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Murders of defenders of nature and indigenous territories persist

30 November, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

On November 26, 2023, Higinio Trinidad de la Cruz, an indigenous leader and recognized environmental defender in Mexico, was found lifeless with a gunshot wound.

Higinio, from the indigenous community of Ayotitlán, was registered with the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.

Trinidad de la Cruz, who faced multiple threats for his activities, fought against illegal logging and mining, advocated for sustainable development projects, and exposed land dispossession in the Sierra de Manantlán.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico condemned the activist’s murder via Red X, stating:

“We condemn the murder of #humanrights defender Higinio Trinidad de la Cruz, on November 24, 2023, in Cuautitlán de García Barragán, #Jalisco. The indigenous defender had faced previous incidents and was a beneficiary of protection measures.”

This is yet another death in a long list of indigenous and non-indigenous individuals persecuted, criminalized, and, as in Higinio’s case, murdered for defending their lands, territories, and natural resources, or simply opposing environmental destruction.

The non-governmental organization Global Witness, based in London, presented its report “Standing Firm: The Land and Environmental Defenders on the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis” [1] in September 2023. The report outlines assaults against human rights defenders worldwide, focusing on land and environmental defenders in this recent document.

Since 2012, GW has recorded 1,910 murders, with 70% (1,335 murders) occurring in Latin America. Of these 1,910 murders, 1,390 took place between the approval of the Paris Agreement on December 12, 2015, and December 31, 2022.

The figures presented in the report offer only a partial picture of the magnitude of aggressions and murders against defenders of lands, territories, and the environment in 2022. Cases were identified in only 18 countries in 2022, but there are numerous reasons to believe that such situations occur in many other places.

On average, one defender was killed every two days in 2022, similar to the figure recorded in 2021.

The exacerbating climate crisis and rising demand for agricultural products, fuels, and minerals heighten the pressure on the environment—and on those risking their lives to protect it.

The situation remains particularly severe in Latin America, where 88% of the documented murders out of a total of 177 occurred. Eleven of the eighteen documented countries are in this region.

The report includes the names of 31 defenders murdered in Mexico during 2022. However, Honduras, with 14 murders, has the highest per capita average in the world.

One such incident occurred in Vallecito, Colón, in the early hours of September 19, 2023, where armed individuals attacked Miriam Miranda, general coordinator of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH).

The Working Group CLACSO Civilizational Crisis, Reconfigurations of Racism, Afro-Latin American Social Movements, released a statement stating that “…this attack is not an isolated event but part of a plan of genocide and extermination that has long affected the Garifuna people. From threats and assassinations to enforced disappearances, the Garifuna people have faced a series of unacceptable aggressions that have only increased levels of impunity and racism they face”[2]

Colombia holds the record for the most recorded murders against land and environmental defenders. In 2022, 60 cases were documented, nearly double the 33 cases in 2021. The president has acknowledged the serious issue and initiated actions to confront it since taking office in August 2022.

Overall, more than a third (36%) of the killed defenders were indigenous peoples, and 7% were of African descent. Over a fifth (22%) were small farmers who depended on their lands and natural resources for a living.

Recalling Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), who stated, “Indigenous peoples must be part of the solution to climate change. This is because you have the traditional knowledge of your ancestors. The important value of such knowledge simply cannot (and should not) be underestimated. You are also essential to find solutions today and in the future. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change recognizes this. It recognizes their role in building a world that is resilient in the face of climate impacts.”

As Vandana Shiva expressed in the GW report’s introduction, these defenders of the earth and nature deeply understand how humanity’s fate intertwines with the fate of the natural places they defend.

Hence, they are willing to risk everything to defend them and therefore, more than anyone, they deserve protection.

However, the murder of Higinio, the data in the report, and daily news seem to indicate that states, companies, and society either remain unaware or fail to take actions that genuinely protect them.

[1] https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/standing-firm/

[2] https://www.clacso.org/repudio-y-solidaridad-con-miriam-miranda-y-el-pueblo-garifuna/