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COVID-19 crisis: Attacks on environmental defenders continue in Latin America

Communities protect ecosystems that provide fundamental services and prevent the transmission of zoonotic viruses. Español Português

Andrés Bermúdez Liévano
29 April 2020
The struggle of environmental leaders like Isaac Herrera, who was murdered this year in Mexico, to prevent the degradation of ecosystems takes on new relevance in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
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Courtesy of Mónica Romero García

“Violence has not been quarantined”. That phrase, repeated by social and environmental leaders in Colombia, is sadly true in many Latin American countries.

At least five defenders of the environment have been killed in different Latin American countries since March 11, the date the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

This figure shows how, in addition to communities’ concerns about the possible advent of COVID-19 in rural regions with precarious medical services and limited state presence, the violence continues. This despite the fact that one key way to reduce the transmission of many infectious diseases is precisely to preserve the ecosystems these leaders care for and defend, according to several scientists.

Killings continue in Mexico

Adán Vez Lira had spent two decades caring for the La Mancha wetlands and mangroves, a small coastal community that looks out over the Gulf of Mexico, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, as environmental news site Mongabay Latam noted. On the morning of April 8, he was riding his motorcycle along a country road in the municipality of Actopan when unknown assailants shot him dead.

La Mancha, the ecosystem to which Adán dedicated his life, and the neighbouring lagoon complex of El Llano, cover 1,414 hectares of wetlands protected by the Ramsar international treaty. Due to its ecological importance, the La Mancha Coastal Research Centre (Cicolma) of the Institute of Ecology (Inecol) set up there. Vez collaborated with the Centre through the cooperative La Mancha in Movement, which he helped found two decades ago.

At least five defenders of the environment have been killed in different Latin American countries since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared

From that cooperative, Vez managed resources for mangrove conservation, organised environmental education workshops in the area's schools and promoted ecotourism as a sustainable economic activity. He was also an enthusiastic promoter of the La Mancha Bird Festival, which attracts hundreds of tourists every year to observe the shorebirds and waterfowl that come to this great bottleneck and enormously wide passage on birds’ migration route. “It is the most important bird of prey corridor in the world!” Vez used to boast.

It is not the only attack in the last month in Mexico. On March 23, two gunmen killed attorney Isaac Medardo Herrera Avilés at his home in Jiutepec, in the state of Morelos.

Herrera, a former ejido (communal) leader who later became an attorney, litigated on various issues of environmental interest, as Mongabay Latam wrote. One of them was the defence of the Los Venados property, a 56,000 square metre forest in the middle of Jiutepec, where the then municipal president authorised a project for the construction of 400 homes and the felling of more than half its 3,000 trees.

Indigenous people under siege

On March 31, Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara was murdered. He was a respected leader of the Guajajara people who lived in the indigenous territory of Araribóia in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Maranhão.

Zezico was returning to his village of Zutiwa on a motorcycle when unknown assailants armed with a shotgun attacked him, the Amazônia Real website reported. Although there is no further information on the perpetrators, suspicions fall on illegal loggers who had previously threatened him, according to the NGO Amazon Watch, which operates in the region.

49 indigenous Guajajara have been killed in the Amazonian state of Maranhão since 2000

Zezico, who is the fifth indigenous Guajajara killed in five months and had recently been elected coordinator of the Commission of Indigenous Chiefs and Leaders of the Indigenous Territory of Araribóia (Cocalitia), was one of the historic promoters of the Guardians of the Forest, a group of 120 indigenous volunteers who protect the territory from illegal logging and trade. He is also known for protecting the Awá-guajá people, who live in voluntary isolation within the same Araribóia territory.

Data from the Pastoral Land Commission indicates that Maranhão state leads national rankings in terms of rural conflicts, with 2,539 cases between 1990 and 2018. As for the Guajajara, 49 have been killed in Maranhão since 2000. None of these crimes has been solved.

Things are equally complex in Colombia. On March 23, Omar and Ernesto Guasiruma Nacabera, two Emberá indigenous people from the community of Buenavista in the department of Valle del Cauca, were murdered. That night, unknown assailants arrived at their home in rural Bolivar municipality and invited them to a supposedly urgent meeting, Mongabay Latam reported. They were shot 20 metres from the door and the assailants fled, leaving two other family members seriously injured.

