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Dying in defense of Mother Earth
John Ross
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Environmental activists not the only ones who face violence and human rights violations for defending their lands.

Much of Mexico’s forestland is owned by 500 mostly-indigenous ejidos — shared community land — but indigenous ownership does not guarantee that the forests will be defended and conserved.

Mexico’s lush forestland covers a quarter of its national territory and accounts for 1.3 percent of the world’s forest resources, but this land is becoming increasingly littered with the corpses of dead forest defenders.

Mexican forests are a violent battleground between drug gangs clearing land for illicit cultivation, guerilla groups encamped under the canopy, heavily-armed wood poachers who steal 2,000,000 board feet of timber each year, and those who seek to defend the trees.

In recent years, Mexico’s forests have become a killing floor every bit as lethal as Brazil where such environmental martyrs as Chico Méndez, Sister Dorothy Stang (LP, March 9, 2005) and young Dionicio Ribieras were allegedly by the pistoleros of ruthless landowners.

The list of the dead is horrific. In the state of Mexico, 30 forest inspectors, a third of the state force, have been murdered since 1991 according to a count kept by Héctor Magallanes, Greenpeace Mexico forest action coordinator.

While many ejidos zealously protect their forests which are held in common and represent the communities’ most valued resource, other indigenous groups such as the Lacandon, who occupy the forest of the same name lease out their timber rights to millions of meters of precious mahogany and cedar, stands to corporate loggers.

On the other side of the ledger, Zapatista Mayan indigenous rebels who share the rain forest with the Lacandones, enforce timber cutting strictures in their communities and set up roadblocks at key chokepoints in the jungle and the surrounding canyons to keep the wood poachers from moving their loads to clandestine sawmills in the municipality of Ocosingo. Clashes at the roadblocks have resulted in casualties on both sides.

“The earth is our mother,” explained Omar, a Zapatista forest defender on the Ejido Morelia, a recent forum in the Lacandon jungle. “We are prepared to die to defend her.”

Other crimes
Not all forest defenders are murdered outright; some are persecuted and jailed on absurd charges. In June, Chiapas activist Jaime González was jailed by local police for a traffic offense and disappeared for 15 days during which he says he was relentlessly tortured. González remains in state prison.

The campesinos ecologistas, or campesino ecologists, of the Petatlan sierra above Guerrero’s Costa Grande organized to combat uncontrolled clear-cutting by the US timber giant Boise Cascade. Boise moved to Mexico in 1995 after having timber permits to log in US national forests cancelled under environmental pressure.

A blockade of mountain roads eventually cut off Boise’s access to its wood supply and the transnational moved its operations to greener pastures in southern Chile. But caciques (rural bosses) who had cut lucrative deals with the transnational to sell off the forests grew disgruntled and at least five villagers were killed by their gunmen.

Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera who had been prominent organizers of the blockade were detained in 1999 by the army and tortured for days by the soldiers. Later, they were charged with possession of marijuana and automatic weapons and thrown into the Guerrero state prison in Iguala where they languished for two years.

Montiel and Cabrera were designated as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International in 2000, while still in prison; they were awarded the Goldman Prize, sometimes described as an environmental Nobel. Freed in 2001 by then-President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) because of their poor health as the result of the alleged beatings by the military, Montiel and Cabrera, afraid to move their families back to the forests of Petatlan, took up residence at the other end of the country in the Yucatan.

They had good reason to be fearful. Their lawyer Digna Ochoa died mysteriously in Mexico City in 2001. In 2005, a fellow campesino ecologist, Albertano Peñaloza, watched his two sons be killed in an ambush in the Sierra of Petatlan.

A nationwide practice
The persecution of forest defenders is not confined to southern Mexico. Isidro Baldenegro, a Raramuri Indian defender of the diminishing pine forests of Chihuahua state’s Tarahumara sierra from “chabochi” (non-indigenous) loggers, and young Hermenegildo Rivas, were taken into custody on their ejido in 2003 after state police broke into their home without a warrant and charged them with the usual guns and marijuana violations, the same charges lodged against the campesino ecologists.

The two were beaten unmercifully and locked up for 18 months before international environmental groups intervened. Once again, AI declared them prisoners of conscience and they too were awarded the Goldman prize.

But those who defend Mexican forests from predatory wood poaching are not the only defenders of the environment to be killed or jailed for their efforts. In December 2003, Navy officer Andres Espino was murdered by turtle egg poachers while providing protection for endangered Pacific Coast sea turtles on a Michoacan beach — a second sailor was wounded.

The Mexican Navy has been active in defense of these diminishing species. But when the Cucapa indigenous group in the Baja California desert try to fish the Sea of Cortez for their sacred corvina — a white fish — they were reportedly removed at gunpoint by sailors assigned to this protected area.

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