Dying for the environment | by Joan Martinez-Alier

by Jul 18, 2012All Articles

One of EJOLT’s* main tasks – of which I am the coordinator – is to collect and map a large global inventory (not less than 2000 cases) of environmental conflicts. Some will be success stories of forests saved, of dams or mining projects stopped. Others, of recurring and replicated unsustainable development models, packaged in the language of ‘growth’ – unquestioned; accepted.
Often, environmentalists are killed.
Many of us in the EJOLT project were in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. It was presented to the world in the usual wrapping paper: hope, change, possibilities. Meanwhile, the alternative “people’s summit” at the beach in Flamengo was entitled “For Social and Environmental Justice”. The official conference at Rio Center, however, scarcely mentioned environmental injustices, crimes and liabilities. The one-eyed kings leading so many of the  blind – unknowing, unconscious; into the ‘green economy’…
However, in Brazil itself since December 1988 when Chico Mendes was killed fighting deforestation in Acre, hundreds of other socio-environmental activists have been killed. While we were in Rio, people fighting for the environment were killed from Peru to the Philippines. The civil society organization Global Witness published impressive figures on such victims which went unmentioned in the bland agreement signed in Rio by governments (many of which are involved in such crimes).
After Rio, I read a book on Mexico by Luis Hernández Navarro, “Siembra de concreto, cosecha de ira”. In Mexico there are environmental justice networks such as REMA (against mining projects), MAPDER (against dams), “En Defensa del Maiz” (against transgenics and in defence of peasant agriculture).
Hundreds of other socio-environmental activists have been killed
There is also the Asamblea de Afectados Ambientales. This crisply written book gives short accounts of many environmental conflicts emphasizing the successes of the poor and the indigenous. The author unavoidably mentions names of well-known environmentalists killed since 2007. The list could be multiplied by three by resorting merely to the regional newspaper editions  or to the webpages of EJOs.
In any given country, the number of activists who die is not directly related to the number of conflicts. It depends also on the general level of violence, which is higher in Mexico, Colombia and Peru than in Ecuador or Argentina. This being acknowledged, here are names gathered from Hernández Navarro’s book. Behind each name there was or there still is an environmental justice organization or a communal entity.
  • Aldo Zamora, 15 May 2007, member of the tlahuica community fighting deforestation in San Juan Atzingo, killed by “talamontes” (large scale wood robbers) in the vicinity of Santa Lucía, Ocuilan, Mexico State.
  • Aristeo Flores Rolón and Raul Delgado Benavides, 2007, in Cuautitlán de Barragán, Jalisco, for their defence of indigenous rights against iron mining in the ejido of Ayotitlán.
  • Bernardo Méndez Vásquez and Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez, 18 January and 15 March 2012,  Coordinadora de Pueblos Unidos del Valle de Ocotlán, in San José del Progreso, Oaxaca, for their opposition to the mining project La Trinidad of Fortuna Silver Mining.
  • Betty Cariño, 27 Abril 2010, 37 years old, when travelling to San Juan Copala in solidarity with the triqui community. An activist in the Mixteca and elsewhere, a radio journalist, she had origins in Liberation Theology and was involved in conflicts against dams and for peasant agriculture.
  • Leopoldo Juárez Urbina, 8 May 2010, and five or six other members of the purépecha community of Cherán, Michoacán, defending their communal forests against “talamontes”.
  • Mariano Abarca, 27 November 2009, 50 years old, Chicomuselo, Chiapas, leader of the resistance to a barite mine owned by the Canadian company Backfire.
  • Miguel Angel Pérez Cazales, 31 octubre 2009, from Santa Catalina, Tepotzlán, defending the protected area of Texcal against urbanization.
  • Rubén Flores, 28 April 2010, his birthday, 42 years old, Coajumulco, Morelos, defending the forest of Ajusco Chihinautzin, killed by “talamontes”.
*The EJOLT project (Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade) initiative is a large collaborative project bringing together science and society; academics, researchers and environmental justice activists, to catalogue conflicts and work towards confronting ecological injustice. Work areas include nuclear energy; oil, gas and carbon injustice; biomass and land conflicts; mining and ship breaking; environmental health and risk assessment; liabilities and valuations; law and institutions; and ecological debt, consumption and unjust ecological exchanges. For more information, visit www.ejolt.org
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