Blog / Dec. 6, 2017

Mexico must act now to protect environmental defenders

In January, the internationally acclaimed human rights defender Isidro Baldenegro López was brutally shot dead while visiting family in northern Mexico. Isidro received the Goldman Prize in 2005 for his non-violent campaign against illegal logging in the region’s forests.

Isidro’s murder hit me hard, given that I’d spent five years of my life in Mexico working with the NGO Peace Brigades International (PBI) – carrying out protective accompaniment and international advocacy to prevent attacks against threatened human rights defenders.

The brave individuals I was there to protect taught me volumes about human rights activism, and remain my inspiration to this day. However, they also taught me about the immense risks which defenders in Mexico face. Isidro’s murder brought the attention of the international community back to this harsh reality.

PBI have just launched a new publication, Defender la Vida, Personas defensoras de tierra, territorio y medioambiente en riesgo, harnessing first-hand testimonies, on-the-ground documentation and expert analysis to highlight the particular vulnerability of land and environmental defenders, outlining what States and business can do to improve their situation.

The report is timely. Isidro’s murder was symbolic of the worsening international context for community leaders, indigenous activists, human rights lawyers and NGO workers standing up for their land rights and the future of our planet. Global Witness documented the murder of a record 200 land and environmental defenders in 2016,[1] with 164 more already registered in the first eight months of this year.[2]

These numbers provide shocking evidence that the environment has emerged as a new battleground for human rights. Globally, industry is pushing ever deeper into new territory, driven by consumer demand for products like timber and minerals. Even so-called clean energy projects leave a bloody footprint when communities are illegally displaced for hydro dams and wind farms.

Mexican defenders: criminalised as well as killed

Mexico has consistently been amongst the most violent countries for land and environmental defenders, though more have been murdered there this year than ever before.[3] However this is just the sharpest end of the problem: Mexican activists and their families also face threats, attacks, surveillance and harassment.[4] They are also particularly exposed to ‘criminalisation’.[5]

Business and Government stigmatise defenders. In Mexico I worked closely with the NGO ProDesc. When they demanded that Excellon respect the rights of communities affected by their mine, they were publically painted as opponents of development.[6]

Others face the threat of prison: my friend Bettina Cruz was arrested and subjected to three years of judicial harassment and fabricated charges - a reprisal for her opposition to wind farms forced upon indigenous communities without their consent.[7]  Globally, defenders also face aggressive civil cases brought by companies. All in all, criminalisation is being used to silence defenders, tarnish their reputations, lock them into costly legal battles, and deter dissent.

What needs to change

The Mexican State has the primary legal duty to guarantee that human rights defenders can carry out their activism safely, and it is high time they made this a priority. However, the UN Special Rapporteur has shown that land and environmental defenders face specific and heightened risks because they challenge business interests.[8] Therefore, to keep them safe, action is also needed from companies, investors, foreign States and their embassies.

They can all prevent threats from emerging, by guaranteeing that communities are able to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent regarding the use of their land and natural resources.

They can all do more to support and protect defenders: speaking out when threats occur, and implementing measures for their protection.

They can all work towards greater accountability too. To dissuade future threats, those responsible for attacks must be brought to justice, while those failing to support and protect defenders should face political, financial and judicial consequences. Impunity is the oxygen which fuels the attacks. Impunity meant Isidro Baldenegro could be murdered this year.

As well as the ethical and legal duties of States, investors and companies, it is worth remembering that the protection of defenders is good for business.[9] Their expertise can help companies and investors identify, prevent and mitigate human rights abuses, navigate specific laws and contexts, build local relationships, minimize costly conflicts and avoid adverse impacts. Where communities are listened to and defenders safe, business is likely to be successful and sustainable.

Time for action

Isidro’s case is emblematic of the current Mexican and international context. He stood up for the rights of the most marginalised, but also demanded a better environment for all of us. He was imprisoned by the State, threatened by loggers, and killed by hitmen. Previous threats against him went unpunished; nobody did enough to protect him. His life was cut short, his expertise lost.

Many of the defenders I accompanied in my days working for PBI remain good friends. And it hurts me to this day that they have to live with the fear that they might be next; with the anxiety of protecting their children who too find themselves in the firing line; with the stress of being placed under surveillance or defamed in the media.

The short-sightedness of these threats is absurd, given that they ultimately benefit nobody. A sustainable and prosperous Mexico for all Mexicans will only be possible if expert voices like Isidro’s are heard; if land and environmental defenders can operate freely. The time to act is now.

This article was adapted from the foreword to PBI Mexico’s new publication, Defender la Vida, Personas defensoras de tierra, territorio y medioambiente en riesgo

Ben Leather is a Global Witness Campaigner for the protection of land and environmental defenders. He is also a member of PBI Mexico’s Strategic Committee. Follow him on Twitter at @BenLeather1


[1] www.globalwitness.org/defenders2016 

[2] www.globalwitness.org/guardian

[3] Global Witness has documented 33 murders between 2010 and 2015 (https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/dangerous-ground/), 3 in 2016 (www.globalwitness.org/defenders2016) and 8 in the first five months of 2017 (http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/articulo/nacion/seguridad/2017/07/13/en-2017-van-8-ecologistas-asesinados-en-mexico)

[4] http://mypbi.net/fileadmin/user_files/projects/mexico/files/Web/Defender_la_Vida_digital-1.pdf

[5] http://mypbi.net/fileadmin/user_files/projects/mexico/files/Web/Defender_la_Vida_digital-1.pdf 

[6] http://mypbi.net/fileadmin/user_files/projects/mexico/files/Web/Defender_la_Vida_digital-1.pdf

[7] https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-lucila-bettina-cruz-vel%C3%A1zquez#case-update-id-5664

[8] UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders (2016), ‘They spoke truth to power and were murdered in cold blood: analysis on the situation of environmental human rights defenders and concrete recommendations to better protect them’. Available from: https://www.protecting-defenders.org/pdf.js/web/viewer.html?file=https%3A//www.protecting-defenders.org/sites/protecting-defenders.org/files/environmentaldefenders.pdf

[9] Defenders of the Earth p. 30 provides a summary of the legal and business case for action to protect defenders (www.globalwitness.org/defenders2016). More arguments for business action can be found in International Service for Human Rights special edition report (November 2015), ‘Human rights Defenders and Corporate Accountability’. Available from: http://www.ishr.ch/sites/default/files/documents/business_and_human_rights_monitor_-_english_november_2015-final_last_version-2.pdf

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