Forewarned Soldiers Fell in Environmental Wars

In one out of every two violence episodes against forest, water and land defenders in Latin America, the latter had previously reported their risk to the authorities, who never acted in time. Not even after the Inter-American Court and Commission on Human Rights urged governments to protect them, insisted and sent reprimands. Even though many warned of the risks, ten Latin American countries lost 49 environmental leaders in the last year, and such countries allow intimidations to continue.

On February 25, 2019, Jose Salomon Matute, 73, and his son Juan Samael, 29, left their community in San Francisco de Locomapa, Northern Honduras, early in the morning to work in their bean farm. Two strangers accosted them on the road and shot them. They died that same day.

Both were Tolupan indigenous people and had been fighting for six years to protect Yoro forests from criminals who coveted their timber and land. Three other Tolupan from Locomapa had been killed in August 2013. The Tolupan community is part of the Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia  (broad movement for dignity and justice, MADJ in Spanish), whose members have been victims of multiple threats and harassment due to their opposition to the aforementioned criminal interests.

This constant persecution led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to urge the Honduran State in December 2013 to adopt urgent measures to “preserve the life and personal integrity” of 38 Tolupan MADJ members, as reported by Vienna Hernandez in Land of Resistance, a collaborative journalistic investigation led by Consejo de Redaccion, the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP) and 19 media outlets in ten countries of the region.

Solomon Matute was among those threatened indigenous leaders.

Subsequent events showed, however, that very few of the IACHR’s recommendations in those precautionary measures had been complied with.

“The Commission has not received concrete information indicating that Salomon Matute enjoyed any protection measures implemented by the State at the time of his murder;” this was one of the harshest conclusions of the body which, alongside the Court, comprise the Inter-American Human Rights System of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The Tolupan indigenous people of San Francisco de Locomapa, in Honduras, are one of the communities that despite having precautionary measures from the OAS continue to be attacked. Photo: Martín Cálix.

In that same public reprimand, which took place a week after the Matutes’ murders, the IACHR listed several of Honduras’ failures to protect the Tolupans. It reported that, in 2017, it had requested the General Directorate of the Honduran Protection System to guarantee protection measures for the leaders, and six months later the same had still not materialized. In addition, it added that there was no progress despite the fact that, in 2018, the Commission had insisted on the case’s urgency twice during its sessions held in Bogota and Boulder.

“Once precautionary measures have been granted and the State has been notified of a situation of risk, the State has a special duty,” it warned.

“Once precautionary measures have been granted and the State has been notified of a situation of risk, the State has a special duty”


What happened to the Matutes is no exception. Rather, it happens very often. The database set up by the Land of Resistance project –which documented 2,370 violent episodes in ten countries over the last decade– shows that those Latin American governments have failed to adequately protect their environmental defenders, even in cases where they had previously raised alerts to international bodies about the risk they were running.

These are tragedies foretold that do not cease. States are often warned of the danger, even by the Inter-American System, the highest body for human rights protection in the region.

Worthless Warnings

The research conducted by Land of Resistance in ten countries of the region found that defending jungles, mountains, forests and rivers of Latin America is a dangerous endeavor.

Six of them are in the disgraceful ‘top 10’ of the most hostile countries for leaders and communities defending the environment and their ancestral lands, included by Michel Forst -the outgoing Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders- in his report on the environment to the United Nations in 2016.

Although statistics are lurid, violent episodes or their severity could decrease if States were to heed the warnings.

However, they are not being welcomed consistently enough. In our investigation, we found 2,136 cases of violence against leaders and 234 cases of violence against communities or organizations that defend the environment or territory. In at least 1,327 of these cases (56% of the total we were able to document,) the victims themselves, the communities to which they belong or the organizations that work with them reported the attacks to the authorities. Their complaints should have alerted the State to the risk they were running and the need to protect them.

Victims, communities and their organizations brought their cases before national institutions such as human rights prosecutors’ offices, ombudsmen’s offices or public forces, but also before international organizations such as the OAS Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights.

In 1,327 of these cases (or 56% of the total we documented), the victims, their communities or partner organizations had previously reported risks to the authorities. Photo: César Rojas.

