Across Latin America, in these times of increasing environmental crisis, courageous defenders are mobilizing to defend land, Indigenous territory and the environment. They risk their lives and freedom to do so, amidst increasing death threats, assassinations and misuse of the justice system to lock up those who challenge powerful economic interests.
Amnesty Canada has prioritized campaigns in solidarity with defenders under attack. Recent successes and ongoing attacks underscore the importance of redoubling our efforts.
An important victory in Honduras
On July 5, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Honduras found David Castillo guilty of being a “co-author” of the 2016 murder of Lenca indigenous water defender Berta Cáceres by hired hitmen. In 2018, seven other men were convicted and sentenced for their role in the murder of Caceres, including hired assassins, DESA employees and members of the army.
Castillo is a former army intelligence officer and manager of Desarrollos Energéticos, a hydroelectric company that was seeking to build the Agua Zarca dam, despite opposition by Lenca Indigenous people because of the impact it would have on their water and land. As Coordinator of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Berta led efforts to halt the dam project and reported receiving threats that she would be killed if she continued her efforts.
COPINH called the conviction of Castillo a victory for their organization, Berta’s family, the Lenca and all people in Honduras. “It means that criminal power structures failed to corrupt the justice system,” COPINH said on Twitter. Berta’s daughter Bertha Isabel told The Guardian newspaper: “To have achieved a guilty verdict against the [former] president of a corporation, [who is] connected to the armed forces: it is unprecedented in our country. We have to continue the fight. Our work, our struggle for justice in the case of our mother, will contribute to this important cause of ensuring there is no repetition of this kind of crime in our country.”
Amnesty’s Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas described the verdict as “an important step towards justice and the result of her family and COPINH’s tireless efforts to secure truth, justice and reparation.” COPINH has credited the vital importance of international solidarity with their struggle, including more than 65,000 messages to Honduran authorities by Amnesty supporters in Canada.
Our solidarity with land and environment defenders in Honduras remains important.
Amnesty is urging Honduran prosecutors to act on evidence that implicates other high-level business executives and agents of the state in the murder of Berta Caceres. Until all those responsible are held accountable, other defenders in Honduras will continue to lose their lives for raising their voices and defending the most vulnerable.
A recent, disturbing case is that of four Garífuna activists, members of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), who were taken away on July 18, 2020 by individuals wearing Police Investigations Directorate vests. The whereabouts of the Garifuna defenders remain unknown.
Respond to our Urgent Action for the disappeared Garifuna defenders of OFRANEH
Speak up for the water defenders of Guapinol
Stay tuned for upcoming actions in support of COPINH and Justice for Berta
Our activism wins strengthened protection for Jani Silva in Colombia but other defenders are in danger
Following the delivery of thousands of messages of concern for the safety of threatened Amazon defender Jani Silva written by Amnesty supporters in Canada and around the world, the Colombian government responded to our calls for strengthened protection measures, including a bullet proof vehicle, bodyguards and a cell phone to enable calls for help. Authorities also granted a protection scheme to Sandra Lagos, another threatened woman defender with Jani’s organization ADISPA.
This is good news. Jani Silva thanked everyone who raised their voice on her behalf and told us she believes calls for action by authorities helped to save her life.
Sadly, too many other environment defenders are at grave risk in Colombia, amid a terrifying increase in assassinations.
At an AGM workshop in June, Yuvelis Morales, a young woman student, explained how she had to leave her home and go into hiding because of death threats. She was threatened after she raised her voice to protect the Magadalena river and Colombia’s rich biodiversity from threats posed by fracking pilot projects. Yuvelis is an activist with AGUAWIL (acronym for the Committee for the Defence of Water, Life and the Territory of Puerto Wilches) as well as the Colombian Alliance against Fracking. The members of these organizations are in constant danger, with added risks for young women activists. Yuvelis told us that solidarity from Canada is vital. She urged us to make their situation more visible and push for guarantees of safety for those who are speaking up to protect the right to a healthy environment.
