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Down to Earth: Entrevista a Rodolfo Montiel Flores

Audio Transcript

Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera García were farmers in the Mexican state of Guerrero who saw first-hand the devastation wrought by industrial logging. When a large timber company began destroying the forest and the ecosystem that Flores and Cabrera, along with other farming families, relied on for food and their livelihood, the men joined together with their community to found the Organization of Farmer Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP). But their efforts to save the forest and their community were met with armed resistance from the Mexican government. Enduring torture and imprisonment at the hands of the government, Flores and Cabrera were finally released in 2001 and have now brought their case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Earthjustice spoke with Rodolfo Montiel Flores in mid-December 2010, as he awaited the court’s decision. Later that month, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would rule against Mexico and its army, finding that the government had denied Cabrera and Flores due process of law, and that the torture allegations must be investigated.

Transcript language:

Tell us about where you grew up.

I was born in the state of Guerrero. I was born there, and I grew up in a place called El Mameyal, Guerrero, in the municipality of Petatlán, in Mexico.

How did you come to be a small farmer?

Well, my parents, for as long as I can remember, my father, my mother, worked in the fields. I had about 11 sisters … my father alone couldn’t sustain everybody, and, well, my mother helped him work in the fields and did her household chores too, and that’s how I began to work as a child, since I was about 12 … I grew up working in the fields … where there was a lot of wildlife.

Why did you and Teodoro Cabrera García found the Organization of Farmer Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP)?

The governor of Guerrero, Rubén Figueroa, did a contract with a foreign company … This company did the contract with the governor without taking into account the cooperative farmers, much less the neighbors in the area. Well, it was a contract they did to exploit 24 farm cooperatives [ejidos] on forest land for a period of 10 years. But we saw that they were destroying the forests, they were destroying the wildlife, and they were also destroying the springs and rivers, because by exploiting the forests, they exploited everything. They were taking big trees, small trees, and after taking the trees, they set fire to what was left. Here in the United States they call it ‘la brocha,’ [brush] right?


Many Latin American environmental activists who oppose governments or corporations are taking their lives in their hands. (AIDA)

So the caciques there, they were in agreement with the governor, could plant grass seeds to raise their cattle. That was the reason they weren’t only destroying the forests but also the wildlife. Because with the big burns, the fauna dies. Also, the springs dry up, they disappear. When the springs disappear, the rivers disappear, and … when the rivers disappear, the sea rises. There are risks of seismic waves. We’ve already seen them since I’ve been over here … and the ground also erodes and the people who live on the edges of the hills, on the skirts, let’s say, could easily die from ground erosion. The hill comes down on them, and they don’t know when it’s going to come because the root fabric no longer exists.

And we as farmers, as men of the fields, we’re also the first losers because our products don’t produce like they used to. The corn field doesn’t produce as much corn because there’s no longer enough rain. Rain, with the exploitation of the forests, the water cycle, of the rain, changes. It rains when it shouldn’t and when it should rain it doesn’t. Well we, as farmers, we saw that happening. The rivers where we lived were some big rivers. There was a lot of shrimp, fish, and all those rivers are now gone. They were turned into little streams. Then the shrimp began to die. The fish even died in some small lagoons. It was then that we became aware of what was happening and we thought: if we let the company exploit, keep exploiting, let’s say, for 10 years, they’re not going to leave us with any forest. We thought that in the year and two months that it was operating, it exploited about 40 percent. That’s what we said. And a study that Greenpeace did by satellite found the same thing.

And what I’m getting to is that we as farmers, that is, men of the fields, there are also women who work in the fields, and, well, we’re the first losers, but we’re not the only ones to lose.

I was saying, also, for example, those who are in offices live off the products that the fields give us, right? And when we lose, they have to buy things more expensively, because there aren’t any. Then the price goes up. And the salary they make, it’s worth less because they spend more on those food items.

What kind of impact was OCESP able to have in defending the environment?

Well, we took various actions. We wrote letters to various government offices, like the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, to President Ernesto Zedillo, to the interim governor Aguirre Rivero. As an answer we only found pressure on the part of the government—persecution, assassinations of our comrades at the hands of caciques, armed by the government, by the army. The army gives them guns, it gives them uniforms, it gives them power, it gives them, well, boots, and everything.

It gives them training as paramilitaries, and, they can kill, they can make people disappear and, for example, if you protest, that’s only going to bring more enemies. They say that in Mexico there is freedom of expression, but that’s a lie. Back then, when we were beginning to fight for the defense of our environment, everything that we did we did for the good of humanity, for the good of our future generations, and even for the children of the caciques who were exploiting, even then the government, the army, and every form of government was against us. The army killed … our attorney, Digna Ochoa y Plácido because the army… let’s say, it was in favor of the company and not in favor of its citizens or farmers.

They even detained Teodoro and I on May 2 of 1999. They tortured us cruelly, and they pulled my testicles … they pulled my eye sockets, and, well, well I thought I was dying. They accused us of belonging to armed groups, they accused us of planting and cultivating marijuana, of carrying military firearms, things that weren’t at all true because we never carried guns, because we aren’t against life. Carrying a gun is for the purpose of killing and what we wanted and what we want is that people live. That they have the opportunity to breathe pure air and take sacred food in their mouths as is God’s will. Not to take anyone’s life away. We’ve never been against anybody.

Why do you think you were treated with such little respect and were tortured? Why do you think that was?