Tragically, despite the popular wisdom indicating that a warned soldier should not die in war, the violence has continued or even escalated. In five countries – Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela – we found cases that reveal that States are not doing enough to protect these citizens, whose only crime is to guard the natural heritage and collective ownership of land in their countries.

Putting victims’ faces to the information that has emerged from our database shows that not even the intervention of the highest human rights bodies in the region has succeeded in leading States to prevent some fatal outcomes. In the last year alone, 49 environmental and land defenders have been murdered in the ten countries we are studying.

It also shows that -although the IACHR does not usually classify them as environmental defenders, but rather as human rights defenders- they are the group of civil leaders that seeks to protect the new Escazu Agreement negotiated by the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean within the framework of the United Nations system. This innovative regional treaty on environmental issues, which as of March has been signed by 22 countries and is just three ratifications away from entering into force, would force them to take more robust measures to protect these groups.

Three Years Screaming for Help

In some cases, violence befell leaders who had precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission in place, but even so, they continued to ask for help because of constant threats.

Such was the case of Juan Ontiveros Ramos, a Raramuri indigenous person from the Sierra Tarahumara in Northern Mexico, murdered in 2017. On January 31 of that year, armed men beat him and took him from his home in the Choreachi community. One day later, his corpse was found.

Two weeks earlier, an unknown person had murdered Isidro Baldenegro, another well-known Raramuri leader who had led several indigenous demonstrations to demand the authorities to stop illegal logging in his community, Coloradas de la Virgen. In 2005, he had won the Goldman Prize, the world’s most prestigious award for environmental defenders.

Both were recognized Raramuri leaders, who – together with the Odami – protect one of the most valuable forest areas in Mexico. For over a decade, they have been facing, alone, drug trafficking, illegal timber merchants and local political leaders, in the light of government indifference, as Thelma Gomez Duran and Patricia Mayorga stated in their research on the Sierra Tarahumara published in the first part of Land of Resistance, released in 2019.

The Raramuri Indians of the Tarahumara Range in Mexico have suffered multiple killings and attacks despite having taken their case since 2014 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which determined in 2017 that the country had not done enough to protect them. Photo: Ginnette Riquelme

tiveros had been meeting with officials from the Human Rights Unit of the Mexican Federal Government’s Ministry of Interior and staff from Alianza Sierra Madre and the Women’s Human Rights Center, two organizations that support his community, ten days before he was killed. At that meeting, they discussed the precarious security situation in the area, just after Baldenegro’s death.

The indigenous community of the Sierra Tarahumara had brought their case to the IACHR since February 2014, some months after Jaime Zubias Ceballos and Socorro Ayala Ramos were killed in separate episodes. Eight months later, in October 2014, the IACHR requested the Mexican State to protect Prudencio Ramos and Angela Ayala, two people from the Choreachi community who had received threats.

Ontiveros had personally presented his video testimony to the IACHR at a meeting on the implementation of precautionary measures in October 2015, as denounced by Red TDT, which brings together Mexican human rights organizations. Finally, on October 28, 2016, the IACHR extended these collective measures to the entire community.

Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur who had just made an inspection visit to Mexico, issued a warning –when Baldenegro had already been killed, but Ontiveros still lived– about the vulnerability of this indigenous people and “the risks caused by organized crime and their lack of protection from the authorities.” 

“I call upon both the federal and state authorities to ensure that all crimes against defenders of the rights of the peoples of the Sierra Tarahumara are duly investigated,” Forst declared publicly.

Nevertheless, Ontiveros was killed.

The conclusion of the Inter-American Commission is that Mexico did not protect the Raramuri. “Although the Mexican State has formally responded to the precautionary measures and reiterated its willingness to comply with them, the information (…) shows that despite the time that has passed, adequate and effective measures have not been adopted to address the community’s security situation,” it said in February 2017.

In late March of the same year, the Inter-American Court issued provisional measures for the Choreachi community, raising the case’s urgency level and legally binding the Mexican State to protect them. “The State of Mexico must continue to implement the protection measures that have already been ordered,” it warned, ordering the State to present an progress report by April 2017, as well as to continue reporting to the Court every three months.

