#DefendingWithoutFear: Stories of the Struggle to Defend the Environment in Times of Pandemic

19 de Noviembre de 2020

#DefendingWithoutFear is a series of articles written by journalists on fifteen environmental activists in Latin America and the reality of their lives. These women and men, together with their communities, share the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and their efforts to safeguard and preserve biodiversity in their territories. 

In the midst of the global health crisis caused by COVID-19, while the world is adapting to prolonged restrictions on mobility and quarantines, there are those in Latin America who continue to defend their land. And, they do so because extractive projects and violence against local communities continue, despite the pandemic. 

In different ecosystems, at different latitudes, the difficulties created by the rapid spread of the novel corona virus have not stopped those who have made it their mission to protect the environment. Their struggle goes on as they continue to face fear and constraints in protecting their forests, jungles and water sources, which are vital to the preservation of thousands of species. Nevertheless, although the health emergency has not brought their work to a halt, it has caused problems that further complicate a situation in which they were already being persecuted, harassed, ignored and even killed.

Defend Tomorrow, a report by Global Witness, an NGO, documents the murder of 212 environmental activists worldwide in 2019. “More than two thirds of these crimes were perpetrated in Latin America," it states.  Presented in July 2020, the report emphasizes "33 deaths occurred in the Amazon region alone" and countries such as Colombia, where 64 activists were killed, have the "highest number ever recorded by Global Witness."  Honduras, with a total of fourteen deaths, became the most dangerous country in 2019 with respect to the number of murders per capita (per one million inhabitants).
The aggression has intensified during the pandemic. Countries such as Peru and Brazil have seen environmentalists and defenders of the land murdered; however, Colombia is one of the countries where violence is rampant and the murder rates are chilling. According to data from the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ), 211 community leaders and human rights activists had been killed by September 2020, including 140 indigenous people and peasants with a strong connection to protecting their land. 

Stories in the Series 

Last May, in central Peru, an indigenous man named Gonzalo Pio Flores was murdered. He was a leader in the fight to protect the forest in the department of Junin against illegal logging. It was not an isolated incident: twelve environmental activists have been murdered in Peru during the last seven years, according to the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee.

Those who defend the land and natural resources are at greater risk of contagion and are also under constant attack from individuals, companies and armed groups who have an interest in their land. In the communities furthest away from urban areas, COVID-19 not only resulted in greater isolation to avoid transmission of the virus, but also caused the death of knowledgeable individuals and community leaders, as occurred in the Amazon basin (shared by nine South American countries). In that area, which has more than half of the tropical rainforest on the planet and covers more than seven million square kilometers, 1,103,180 people had been infected and 28,987 had died from the virus by 10 September 2020, according to data from the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network.

One of the environmental leaders who became infected with COVID-19 is Rosa Aranda. Working out of Piwiri, in the Amazon jungle in eastern Ecuador, she combats both the disease and the historic contamination oil companies have inflicted on the lands of her people.  Across the border, in Colombia, in the La Perla Amazon Peasant Reserve Zone, Jani Rita Silva Rengifo also tries to heal the 'open wounds' left on wetlands and in the jungle by oil exploration and extraction, pollution and the building of a road in Puerto Asís in the department of Putumayo.

While the novel coronavirus infected 14,700,141 people in the Americas, killing 508,714, the damage to the environment continued, as it still does, according to figures from the World Health Organization that were updated on 13 September 2020. 

Deforestation in Panama's Darien jungle persists at an alarming rate, warn the leaders (nokos) of the Emberá Wounaan. The same is happening in the south of the continent, in Paraguay, where the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, the only indigenous people in voluntary isolation outside the Amazon Basin, are guarding South America’s Gran Chaco forest from illegal logging. A similar protective force is professed by the Guardians of the Forest, members of the Guajajara community in the state of Maranhão in Brazil, who are trying to defend their land against intruders.

Another of the voices for environmental justice is that of Diana Ríos Rengifo, who took on the role of defending the Peruvian Amazon after her father, Jorge Ríos Pérez, was murdered in 2014. Jorge was a prominent Asheninka leader in the fight against illegal logging, and now Diana has become a protector of the trees in Saweto, a community located near the Brazilian border.

Threats and risks have become more prevalent in these areas during the last six months of 2020, and local leaders have been courageous in raising their voices. Such is the case of Hortimio Ochoa, a Huöttöja who has made it his vocation to defend the Cataniapo River basin in the state of Amazonas against mining and incursions by armed groups, including dissidents from the former guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In Mexico, the Tepehuanos protect their ancestral territory in the autonomous community of San Lorenzo Azqueltán from landowners who have tortured, threatened and forcibly displaced them.  And, in northern Honduras, Juan López is a community leader who vehemently opposes a mining project that has reduced the protected area in the "Montaña de Botaderos Carlos Escaleras" National Park.  Juan’s efforts to defend the land and the environment have made him the target of legal action, along with 31 other activists, eight of whom have already been in prison for a year.

Protecting the land cannot be done alone. Regional and local organizations promote regulatory community frameworks for the preservation of natural resources and the protection of those who depend on the forest for their physical and cultural survival. In Mexico, lawyers from the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA) and the Inter-American Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA) warn that efforts to defend the land have been affected since the start of the pandemic by the paralysis in environmental justice systems.

However, the situation is not entirely bleak. Latin American men and women overcome problems and challenges with dignity. In Colombia, the pandemic poses a challenge to the Cacarica Communities for Self-Determination, Life and Dignity (CAVIDA) in northern Choco, due to isolation. Yet, it also offers an opportunity to concentrate on reforesting their shared territories. There, Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and mestizo groups are working together to safeguard this "little piece of land" as a living heritage for their children.

Further north on the continent, in El Salvador, the territory around the Sapo River is being protected with the support of new technology and community practices. It has the potential to become the largest protected natural area in the country and is the only region likely to host one of the largest cats in the Americas: the puma.

The voices of indigenous, peasant, Afro-Colombian and mestizo activists, woven together in the series #DefendingWithoutFear, portray their daily struggle to protect the environment and the land, and to safeguard ancestral medicine and living memories. They know Mother Earth provides for clean air, food security and the preservation of life itself.

The Series

#DefendingWithoutFear is project in investigative journalism headed by Agenda Propia, an independent provider of media content, in coordination with twenty editors, journalists, designers, translators and media partners from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, El Salvador, Argentina and the United States. The series was produced with the support of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global NGO.

The stories were recorded and developed through teleworking sessions conducted between June and September 2020. The protagonists were interviewed by telephone and in video conference calls. They described what their situation has been like in the midst of confinement or quarantine. The reporting process was also supported by advanced information search techniques and reliable digital sources.
Allied Media

The media organizations that are part of this international alliance include, primarily, Agenda Propia (Colombia), Ojo Público (Peru), InfoAmazonia (Brazil), Democracia Abierta - Open Democracy (Brazil), Cuestión Pública (Colombia), Correo del Caroní (Venezuela), Contracorriente (Honduras) and Animal Político (Mexico).

Note. This article is part of #DefendingWithoutFear, a journalist series that tells the story of women and men who struggle to defend the environment in a time of pandemic. Developed by Agenda Propia, in coordination with twenty journalists, editors and allied media in Latin America, the series is made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global NGO.