)

Now, Cabrera and Flores have brought their case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights headquartered in San José, Costa Rica. In a “friend of the court” brief, the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) and Earthjustice’s sister organization, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), demonstrated how attacks and human rights violations against Cabrera and Flores, relating to their work as environmentalists, impedes effective environmental advocacy in Latin America.

Additionally, the brief asked the Inter-American Court to recognize the important work of environmental defenders in Mexico and the government’s responsibility to protect such activists. Since the Inter-American Court holds jurisdiction over the majority of nations comprising Latin America, a decision recognizing the legitimacy and the importance of the work of environmentalists would be a crucial step in gaining protections for activists in the region. In late December 2010, the court found that the Mexican government violated the rights of Cabrera and Flores, that the pair was denied due process of law, and that the torture allegations must be investigated.

The “friend of the court” brief by AIDA—co-founded and supported by Earthjustice—illustrates the organization’s dedication to defending the rights of environmentalists in Latin America and its role as a resource for grassroots groups like OCESP.

Development in Sacrifice of Land and Community

Sadly, the Cabrera and Flores case is not an anomaly. Rather, in many Latin American nations, environmental activists who oppose governments or corporations are taking their lives in their hands when they choose to defend the health of their community’s air, land and water.

As development in the form of new dams, mining projects and timber harvesting ramps up throughout the hemisphere, communities are banding together to resist the destruction of their land and culture. A common response from corporations and governments—from the local level up to the executive—has been to fight back against environmental groups with harassment and violence.

“This case will set a precedent for the protection of human rights and the environment for the whole hemisphere,” said Astrid Puentes, co-director of AIDA. “If the court recognizes that the human rights of these two environmentalists were violated because of their work and rules against Mexico, it will send a strong message to nations regarding their responsibility for protecting not only citizen rights, but especially those of the many activists who dedicate and risk their lives working for the public interest. Recognition of the importance of environmentalists’ work by the Court would make it safer for communities to stand up against powerful interests and thus strengthen the environmental movement throughout Latin America.”

Environmentalists in Latin America are often portrayed by the government as anti-development luddites or simply not patriotic, Puentes said. Those who are brave enough to protest, even peacefully, risk arrest and violence. Those who are brave enough to engage in sustained advocacy risk losing their lives.

Renowned human rights attorney Digna Ochoa y Plácido practiced law at the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center (PRODH) in Mexico City. A native of the state of Veracruz, Mexico, she provided legal representation for Cabrera and Flores, trying to win their release. Ochoa y Plácido was regularly harassed—by the state police, she claimed—for her work on behalf of the environmentalist farmers.

After twice being kidnapped in Mexico and a short exile in Washington D.C., she eventually returned to Mexico City in 2001. On Oct. 19, 2001, she was found dead in her law office, killed by a bullet to the head. A note left by her body threatened violence against other PRODH attorneys. Originally first calling it a homicide, Mexico City authorities later ruled her death a suicide.

And the stories continue.

Mexican environmentalists Isidro Baldenegro López and Hermenegildo Rivas Carrillo were imprisoned in 2003 as a result of their advocacy work. Felipe Arreaga Sánchez, another OCESP member, was arrested by Mexican authorities only to be later acquitted of any crime and released from prison in 2005. Sánchez’s wife Celsa Valdovinos, leader of the Organization of Women Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlán, works under the constant threat of arrest and violence.

A Movement That Refuses to Retreat

Despite the danger, communities and nonprofit organizations are still courageously fighting to defend the environment in Latin America. Established groups like CEMDA and AIDA are continuing their work and indigenous communities are banding together to preserve the region’s natural heritage. In Peru, hundreds of indigenous leaders met in November 2010 to discuss the impacts of mining and climate change in Latin America. In Mexico, a network of activists descended upon the Conference of the Parties (COP-16) Climate Change Summit held in Cancún during December 2010 to advocate for improved ecosystem protections.

“Protecting environmental defenders is very important for democracy itself. This is about what we want the environment in our countries to be,” Puentes explained. “If people who are trying to defend the environment are neutralized so that they can’t say anything, then it’s absurd to even speak about a democracy.”