The Government initially argued that it had “difficulties to implement the […] precautionary measure” because the IACHR had not identified the individuals at risk and that there were too many of them. The Court, however, responded that – although the Commission usually made lists – it sometimes refers to groups, which in any case should be easy to identify.

In the end, the only implemented action in the Choreachi community is the regular visits paid by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Fortunately, it has not had any attacks since Ontiveros’ murder.

A Double Murder Despite Four Warnings

Peasant leaders Jose Angel Flores and Silmer Dionisio George were murdered on October 18, 2016 in Northern Honduras. There were at least four international alerts about their risk.

Flores, President of the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguan (MUCA, in Spanish) who had denounced being victim of an attack in April 2015, was at the headquarters of the La Confianza peasant cooperative, in the Tocoa town, when a group of hooded men shot him. George, another member of the same collective who was at his side, was seriously wounded and died hours later in the hospital. Both were leaving a meeting of the Associative Enterprises of the La Confianza Settlement alongside 40 other peasants. 

The two leaders were covered by precautionary measures issued by the IACHR, which on May 8, 2014 had ordered the Honduran State to protect the members of four peasant organizations –including MUCA– who had been denouncing dozens of murders, kidnappings and threats by paramilitary groups in the fertile lands around the Aguan River.

As civil organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported, this violence is partly linked to pressure to force the sale of collective agrarian reform properties originally awarded to 84 cooperatives. This harassment began after another legal reform in 1992 that allowed land concentration and attracted African palm entrepreneurs. MUCA alone reports 17 killings between 2010 and 2013. In addition to the conflict over land and irregular sales, these peasant organizations have been denouncing that iron oxide mining near the Carlos Alfonso Escaleras National Park could contaminate the water they use for farming.

In December 2012, the then UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, warned in her report to the Human Rights Council, after visiting the country but unable to visit the area due to insecurity, that she was “gravely concerned at the situation of violence and impunity in Bajo Aguan and the deployment of military forces in the area.”

In February 2013, the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries expressed its fear, after a visit to the country, over “the involvement in human rights violations of private security companies hired by landowners, including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence against representatives of farmers’ associations.”

““The IACHR considers it most serious that the State of Honduras failed to adopt the measures necessary to protect the life and integrity of these persons”


After the assassination of Flores and George in October 2016, the Inter-American Commission severely reprimanded the Honduran government. “The IACHR considers it most serious that the State of Honduras failed to adopt the measures necessary to protect the life and integrity of these persons [and]  expresses its consternation and preoccupation given that after three working meetings in the IACHR, no adequate or effective measures are being implemented to protect the beneficiaries of precautionary measures,” it said, stressing that on October 21, 2015, it had already drawn attention to these shortcomings.

Then, on December 6, 2016, the IACHR reiterated the urgency that Honduras comply with the precautionary measures for the MUCA and extended them to cover another 14 members of the collective, the families of the two murdered leaders, their lawyers and five eyewitnesses to the events. In that document, the Court emphasized once more that “the murders occurred without either victim having adequate protection mechanisms” and that “the pattern of violence (…) continues to be active and to affect the beneficiaries’ security.”

Not Even the IACHR Is Spared by Violence

Not only does the persecution continue against many leaders and communities who sought support from the IACHR, but the body itself has come under attack.

On November 8, 2018, an IACHR team was intimidated by a group of soybean farmers while visiting the village of Açaizal, in the highlands near the city of Santarem in the Amazonian state of Para, in the Brazilian Amazonia. They had travelled there to meet with representatives of the Munduruku indigenous community who had been denouncing attacks against them for defending their ancestral lands. The delegation was led by one of the commissioners himself, former Peruvian Justice Minister Francisco Eguiguren.

A group of soybean farmers tried several times to sabotage this space designed to talk to the indigenous people “in an intimidating and threatening manner,” in the Commission’s words. Despite having police protection, the group was followed to the indigenous community by two vans. Once there, their occupants insisted on participating in the meeting, making racist and violent speeches against the attendees and writing down the license plates of the vehicles that had transported them, as denounced by the Brazilian Committee of Human Rights Defenders (CBDDH, in Portuguese). They left only after police intervention.

