To the left is Don Cuny, a lifelong activist of the American Indian Movement and Lakota tribal member. To the right is a young water protector headed to the frontlines of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota in 2016. Standing Rock's major victory has been to turn the world's attention to the story of Indigenous rights.

Protesting Through a Pandemic

Not all environmental defenders get to receive an award. Instead, many others receive threats and violence, which have heightened under the COVID-19 pandemic. This edition of The Frontline explores the ways the virus is threatening environmental defenders around Latin America.

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

PHOTOGRAPHS BY Kiliii Yüyan

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Not all environmental defenders get to receive a Goldman Prize or the international recognition that comes with it. Many remain largely unknown to the public despite how crucial their work is in protecting some of the world’s most extraordinary ecosystems. Their work has now become even more difficult—and dangerous—under the conditions leaders have created in response to COVID-19. 

 

In some countries, organizers have paused mobilizations due to social restrictions. In others, the police are quick to criminalize protestors while letting attackers go unpunished. Activists are thrown into prisons where they are put at higher risk of virus exposure. The violence these warriors face has only grown more urgent as authorities prioritize the pandemic, giving offenders an excuse to retaliate against environmentalists, especially those who are Indigenous. 

 

“Indigenous peoples experience a high degree of socio-economic marginalization and are at disproportionate risk in public health emergencies,” says Chris Madden, senior campaigner at Global Witness, a human rights group that tracks violence against environmentalists. “They have become even more vulnerable during this global pandemic, in part, because of factors like the lack of access to effective monitoring and early-warning systems and adequate health and social services.”

 

Welcome to The Frontline, your reminder that the ecological crises we face disproportionately harm frontline communities in the Global South. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. We explored the Goldman Prize and its winners this week, but I wanted to end on a less celebratory note. The pandemic is complicating the type of work this award applauds—and it’s increasing the risk for grassroots activists who are simply looking to protect the health and well-being of their community. The impacts vary by country, but they all have one thing in common: a blatant disregard for the planet and its fiercest defenders.

 

 

Chile

 

The people of Putaendo are trying to make the city the first mining-free territory in Chile. The pandemic has, well, complicated those efforts.

 

Canadian company Minera Vizcachitas is proposing a four-year project to mine copper and molybdenum in the region, but locals don’t want it. The Putaendo River runs through the city, connecting upstream to the Rocin River, which runs through the mountains. Community members want to protect these invaluable water resources instead of endangering them with the waste that accompanies extractive development projects.

 

Instead of delaying the approval process, the government has scheduled public hearings despite the pandemic’s limitations on what these meetings look like. Some are held online, which automatically excludes anyone without internet access. Those held in-person have strict caps on the number of attendees. 

 

Sara Gómez-Honores, the president of the city’s sanitation service, managed to attend a meeting on the project last week where she asked a simple question: What’s the protocol should an emergency or incident occur? Company representatives were unable to respond.

 

“We need serious protocols in place to make sure they’re prepared,” Gómez-Honores tells me in Spanish. “The environmental damage they can cause is tremendous. I don’t know how they imagine they won’t cause any harm. That’s what they say, that the project won’t hurt the environment or the people. I don’t know if such a perfect company exists.”

 

She’s worried about how the pandemic is affecting the decision making around projects like these. Her job is to give city residents safe and clean water to enjoy. Gómez-Honores doesn’t have any faith that the company (or the officials who are supposed to be regulating it) are at all worried about her community.

 

“We don’t want to become another sacrifice zone,” she says. “The government doesn’t produce the water. Nature does. And that’s what I value: nature.”

 

This report from Mining Watch Canada includes more details on how the mining industry is taking advantage of the pandemic.

“People aren’t scared of the virus. They’re scared of repression in communities and the government.”

LEIRIA VAY
CODECA, Guatemala

Guatemala

 

In Guatemala, the situation has been tough for years, says Leiria Vay, an organizer with the human rights group Committee of Rural Development, or CODECA. Keeping Indigenous territories safe was a struggle before the pandemic blew everything up. 

 

“People aren’t scared of the virus,” Vay tells me in Spanish. “They’re scared of repression in communities and the government.”

 

With the pandemic, agricultural workers have had their salaries cut. Public transportation has suffered, making it difficult for rural advocates to go to the city to voice concerns. Like the situation in Chile, organizing protests became damn near impossible although companies were free to carry on with business as usual. Where Vay lives on the country’s southern coasts, banana, sugar, and palm oil plantations are common. Workers rarely wear protective equipment like face masks, and they don’t always get paid. 

 

Her fight is for the land—but it’s also for her people. Those in the agricultural sector deserve their wages, and advocates shouldn’t be attacked. Guatemala’s number of attacks on environmental defenders has doubled this year compared to last, Global Witness told me. 

 

Vay has already lost three of her CODECA colleagues to violence this year. She’s scared about this spike but also about the criminalization of her peers. In Guatemala, many have been demanding the resignation of the president in protest of next year’s approved budget, which cut funding for human rights agencies, healthcare, and education, reports Al Jazeera. Police have responded violently, arresting some 30 protesters last week.

 

If you want to learn about the pandemic’s impact outside Guatemala, this blog post from Global Witness might be helpful.

 

Colombia

 

In 2019, Colombia saw the highest number of environmental defenders killed. It’s a country still waiting for some results from the 2016 peace accord between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian state. Social justice leaders—especially those who are Indigenous or Afro-Colombian—continue to be killed. 

 

COVID-19 has appeared to accelerate the violence these individuals face. From March 6 to Nov. 21, 180 leaders have been killed, says Cristian Llanos, an investigator with the Center of Investigation and Popular Education (CINEP), a human rights research organization in Colombia. He and his colleagues haven’t been able to visit villages to verify deaths the way they previously would, so they imagine that the number is actually much higher. 

 

These armed groups are often involved in drug trafficking. Indigenous communities that may sit next to their rural or isolated routes are at increased risk—especially now. When government authorities try to smoke these groups out of where they’re hiding with tear gas or chemical weapons, they risk contaminating the natural resources that nearby communities rely on, too.

 

“It’s about human rights,” Llanos tells me in Spanish. “Leaders are defending their territories and lives, especially in the middle of a pandemic. The armed groups haven’t given up. Instead, they’ve declared war.”

 

Read more about the crisis in Colombia on Vice here.

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