Please sign our online action here calling on Colombia’s Congress to protect defenders. We are collecting signatures for delivery in December. We need your help to promote this action and gather more signatures for stronger impact.
Watch our campaign page in October for new actions
Write a letter or post in social media to tell Colombia to protect environment defenders
Speak up for threatened women water defenders in Chile
Environmental defenders with the Women’s Movement for the Defense of Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection in Chile are under attack as they courageously confront a water crisis, and its impact on women and their families. Mujeres Modatima, as they are known in Spanish, are dedicated to working together in an antipatriarchal movement for water as a human right, confronting extractivism which they say has “dried up entire communities, depriving them of such a vital element”
In response to their efforts to defend access to life giving water, leaders of Mujeres Modatima have suffered break ins, attacks, smear campaigns and terrifying threats like the one threatening death for Verónica Vilches, painted on the wall of her workplace (see below). Learn more about their experiences here.
The experience of Verónica and other members of Mujeres Modatima has taught them to have little faith in the authorities. In some instances, the women have not even been allowed to report crimes committed against them. In other instances, when they were able to make official complaints, investigations were not carried out. The police have failed to provide protection and have told the women there is nothing they can do.
Write a letter in support of the threatened women defenders of Mujeres Modatima. Tell Chilean authorities they must investigate all threats and attacks, bring the perpetrators to justice, and ensure that leaders of Mujeres Modatima can protect the right to water without fear of harm to them or their families.
More action needed to free Bernardo Caal Xol in Guatemala
One year after naming Bernardo Caal Xol a prisoner of conscience, colleagues from our Latin American Regional Office delivered 28,000 signatures to Guatemala’s Attorney General from around the world demanding his release, including more than 12,500 from Amnesty supporters in Canada. It was a powerful call to redress a grave miscarriage of justice! But so far that call has fallen on deaf ears.
“Bernardo Caal’s imprisonment for more than three years now sends a frightening message to the Indigenous peoples leading the defence of human rights, justice and the protection of our planet,” said Amnesty’s Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas. “It’s shameful that the Guatemalan authorities continue to criminalize and intimidate those who dedicate their lives to defending nature while a global movement for environmental protection is gaining ground.”
A teacher, trade unionist and trusted community leader, Bernardo Caal has been unfairly imprisoned since January 2018 for defending the rights of Q’eqchi’ Mayan communities affected by the construction of a hydroelectric project on the Cahabón River, considered sacred by the communities and vital to their survival. Bernardo’s detention is emblematic of how human rights defenders, especially Indigenous people and those working on issues associated with territory, land and the environment – are criminalized in Guatemala. It also reflects the historical racism and dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ territories in Guatemala.
Bernardo Caal filed a cassation appeal with Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice in September 2020. After multiple obstacles and delays, the hearing took place this past June. A ruling was supposed to be issued within 15 days but more than 2 months later, there is still no word.
Seeking Bernardo Caal’s release has been selected as a priority action for this year’s Write for Rights campaign. Our goal is to increase pressure on Guatemalan authorities with thousands of more letters and e-action signatures.
Read Amnesty’s Open Letter expressing concern about irregularities and negligence in the criminal proceedings against Bernardo Caal Xol, including lack of objective evidence to support the charges against him.
Sign the e-action here. Equally important, invite friends, family, teachers and other potential allies in your community to add their signature to our call to Free Bernardo.
Write a letter as part of Write for Rights. Check back here at the beginning of October for the case sheet. The case sheet and instructions will be available at the end of September.
Organize an online screening of Water: The Blood of Mother Nature, a powerful documentary from Guatemala about the struggle of Bernardo and the Q’eqchi communities he represents. Then invite viewers to sign our action and write a letter. For more information, contact Elena Dumitru via firstname.lastname@example.org
Send a solidarity message so Bernardo knows you are taking action to seek his release. Email your message to campaigner Kathy Price [email@example.com] so she can ensure it reaches Bernardo in jail.