In 2018, an IACHR team was intimidated by soybean producers while visiting the Munduruku indigenous village of Açaizal in the Brazilian Amazon, which had reported attacks for defending its ancestral territory. Photo: IACHR

In the end, the Commission officials managed to talk to the Munduruku, without their opponents’ presence. They were also joined by representatives of the Pastoral Commission of the Land (CPT) and the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), two institutions linked to the Catholic Church that have been documenting violence against rural communities and accompanying indigenous communities in Brazil, respectively, for four decades. Both recorded the soybean farmers’ attempted sabotage.

In any case, the visitors recorded the attack in several public documents. “The IACHR wishes to go on public record that not only did it receive complaints about these practices, it was itself the direct target of harassment in the area,” they said in a statement at the end of their visit.

“The IACHR wishes to go on public record that not only did it receive complaints about these practices, it was itself the direct target of harassment in the area”


Açaizal, within the Munduruku do Planalto Santareno indigenous territory, was of interest to the Commission because the entity sought to document conflicts arising from the absence of clear demarcation of traditional indigenous and Afro-descendant territories by the Brazilian federal government. It also wanted to find evidence of the risks to leaders such as the Açaizal and their neighboring villages who claim clear boundaries for their collective lands. 

“Several non-demarcated lands (…) would be affected by invaders’ entry for the extraction of natural resources, and the presence of non-indigenous owners and alleged owners would become very common, often violent and intimidating,” the IACHR said in its 2019 report ‘Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region.’ In the same document, the commissioners emphasized that they had witnessed “the situation of conflict and violence promoted by sectors linked to agribusiness, which have historically appropriated and looted the lands and territories of traditional, native peoples, and of the rural peoples of Western Para in general.

This expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Brazilian Amazon carries another risk for the indigenous peoples, which the IACHR also documented during that visit: increased pesticides use. “The indigenous peoples of Açaizal (…) would be affected by the contamination of rivers, water tables and underground aquifers by the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals and other chemical components,” it wrote.

On that same trip of the IACHR to Brazil, another violent episode occurred. A day before the sabotage in Açaizal, another Commission team –led by Chilean commissioner Antonia Urrejola, who is also the rapporteur on indigenous peoples’ rights– faced a similar situation in a village near the border with Paraguay.

Several indigenous leaders of the Guarani-Kaiowa people were attacked that morning by local farmers carrying rubber bullet guns, the Cimi denounced. After the shooting, in which three people were injured, the farmers closed the access to the road and prevented the Guarani-Kaiowa representatives from reaching Urrejola and the IACHR in the Dourados Indigenous Reservation, in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul. In its public report, the IACHR mentions an indigenous person injured in that event. In addition to this aggression, the indigenous people denounced that the farmers spilled a toxic substance on several children and adults, which caused them diarrhea and vomit attacks.

The Guarani-Kaiowá community in the Dourados Indigenous Reserve in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul was attacked by farmers carrying rubber bullet guns on the day they met with the IACHR. Photo: Missionary Indigenous Council (Cimi).

That attack is just one episode in the difficult situation of the 18,000 Guarani-Kaiowa people in their 3,475-hectare Dourados Indigenous Reservation. They constitute Brazil’s largest indigenous population. Around the reservation, the lands have been occupied, appropriated or monopolized by landowners, who have practically confined indigenous people to a territory that is insufficient for them to live in dignity. Due to this overpopulation, in recent years many indigenous persons have occupied areas they consider a part of their ancestral territory and which used to belong to them a century ago, before the reservation was created, but that today formally belong to those farmers. These confrontations over land have grown violent because the farmers have formed militias to defend their interests, under the guise of private security companies.

In the Commission’s words, the Guarani-Kaiowa people of Dourados “is enduring ongoing violence on the part of armed militias and violations of their right to their traditional lands, and there have been complaints of indigenous mothers being separated from their children,” aggravated by the lack of ancestral lands demarcation by the Brazilian government. 

Furthermore, according to the recommendations issued by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the Brazilian State has still not adopted the urgent and necessary measures to prevent and punish violence against the Guarani-Kaiowa indigenous communities.

