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What is the cost of environmental peace?

By: Carmen Isabel Rodríguez Rodríguez

The growing demand for hydrocarbons, exploration and exploitation activities for both gas and other minerals promoted in the last 20 years in territories inhabited by indigenous communities is not only a problem that has occurred in our country but in all Latin America.

The absence of States as guarantors of rights and the corruption of governments due to economic interests have caused a regional trend of constant social conflict that has left indigenous communities in a state of vulnerability, especially the group of environmental defenders. These people are known for providing information to the civil society, therefore the need to acknowledge their right to participate and access information as their fundamental pillars. These communities are organized to fight for their rights and environmental justice, as they are the ones facing the direct impacts of the extractive industry which includes water, air and soil pollution, as well as forced relocation, corruption, prostitution and alcoholism.

Indigenous women and the violation of their fundamental rights

The mineral extraction boom that brought prosperity to a part of the country has been a curse for indigenous women, victims of this exploitation, who remain poor, isolated, exposed to disease and family violence.

For example, in the Machiguenga community the situation has drastically changed the lives of women because in Camisea the new productive relationships brought about by extractive activities have also influenced gender relations. Men no longer hunt, fish, or engage in agriculture, instead, they work in activities related to neighboring projects or infrastructure works, causing women to be displaced from their traditional routines, such as cultivation in the fields. In other extremes of the country, environmental impacts and water pollution are wreaking even greater havoc as they further undermine indigenous communities and their economy, thus reminding the vulnerability of families, mainly indigenous women, who are responsible for food and household management in the communities.

According to the anthropologist Willie Guevara (2016) in the Amazonian tradition, women have a hegemonic role, but when the extractive industry is installed in a certain area, resource management is altered, men's job performance is prioritized and the role of women is destroyed, calling these impacts: "irremediable subjective liabilities."

Leading for the environment

Despite the situation in these indigenous communities, there are women who have stood up and raised their voices to demand their rights. Women who are weaving, with their lives, the foundations of a more just and egalitarian society. However, as environmental defenders they suffer the violation of their fundamental rights as a consequence of the existence of a previous environmental degradation. Most of the cases, therefore, are related to the environmental degradation of the habitat of indigenous and poor communities. Environmental defenders are not always "activists" or members of organizations in defense of the environment, but very often they are simply people who are faced with important decisions that affect their surroundings, or belong to indigenous communities whose traditional use of their land is being threatened. In this sense, the defenselessness of the victims of environmental degradation as victims of human rights violations means that it is mainly environmental defenders who try to defend the most vulnerable groups.

One of the most frequent problems is that the authorities prosecute the defenders, assigning them unjustified civil and criminal charges, with the intention of stopping the social protest and so that the environmental movement focuses on the release of its leaders. Thus, women environmental defenders find themselves in a particular situation of double vulnerability: on one hand, the interests of the State itself and the powerful economic groups, and on the other, the violation of their families’ rights.

The severity of the situation of people and non-governmental organizations in the world given the above and the increasing level of reprisals taken against human rights defenders were one of the main reasons why “The Declaration on human rights defenders” was approved, and by which the UN General Assembly decided to establish the mandate of an expert on human rights defenders in order to inform the United Nations Council on Human Rights about this issue.

The mandate on the situation of human rights defenders was created in 2000 by the Commission on Human Rights to support the implementation of the 1998 Declaration. The mandate also includes a gender perspective in its work, and raises awareness about the situation of defenders who are most at risk and about the violations committed against them. Since the creation of this mandate, the Rapporteurship has received a large number of communications, related to alleged violations against human rights defenders and activists working on environmental and land-related issues. According to the rapporteur's report, these women actively participated in negotiations with local communities to resolve land conflicts (900 women in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and India) and denounce land appropriations (China), seek redress for indigenous peoples (India, Nepal, Peru), protest against the creation of a residential and recreational complex (Mexico), shoot a documentary on the damaging effects of oil production (Nigeria), campaigning for water rights and against the construction of a dam (India), and oppose mining projects (Peru).

Change in State’s logic

Almost a year and a half have passed since the approval of the "Protocol to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders" of the Peruvian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, a document that focuses on the protection of this group of citizens through actions, elaboration of procedures and articulation measures.

For the specialist of the Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples program of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), Katherine Sánchez (2020), although the Executive power has generated norms that value and seek to protect the work carried out by human rights defenders, among them, the environmental defenders, the effective execution of these measures has encountered various structural problems.

Sánchez explained that one of the main structural problems is the lack of knowledge the society has about the work that these people do for our benefit, which facilitates their stigmatization, this is how environmental defenders are classified as "anti-development" or “radical” to delegitimize their struggle, in an internalized behavior even in public servicemen, which places defenders in a disadvantage position when they need the authorities.

Despite this reality, there are non-profit organizations that focus their mission on protecting the rights of environmental defenders such as Protection International, Front Line Defenders and International Environmental Defenders Network, however, they do not have the support of the authorities and are stigmatized by society.

Criminalization and violence against environmental defenders have increased during the pandemic. Yet at the same time, the governments of Latin America look the other way and enact laws that give extractive companies free rein to act, marking a trend towards a decline in the governance of common goods and an increase in the insecurity of human rights defenders. In this context, they continue to fight, denounce, articulate and resist: “fighting for territory is fighting for life”.



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