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Indigenous Leaders in Latin America Experience an Unprecedented Human Rights Emergency

Indigenous leaders BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of bbc.com

While world leaders debate in suits and ties whether or not to cut carbon emissions in the comfort of COP26 in Glasgow, an alarming number of environmentalists and land defenders continue to be murdered at an alarming rate.

In 2020 alone, more than 220 environmental defenders were killed, some in their homes, according to a report released by environmental rights organization Global Witness. Colombia was the country with the highest number of such killings for the second year in a row, France 24 reported.

Although often unnoticed by the rest of the world, indigenous leaders and environmentalists fight a silent war in Latin America against the illegal exploitation of resources, the destruction of biodiversity, and pollution.

Unfortunately, this struggle is an obstacle to the interests of private companies and governments that have decided to squeeze every last penny out of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s most important green lung.

Another consequence of the pandemic

During the social crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the lives of environmental defenders and indigenous leaders were doubly threatened by drug trafficking, armed groups, and invaders who took advantage of the crisis to intimidate them and exert control over the territory.

Many indigenous leaders were killed, kidnapped, or threatened with death while they remained in their homes during the quarantine, according to Mongabay, the independent environmental journalism platform in Latin America.

Specialists and NGOs have pointed out that the most affected countries are those where corruption and organized crime are highest, such as Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and several Central American countries.

An unprecedented wave of violence

As indigenous leaders struggle against the climate crisis, forest fires, droughts, floods, commercial interests, hydroelectric dams, resource exploitation, large-scale mining, and agribusiness, the response from governments and organized crime has been aggressive and violent.

In 2020, 227 environmentalists were murdered worldwide. Colombia was the country with the most cases, according to Global Witness.

The figure, however, could be higher because, as the organization says, “our data on murders does not reflect the true dimension of the problem. In some countries, the situation faced by human rights defenders is difficult to measure. Restrictions on press freedom and the absence of independent records of attacks against defenders can lead to underreporting. Land disputes and environmental damage – two of the main underlying causes behind community activism – can also be very difficult to monitor in conflict-affected areas of the world.”

After Colombia (with 65 killings), Mexico (30), the Philippines (29), Brazil (20), Honduras (17), the Democratic Republic of Congo (15), Guatemala (13), Nicaragua (12), Peru (6) and India (4) follow on the list.

However, Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines account for more than half of the murders.

This is why the indigenous peoples of nine Amazonian countries, grouped in La Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (Coica), declared an emergency for the human rights of indigenous defenders in the Amazon earlier this year.

According to Front Line Defenders, in 2020, there were 331 murders of human rights defenders worldwide, of which 222 people were indigenous leaders defending the environment. Of that number, 86 were indigenous defenders in the Amazon. This was an alarming increase compared to 2019 (80% more), when 122 environmental leaders were reported murdered.

So far, in 2021, Coica has already reported 19 indigenous people murdered: 3 in Peru and another 16 in Colombia. In the case of Peru, these are Herasmo García Grau and Yenes Ríos Bonsano, both from Ucayali. Also included is Estela Casanto Mauricio, from Junín. In all three cases, the prosecutors’ investigations are still in the preparatory stage.

“The defense of life is a recognized right for indigenous peoples. It is not possible that in the 21st century we continue to be threatened, persecuted and murdered for defending the land, the Amazon and life,” said Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, regional coordinator of Coica, in a statement to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and other international organizations.