The confluence of these factors is the perfect breeding ground for violence against indigenous people to grow. The state of Mato Grosso do Sul has the highest number of indigenous leaders killings in 2016 and, as noted by the IACHR, the national government has failed to address the urgent measures recommended by Rapporteur Tauli-Corpuz to protect the Guarani-Kaiowa people. Between October and November 2018, the month of the IACHR’s visit, the Cimi documented at least four attacks in Dourados, which left 19 injured.

After Urrejola’s visit, the situation worsened. In July 2019, perhaps the most brutal episode to date took place. For two consecutive nights, a group of farmers attacked the Ñu Vera village, destroying huts with a modified tractor and firing rubber bullets at the villagers, Cimi confirmed. A 14-year-old indigenous man, Romildo Martins Ramires, was seriously injured. The invaders shot him 18 times and threw him into a fire. The attackers prevented the indigenous people from helping him, according to the report they filed with the Attorney General’s Office. He died five days later in hospital due to burns.

In the end, the IACHR mentioned the two communities – Açaizal and Dourados – as “urgent situations that urgently require the attention of national authorities and society such that solutions can be reached” in the public statement following its visit.

Attacks After Alerts in Honduras

In this country of just 9 million people, Land of Resistance documented 685 attacks in a decade.

Perhaps the most emblematic crime against an environmental leader in all Latin America occurred in this country: the murder of indigenous leader Berta Caceres. 

This renowned Lenca leader, who co-founded and then led the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), was murdered on March 3, 2016 by unknown persons who entered her home in La Esperanza, in the Southwest of the country.

Caceres was frequently interviewed in the media because of her opposition to the Agua Zarca hydro power plant project in the Northwest of the country. She denounced that this project could have a negative impact on the Gualcarque River, and furthermore, that the right to prior consultation of the affected indigenous communities in the area had not been respected. For this work, she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, the same one that the also murdered Mexican environmental activist, Isidro Baldenegro, had received ten years earlier.

Throughout years of environmental defense, Caceres had denounced multiple attacks against her and other Copinh members. She even reiterated her complaints at a press conference a week before her murder. During the year before her murder, the IACHR issued at least four warnings to the State of Honduras about the high risk this leader was under.

On October 21, 2015, at a meeting in Washington, the Commission reprehended government representatives for the deficiencies of the protection she was being provided with. A month and a half later, on December 8, the Commission sent a letter to the Honduran government requesting reports on these protection measures. In its ‘Human Rights Situation in Honduras’ report at the end of 2015, the IACHR again warned about the attacks against Caceres and warned that it was closely monitoring a judicial harassment against her. The leader had precautionary measures from the IACHR since June 29, 2009. 

Twelve days after Caceres’s death, another Copinh leader was killed in similar circumstances. On March 15, 2016, two unknown persons killed Nelson Noe Garcia, who had recently been accompanying several families in the Rio Chiquito community who had been evicted by the public forces. Garcia was one of the beneficiaries of the precautionary measures granted by the IACHR after Caceres’s murder to protect the leader’s family, her lawyer and the Copinh leaders.

“This and other murders of beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Commission call into question the State of Honduras’ effectiveness in implementing such measures, protecting the beneficiaries and fulfilling its international obligations,” the Commission concluded a month later.

Honduras, where Land of Resistance documented 685 attacks in a decade, has received multiple warnings from the IACHR that it is not complying with protecting leaders who receive precautionary measures because of their level of risk. Photo: Martín Cálix.

In November 2018, amidst enormous international pressure, a Honduran court condemned seven people to prison for the Caceres’s murder with sentences ranging from 30 to 50 years. The convicted persons included the environmental manager and former security manager of Desarrollo Energeticos S.A. (Desa), responsible for the hydro power plant on the Gualcarque River Caceres had opposed. A week after the trial, Jamaican jurist Margarette May Macaulay – former judge of the Inter-American Court and then president of the IACHR – urged the Honduran government in a public hearing to cancel Desa’s concession. A year later, the project was halted as a result of the international pressure and lack of support from banks, but the concession remains in force.

“This crime would not have happened if the Lenca community’s right to prior consultation had been guaranteed and if the State of Honduras had complied with the protection measures granted to us,” said Laura Zuñiga Caceres, one of Berta’s daughters. 

Another similar case is that of peasant leader Margarita Murillo, who was murdered on August 27, 2014 in the Northwest of the country.