Our growing global appetite will stoke populations of the very species best designed to kill us with new viruses

Since 2013, another indigenous people, the Emberá of the Pichicora Chicué Punto Alegre-Rio Chicué Reserve on the Colombian Pacific coast, have been caught in the crossfire between two armed groups. One of these, guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN), theoretically decreed a ceasefire throughout April, but its armed confrontation with the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC) has trapped indigenous people living in the municipality of Bojayá, Chocó department. The Emberá reported 10 grenade explosions but are prevented from taking refuge in other towns.

COVID-19 highlights importance of environmental defenders

That attacks continue in the midst of the spread of COVID-19 serves to further underscore the role that environmental degradation may have played in its transmission and emphasises the importance of environmental defenders.

Though there is still much unknown about how this new coronavirus became a pandemic and generated an equally widespread economic recession, there are several indications that the accelerated loss of ecosystems is an overwhelming factor.

Many scientists are pointing to a link between habitat transformation and biodiversity loss, caused by road construction, mining or the expansion of the agricultural frontier to produce food. They are note the proliferation of species that can spread zoonotic viruses to humans.

“Scientists warn us that deforestation, industrial agriculture, the illegal wildlife trade, climate change and other types of environmental degradation increase the risk of future pandemics, raising the probability of major human rights violations,” David R. Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Environment and a specialist in natural resource management, cautioned in April.

Evidence suggests that biodiversity loss often increases the transmission of pathogens and that reducing the prevalence of infectious diseases is a service that more biodiverse ecosystems provide, according to a study published in 2010 in the journal Nature.

“More broadly, biodiversity itself seems to protect organisms, including humans, from transmission of infectious diseases in many cases. Preserving biodiversity in these cases, and perhaps generally, may reduce the incidence of established pathogens,” concluded the team led by Felicia Keesing, a Bard College ecologist specialising in infectious diseases.

This loss of biodiversity is strongly linked to deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems to expand herds of cattle or industrial crops like soybeans or oil palms, which are some of the raw materials that Latin American countries have oriented their exports towards.

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Beef production is linked to deforestation in the Amazon but traceability is poor in the supply chains | Fábio Nascimento / Infoamazonia

For example, in Brazil’s northern region, which encompasses the Amazon states, numbers of cattle recorded in a national census grew by 22% in a decade, compared to a 4% average for the rest of the country, according to an investigation by journalist Gustavo Faleiros for Infoamazonia and Diálogo Chino.

Part of this rapid growth in livestock farming is explained by the sector becoming a powerful driver of deforestation. A report by the watchdog Trase, a consortium of researchers studying the environmental impact of commodities, showed that beef exports generate 65,000 to 75,000 hectares of deforestation per year in Brazil. Of that total, 22,000 hectares were attributed to exports to China, the leading buyer of Brazilian meat.

The change in land use and fragmentation of ecosystems, caused by the replacement of forests and other vegetation with extensive crops, creates opportunities for the transmission of malaria and other diseases caused by zoonotic parasites, another study from 2000 by four researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health found.

“Our growing global appetite will stoke populations of the very species best designed to kill us with new viruses,” Georgina Gustin pointedly stated in a report on the InsideClimate News website.

In one of the world's most biodiverse regions, where biodiversity loss is as great a challenge as the effects of climate change, defenders of the environment are an invaluable asset.

They are commonly seen by some sectors as opponents of economic development, when in reality these leaders and communities are protecting ecosystems that already provide societies with fundamental services, from water provision to air quality. The possible prevention of transmission of zoonotic viruses could be added to that list, according to Keesing.

Environmental defenders are often better guardians of this collective heritage than governments themselves, the military or the police.

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This story, originally published by China Dialogue, was produced as part of ‘Land of Resistance’, an investigative journalism project focusing on violence against environmental defenders in Latin America. It includes reporting by Antonio Paz, Carmen García Bermejo and Rodrigo Soberanes of Mongabay Latam and Gustavo Faleiros and Aldem Bourscheit of Infoamazonia.

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