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Your Life or Your Freedom? The Ultimate Price to Defend the Environment

WASHINGTON DC, Aug 8 2019 (IPS) - For the family of indigenous Guatemalan activist Jorge Juc, the announcement last week by US President Donald Trump of an agreement declaring Guatemala a “safe third country” could not be more bitterly ironic.

The deal requires central American migrants who cross into Guatemala on their way to the US to apply for protections in Guatemala instead of at the US border – a move immigration advocates have called cruel and unlawful.

Juc, a 77-year-old indigenous Maya Q’eqchi community leader, was killed in a machete attack in July as he tended his cornfield. He was president of the village chapter of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), a national indigenous-led social movement fighting for indigenous, land and environmental rights that are being threatened by harmful mining projects.

For Guatemalan human rights defenders, particularly those who are indigenous – as for migrants and other Guatemalans – the words “Guatemala” and “safe” could never belong in the same sentence.

Their country is considered among the world’s deadliest for environmental activists, particularly those from indigenous communities fighting to protect their land, lives, livehoods and rights.

A new report by independent rights watchdog Global Witness – coming just days before the commemoration of International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9 – found that murders of land defenders in Guatemala skyrocketed by a shocking 500% between 2017 and last year, making it the deadliest country per capita for such activists. And most of the land and environmental activists killed were indigenous – many, leaders of the country’s campesino (peasant farmer) movement.

Four CODECA-affiliated community leaders were killed last month alone, all in Guatemala’s western Izabal department. Izabal is home to mining operations, oil palm plantations and the Maya Q’eqchi’ community, which has suffered decades of displacement as a result.

Isidro Perez and Melesio Ramirez were murdered on July 5 when armed men opened fire on a land rights protest. Julio Ramirez was shot multiple times a week later and died of his injuries.

Last December, the bodies of brothers Neri And Domingo Esteban Pedro – both vocal opponents of a hydroelectric power project in the Ixquisis region of western Guatemala – were found slumped on the banks of the Yal Witz River near the San Andres hydroelectric with bullets in their heads.

In Guatemala – as across Latin America – when indigenous rights defenders are not murdered for activism, they are criminalized and imprisoned on trumped up charges.

A 2018 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People about the rise in criminalization of indigenous Guatemalans found that people who filed legal petitions to demand protection of their rights are being falsely charged with crimes like robbery, kidnap and even murder. In a number of cases, the report claimed, companies or landlords allegedly colluded with local prosecutors and judges.

Earlier this year, The prestigious Goldman Prize – widely regarded as the environmental Nobel Prize – was awarded to indigenous Mapuche leader, Alberto Curamil, who was incarcerated after leading his community to stop two hydropower projects threatening the sacred Cautin River valley in Chile.

Ironically, while Chile preparing to host the world’s largest environmental summit – the UN’s climate change conference COP25 – in December, it has yet to sign the Escazú Agreement, a historic, regional treaty committing Latin American and Caribbean nations to protecting environmental defenders and their rights.

And in another twist of irony, Guatemala was among the first group of 14 countries to sign the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters for Latin America and the Caribbean (as the Escazú treaty is officially known) in an emotional ceremony last March.

Under the agreement, states commit to ensure a safe environment for defenders to act, take appropriate and effective measures to recognize and protect their rights, and take measures to prevent, investigate and prosecute attacks against environmental defenders.

Guatemala’s crisis for indigenous environmental defenders stretches back decades, the Global Witness report explains. New economic integration policies that emerged after the end of long running civil war in 1996 led to a boom in private and foreign investment.

As a result, large swatches of land were handed out to plantation, mining and hydropower companies, ushering in a wave of forced and violent evictions, particularly in indigenous areas.

A joint 2019 report by Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that industrial projects were routinely being imposed on communities without their consent.

Regardless of risking their lives and freedoms, environmental defenders continue to inspire us every day step up and act. Governments around the world should increase their commitment to the protection of defenders and ensure that they can develop their role without risking their life and integrity.

Specially in Latin America, the most dangerous region for defenders in the world, environmental activists have a fundamental role representing the voices of millions of people suffering the pollution of their waters, the lost of their forests and violations to their rights to health and to life.

Just in the last years two Goldman Prize recipients from this region have been murdered. Bertha Caceres an indigenous leader working to protect her community in Honduras and Isidro Baldonegro an indigenous activist who worked for the protection of forest in the Sierra Madre en Mexico.

The violent reality faced by environmental defenders in Latin America has already made some States in the region to commit to their protection. On 4 March 2018, 24 states from Latin America and the Caribbean adopted the agreement that responds to the region’s need for a stronger environmental democracy and was inspired by the Aarhus Convention adopted in Europe in 1998, rests on three substantial pillars for environmental democracy: the right to access information, the right of participation and the right to access justice in environmental matters and adds a new pillar with a regime of protection for environmental human rights defenders.

Under Escazú, States commit to ensure a safe environment for defenders to act, take appropriate and effective measures to recognize and protect their rights, and take measures to prevent, investigate and prosecute attacks against environmental defenders.

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