Murillo, a social leader who presided over the Las Ventanas Peasant Production Association and was part of the Social Forum of Valle de Sula in the Cortes Department, was killed by hooded men who shot her four times while she was planting. At that time, she was working on a smallholding in the El Planon community, in the Villanueva municipality, which had been recovered by her cooperative seven years ago. They were also in the process of legalizing it. Exactly one month earlier, on July 26, she reported that her 23-year-old son had been kidnapped from her home in the Marañon community, apparently by a military group. 

In 2009, the Inter-American Commission issued a first warning about the risk faced by Murillo. In its ‘Honduras: Human Rights and the Coup d’état’ report, published after the coup that overthrew the government of President Manuel Zelaya, Murillo was included in a list of nine social and political leaders who had been “threatened with arrest warrants and were persecuted, beaten and unlawfully detained by security forces.” That risk was probably linked to her political activity, as coordinator of the National Popular Resistance Front, which emerged at that time to defend Zelaya, in the Northwest of the country.

The motives behind Murillo’s murder are perhaps more difficult to clarify, given her dual status as an agrarian and political leader. In 2013, she was even a congressional candidate of the Free Party with which Zelaya sought to return to power. Hence, after her assassination, the IACHR urged the State of Honduras to “pursue lines of investigation to establish whether Ms. Murillo’s was murdered on account of her human rights defense work.”

In any case, the Inter-American System has been warning Honduras for over a decade that its measures to protect threatened leaders are insufficient.

In 2009, the Inter-American Court ruled against the country as a result of the impunity surrounding the murder of Blanca Jeannette Kawas in 1995, who had opposed the illegal production of timber in the mangrove forests of the Punta Sal peninsula (now protected as a national park named after the environmental leader).

On the same case, the Commission warned that “the effects of the impunity in this case, and the failure to adopt measures that would avoid a repetition of the facts, has contributed to a context of impunity for the acts of violence committed against defenders of human rights, the environment and natural resources in Honduras.”

In Mexico and Colombia, Defenders also Fell

Land of Resistance shows that, sadly, this outlook is similar in other Latin American countries and that beneficiaries of the IACHR’s precautionary measures are not sufficiently protected.  

On January 12, 2015, hooded armed men came to the house of Julian Gonzalez Dominguez, leader of the Triqui indigenous community in Southern Mexico, and took him away by force. Hours later, his lifeless body was found with his hands handcuffed behind his back.

Gonzalez was a leader of the San Juan Copala community, in the state of Oaxaca, which was forced to move after repeated violent attacks by an armed group, whose incursions left at least 25 people dead and 17 wounded. The unknown persons searched for him in Juxtlahuaca, a town 235 kilometers away. Months earlier he had denounced threats because of his struggle to defend the Triqui territory, where there has been an agrarian conflict for decades and which autonomy they had stood up for.

He was one of 135 indigenous Triqui people from the San Juan Copala community to whom the IACHR granted precautionary measures on October 7, 2010, because of the risk they were running after their displacement. Another leader protected by these measures, former mayor Antonio Jacinto Lopez Martinez, had been murdered on October 17, 2011 on a street in the town of Tlaxiaco.

“The Mexican State recognizes its responsibility for the lack of full compliance with the precautionary measures”

Roberto Campa

Four years after his murder, the government apologized to Lopez’s family and acknowledged that it had not complied with the IACHR’s message. “The Mexican State recognizes its responsibility for the lack of full compliance with the precautionary measures,” said Roberto Campa, then-deputy secretary for human rights. “The obligation to train public officials responsible for the adoption of protection measures issued by some national or international human rights mechanism is pointed out.”

In other cases, the security situation remains very precarious. 

One example is the Siona indigenous people who live in the Buenavista and Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservations, on the Putumayo River at the entrance to the Colombian Amazon.

On July 14, 2018, the IACHR granted them precautionary measures after confirming the risks faced by this indigenous people, declared as one of the 34 “in danger of being exterminated – culturally or physically – by the internal armed conflict” of Colombia in a famous sentence of the Constitutional Court in 2009. 

The Siona Indians from two resguardos in Putumayo, in the Colombian Amazon, received precautionary measures from the IACHR in 2018, but attacks have been recorded very close to their territory and the situation remains precarious. Photo: César Rojas.