I think we were treated that way because we were affecting the interests of the government, right? The interests of the transnational corporations. There were a lot of millions of dollars, maybe he looked the other way while they were putting some in his pocket, right? And, I think that not only the governor’s pocket but also maybe even the President, and all their followers had their hands out, right? Except the people, except the most affected, the poorest, those who truly lived in the area. That, then, is the reason that since we affected their interests and that money didn’t, didn’t end up being theirs, that’s why it was that they had so much hatred for us, yeah?

When you got out of jail what did you feel toward the Mexican government for having imprisoned you and treated you that way?

I feel sadness because they treated us as if we were unknown to them, as if we were, well, maybe from another planet, let’s say. ..And as if we had been against them … for them, money is more important than the lives of their own descendants, of their children. And I, well, for me it’s the other way around. I think lives of human beings are more important than money. Our children’s lives.

They didn’t let us remake our lives but kept bothering us, persecuting us. We had to leave the state and the country. I came to the United States, I requested political asylum, and, by the grace of God they gave me asylum, they granted it to me. The judge who heard me treated me very well. He even congratulated me. That says that they’re people who value life, who value human lives and that they’re people who know that it’s important to care for the environment. They aren’t ignorant people like the Mexican authorities.

Do you continue to participate in environmental activism?

I keep speaking, I give interviews like this to raise people’s spirits, to inspire them to fight, or us to fight together to preserve the environment, to care for the little that we have left. Unfortunately, I can’t go to Mexico. I haven’t been able to join any environmental organization for the reason that I’m still not a permanent resident, I’m not a citizen. I only have asylum and that’s it.

In Mexico, the authorities didn’t give us the opportunity to demonstrate our innocence, we had to appeal to the international courts. Our case is in the court (the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), we think we’ll win it, and we’re waiting for the judges’ ruling. Depending on the ruling… it’s possible I could return to Mexico and continue my fight on the front lines.

What would you like to achieve through this court?

Well, we took the case to the Commission because in response to the Mexican government, well, they framed us for crimes, they, under torture, they obligated us to sign documents of which we had no knowledge whatsoever about what those documents contained. One, because neither Teodoro nor I knew how to read or write. And another, because they never let us show or let a person we trusted study said documents. They sentenced us, condemned us, Teodoro for 10 years imprisonment, and me to six years eight months. And, well, no matter how hard our defense tried they never allowed our testimony or the testimony of our witnesses … Then we, that is, our defense, appealed to the Inter-American Commission. The Inter-American Commission, after reviewing the file, made certain recommendations to the Mexican government, recommendations that the government did not follow … and that’s why the Commission felt obligated to take our case to the Inter-American Court.

And in a couple days, we’ll know the results?

I’ve tried to feel very happy because I know that, well, one, that God is with us, and another thing, that the court will allow our testimony and will allow their testimony. So we’re not in Mexico here. They can’t buy the judges here.

[Editor's Note: In late December 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights 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. Read more.]

What are your thoughts on the ecological movement in Mexico and Latin America?

Well, the environmental situation is very risky. It’s dangerous, because like I said, the caciques kill the ecologists. The governments are involved in that because they don’t go after or detain the murderers and everything ends up as if they don’t know what’s happening. They kill reporters so that they don’t make noise against the government.

It’s risky, then, but I think that on one hand our fight was worth the effort. Because, for example, we were able to get the company out that exploited our forests. And the government also canceled 14 permits that were for exploitation. Even though I’d like to say that they keep exploiting there, clandestinely … And the government doesn’t do anything.

Do you have hope for the future of the Mexican environment and our planet’s wellbeing?

I do have hope, you know, for the reason that I believe that we’re already realizing that the sun is getting stronger every day, right, that we’re almost burning ourselves up. Older people are recognizing that we’ve made a mistake in not caring for our forests on time, right? I have a lot of hope because young people, children, students, are learning from their studies and their teachers about the damage that our environment, our system, has had. And that’s how children and young people can become conscious and help make their parents conscious, their grandparents, because in the end this world is theirs, it belongs to the young people, to the children, to those who are in the world and those who are coming, because we’re already on our way out. Young people are already more expert and know more things.

What should we do as humans to treat this problem of global environmental crisis that we’re living?

Well, I, in my opinion, the steps that we should take, that is, meet together, for example, in groups, to talk about the problems, for example, global warming and also that we should care for our springs, our water, and little by little we’ll become conscious. Little by little, not losing hope, and growing.

Do you have any other thoughts that you’d like to share with us, things that you think it’s important that we know?

In Mexico, in my request for reparations, I’ve requested that an ecology school be built in Mexico so that young people can train, study and thus grow in this way.

And what would you call the school?

In my request to the court, I requested that the school be given the name of we the ecologists; of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera. I think that if we get it, we’ll have to also put up the pictures of our fallen comrades. This school, if it opens, won’t only be for the Mexican youth, but it’s also for anybody who has the desire to study and to know, well, the consequences that come from our not caring for our environment and the benefits of our being able to care for it.

Down to Earth, on iTunes.International activist Rodolfo Montiel Flores discusses being tortured by his own government for helping to save forest lands in southern Mexico.

Earthjustice staffer David Lawlor talks with Rodolfo Montiel Flores about his experiences and efforts to help save forest lands in southern Mexico. Imprisoned and tortured by the government for his work, Flores's case was brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The original Spanish language audio interview was generously transcribed and translated by Rivas Cultural Services.