Guatemalan Environmental Defenders on the Front Line of a Global Struggle

Last month the killing of Honduran activist and winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize Berta Cáceres caused international outcry. Her highly publicised murder has called global attention to the many risks front line environmental defenders face every day, not only in Honduras but in other countries across the region.

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Walter Méndez Barrios. Photo: Defensores de la Naturaleza.

Just over one month ago, Guatemalan environmental and land rights defender Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios was murdered outside his home in Las Cruces in the department of Petén.

Méndez Barrios, who had been fighting to protect the natural resources in communities of the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Reserva de la Biósfera Maya),  was gunned down on March 16.

Prior to his murder, the 36-year-old father of six had recently visited the controversial Tenosique hydroelectric dam, formerly known as Boca del Cerro, on the Usumacinta River which borders Mexico and Guatemala.  The dedicated activist had also been raising awareness about the environmental impact of palm oil production in Guatemala and its destruction of the Petén Rainforest.

Méndez Barrios’ murder came just over six months after the killing of 28-year-old Rigoberto Lima Choc, an indigenous environmental defender also working in Petén.

Lima Choc had been documenting environmental damage in the Pasíon River caused by a Spanish African palm oil factory, Empresa Reforestadora de Palma de Petén SA (RESPA). The communities have accused REPSA of polluting the river, contending that they are now unable to use it for drinking water and fishing.

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Rigoberto Lima Choc. Photo: Front Line Defenders.

Lima Choc was the first person to document the damage to the river and the impact on the communities. He had also acted as a witness in a case against the company.  On September 18, 2015, he was shot and killed outside the Courthouse of Peace in the city of Sayaxché, Petén, just one day after the court ordered RESPA to close its operations due to its contamination of the river. On the same day, three environmental defenders fighting to protect the river were kidnapped and later released.

A report by Global Witness on the threats environmental defender face worldwide found that nearly three-quarters of the deaths it obtained information on were in Central and South America.

Based on information collected by Global Witness, the report found that 27 environmental defenders were murdered in Guatemala between 2002 and 2014.  The global report also found that 40% of the victims were indigenous and that the deaths were mostly attributed to conflicts over hydroelectric dams, agri-business and mining.

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Screenshot of a Global Witness infographic on global killings of environmental defenders.

See Global Witness’ infographic in full here.

To date, no one has been charged in relation to the murders of Lima Choc and Méndez Barrios. To take action and speak out against the violence being committed against Guatemala’s environmental and human rights defenders, please see the following links:

www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/action/take-action-walter-mendez-barrios

www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/profile/rigoberto-lima-choc

 

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Categories: Culture, Environment, Guatemala, Human Rights, Indigenous peoples, Mining, Resource Extraction, Solidarity in Action/Guatemala

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