The inhabitants of the two reservations denounced that, throughout 2017 –one year after the signing of the Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC guerrilla group– pamphlets were delivered ordering them to oppose the substitution of coca crops, restricting mobility with timetables and threatening their leaders. Then, in February 2018, they reported that unknown persons had summoned the Siona authorities and their indigenous guard to a meeting in order to – in their words – “let them know that they are the new territorial control force.” Due to the risk of confinement, the IACHR requested that the Colombian State adopt measures to protect them and remove the antipersonnel mines located in Buenavista.

The following year, however, security conditions in the two reservations remained precarious, as documented in the report by Cesar Rojas to Land of Resistance. On September 26, 2019, the Ombudsman’s Office –in charge of monitoring the humanitarian situation in the country– issued an early warning about the risk situation in the entire district jurisdiction where, among other indigenous and non-indigenous communities, the Piñuña Blanco reservation is located.

He documented eight violent episodes between July and September. In one of them, on July 28, unknown armed men who identified themselves as the FARC –despite the fact that this group disarmed– arrived in the Pueblo Bello township and told the community that they planned to stay. That afternoon, in a neighboring township, they confronted the so-called ‘Mafia’, another criminal group made up in part of former paramilitaries. A farmer was wounded, after which classes were suspended for five days and the villagers hid in the school and health center, which are the only concrete structures in the hamlet.

“The recommendation is not to go there until the situation gets better”

Amanda Camilo

Today, the reservation remains inaccessible, even to public officials who work with the most threatened people. “The recommendation is not to go there until the situation gets better,” says Amanda Camilo, a respected leader of victims who works as regional coordinator of the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth that was set up in the Peace Agreement. Camilo, who works in Puerto Asis, has not been able to travel with her team to the Piñuña Blanco reservation to interview villagers and document what happened to the Siona.

The IACHR is Indeed Timely

Although the Inter-American System does not have the capacity to force States to protect leaders, in many cases it reacts with swiftness and a sense of urgency.

Thus, for example, in Kumarakapay –also called San Francisco de Yuruan– in the Venezuelan Amazon, the Pemon indigenous people requested protection from the IACHR on February 25, 2019, three days after a military attack that caused the death of three community members, as Land of Resistance told.

This happened at a time when the Venezuelan opposition, led by interim President Juan Guaido and the National Assembly, organized an operation to bring humanitarian aid into the country from Colombia, Brazil and several Caribbean islands. As documented in the report by Lisseth Boon and Lorena Melendez, the indigenous people of Kumarakapay were anxiously awaiting the arrival of medical supplies, medicine and food in their community on the outskirts of Canaima National Park and near the border with Brazil, so they prevented the passage of four military convoys that were attempting to prevent the entry of aid by order of Nicolas Maduro’s administration.

The army troops’ response was to shoot them with their rifles, killing three people and wounding another fourteen. Some still have bullets lodged inside their bodies, others were left with motor disabilities or paraplegic. The persecution continued that same night, with illegal raids. Fearful, the indigenous people took refuge in the mountains and locked themselves in their homes for days, unable to move even to their smallholdings to look for food. At least 80 residents of Kumarakapay fled to Brazil in the face of military harassment.

Far from acknowledging the death of three Pemons, the government denied the involvement of the Bolivarian National Guard and the Army in the attack on Kumarakapay. Diosdado Cabello, president of the ruling party, called it a “false positive” and accused the opposing Voluntad Popular party and one of its congressman –Americo de Grazia, who often denounced irregularities in the mining extraction at the Orinoco Mining Arc and military abuses against the population in the state of Bolivar – of the massacre. 

The IACHR responded three days later, granting them precautionary measures upon determining that they face a “serious, urgent risk.” To remedy this situation, it requested that the Venezuelan State guarantee the security of the Pemon people, provide medical assistance to the injured, ensure that State agents do not make disproportionate use of force, and prevent third parties –such as the so-called Chavista ‘collectives’– from generating other risk situations.

Although the Inter-American System does not have the capacity to force states to protect leaders, in cases such as Lisa Henrito and the Pemón indigenous people of the Venezuelan Amazon it has reacted with speed and a sense of urgency. Photo: Lorena Meléndez.

So, how do we protect environmental leaders?

This painful report raises questions about the effectiveness of the protection measures issued by national entities and the Inter-American System, as well as the countries’ commitment to implement them. When even the greatest international pressure does not lead a State to shelter its environmental leaders, then how can violence against them be prevented? 

Is the problem that these States do not have the capacity to do so, overtaken by mafias, drug dealers or other criminal interests? Are they corrupted or co-opted by commercial interests that want to appropriate the land for agribusiness, natural resource extraction, infrastructure projects or illicit economies? Do they not understand that these leaders, in fighting for their territories, are often protecting ecosystems that provide fundamental services, from water supply to air quality, to the rest of the society? Do they not clearly see that these leaders are often better guardians than the military or police?

Affirmative answers to these questions partially explain why Latin American States do not make the necessary effort to effectively protect these citizens who contribute so much to the common good.

No matter how active it is, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), created sixty years ago, has its limits. It is not mandatory for countries to comply with its precautionary measures. As a political body of the Inter-American System, in a strict sense, its recommendations are not binding under international law, although States should follow them by virtue of the principle of good faith.

They only become legal obligations when the Commission transfers the case to the Inter-American Court (created twenty years after the Commission) and the Court turns them into provisional measures, as happened in the case of the Raramuri community in Choreachi, Mexico. In that case, they are equal to judicial orders which, if not complied with, can result in international liability for the country.

However, the IACHR’s precautionary measures do have an inward effect on countries. Latin American States are bound by their constitutions to guarantee the protection of their citizens’ human rights and, at the same time, to take measures to prevent their violation. This duty is two-fold – or reinforced, speaking in legal language – for some specific groups, as is the case with the detained population who is held in state custody. In such cases, if something happens to a person, the burden of proof is reversed and it is up to the State to prove that it was not responsible. This category precisely includes those who receive precautionary measures from the OAS, which are not lifted until the countries prove that the risk situation has been overcome.

Despite the possibility of being condemned by the Court, States – as we can see – sometimes fail to protect victims adequately, or to capture perpetrators. However, one political fact could improve the situation: the entry into force of the Escazu Agreement. 

A new measure to protect environmental defenders is the Escazú Agreement, which was negotiated by Latin American countries within the framework of the UN system and would force them to take more robust measures to care for them. Photo: César Rojas.

This unprecedented regional treaty, which was negotiated in the Costa Rican city of Escazu, sponsored by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), aims to improve access to public information, citizen participation and justice in environmental issues in the region. One of its main objectives is to prevent, investigate and punish all attacks against environmental defenders. It is the first international treaty that provides for measures to specifically protect these defenders.

Since the opening for signature in September 2018 at the UN General Assembly, 22 Latin American and Caribbean countries have signed it and only the ratification of three more countries is needed for it to come into force.

Although it does not establish specific measures, but leaves it up to each country to define them, the validity of this treaty opens a window of opportunity for dialogue for many communities and grassroot organizations.

“The peoples’ opinions and visions are at the core of the Escazu Agreeement. This can open the debate on what are the most appropriate and effective measures, because the reality is that States often do not consider or support the self-protection measures of the communities and design others that do not meet the characteristics of their territories and are therefore ineffective,” says Lina Muñoz Avila, an environmental lawyer and professor at the University of Rosario who was present during the negotiation of the agreement.

“If you have better participation standards, communities and leaders will be able to participate in the design of those measures,” she explains. So much so that social organizations and communities were key in convincing Colombian President Ivan Duque to sign the Escazu Agreement last December, reversing his initial opposition to the treaty.

Whether that opportunity becomes a reality and –whether Latin America will cease to be the most dangerous region in the world for environmental defenders– will depend on those leaders and communities no longer being seen as opponents to economic development but as guardians of a collective heritage.

  • This story was inspired by the information in the Land of Resistance database, built by more than 20 journalists from ten countries, and benefitted from reporting by Juliana Mori in Brazil, Oscar Agudelo and Cesar Rojas in Colombia, Vienna Hernandez in Honduras, Thelma Gomez Duran and Patricia Mayorga in Mexico, and Lisseth Boon and Lorena Melendez in Venezuela.
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