Dying for environmental democracy

Estela Casanto Mauricio, a Peruvian indigenous leader, was killed for her advocacy for the right to live in a healthy environment.

Estela Casanto Mauricio, an indigenous leader, is now another Peruvian activist killed for her advocacy for the right to live in a healthy environment. But could a first of its kind international agreement for the Latin-American and Caribbean regions be a source of hope for land defenders like Estela?

Latin America is one of the world’s deadliest regions for environmental human rights defenders. A total of 222 environmental defenders have been killed during resource extraction and pollution conflicts worldwide since last year: 86 were indigenous defenders of the Amazon.

The Perené river valley, located in the dense jungles of the Peruvian Amazon, is where the indigenous Asháninka have long struggled to protect their lands from resource extraction. Drug trafficking and resource exploitation such as mining, logging, and land-grabbing continue to encroach on their territory without their consent. 

Many Asháninka defenders receive death threats  and the Peruvian state has not responded to calls for help. A series of murders of indigenous activists occurred during the COVID-19 lockdowns as criminals and corporations took advantage of the country’s state of emergency. These have been located near to mining projects such as Pan American Silver, Southern Copper, and Las Bambas. 

Impunity

The culprits still have impunity in all these cases. Even older cases such as the 2014 quadruple murder of Asháninka in Alto Tamaya-Saweto by illegal loggers have yet to be resolved.

Estela Casanto Mauricio, an indigenous leader, is now another Peruvian activist killed for her advocacy for the right to live in a healthy environment. But could a first of its kind international agreement for the Latin-American and Caribbean regions be a source of hope for land defenders like Estela?

Timeline: Measuring a year in murders in Peru

Timeline of Murders in Peru

Estela Casanto Mauricio, a 55-year-old Asháninka leader, vocally opposed land-grabbing by “colonos,” or outsiders occupying indigenous territory without permission. 

Colonos had been threatening, stalking, and harassing Casanto for more than five years because she refused to give up part of her land. However, she never reported the threats out of fear of putting herself at even greater risk. 

On March 12, 2021, Casanto’s body was found in a cave at the bottom of a ravine near her home. Official autopsies alleged that she died by choking while chewing on coca leaves. This, however, contradicts the evidence that points to her suffering physical abuse, with multiple injuries to the head, face, and neck.

Teddy Sinacay, the president of the Centre of Native Communities of the Central Jungle (CECONSEC), felt dubious about the investigation. He said: “[I]t is like they are making fun of us. We hope that the police and the prosecutor's office will do a good investigation, but we have a feeling that a good job is not being done.”

Life-saving

The suspected assassination quickly gained attention at the highest national political levels, owing to organisations such as CECONSEC and the Regional Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Central Jungle (ARPI-SC) rapidly disseminating the news across many platforms.

In response, Mirtha Vásquez, the president of the Congress of the Republic, asked the Ministry of the Interior to provide immediate protection for the community, and especially Casanto’s family members who are still in danger. 

CECONSEC is also demanding protections from the Peruvian state to guarantee the protection of land defenders, collective territories, and environmental and human rights.

They have also asked the World Bank to improve the socio-environmental and health safeguards for their loans, including the demand that the borrowing states prioritise Covid-19 response measures because of the grave danger the Asháninka communities face.

These requests may come into action with the implementation of the Escazú Agreement, which entered into force on April 22, 2021, in celebration of International Earth Day. This binding treaty could be life-saving for many environmental defenders. 

Violence

Building on the Aarhus convention’s three key pillars, the regional agreement aims to protect fundamental rights to living in a healthy environment such as access to information, public participation, corporate accountability, and environmental justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Environmental democracy depends on protecting rights to be heard and to know about what happens where you live, which has been nearly impossible for those at the frontlines of extractive and polluting conflicts. 

These at-risk defenders face legal hurdles in fighting for rights that are improperly enforced in a context where governmental authorities routinely criminalize environmentalists and stigmatize them as anti-development terrorists. 

Most importantly, what makes the Escazú agreement unique is that this agreement, for the first time, explicitly outlines governments’ obligations to protect environmental defenders, giving them safe platforms to work on as well as investigating and punishing violence against them.

Profit

The international treaty needed 11 countries to sign and ratify it to come into effect. This process took several years because some governments - like Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Peru - did not sign owing to fears that the agreement would mean giving up some sovereignty of their natural resources.

This would potentially open up internal affairs to the international arena and negatively impact economic development by threatening rights to private property, deterring investments.

A vocal minority is lobbying to put the ratification of the Escazú Agreement back onto the agenda.

In a time when it is necessary to think about equitable and sustainable post-pandemic recovery, these electoral debates in the aftermath of environmental deaths serve as a grave reminder that societies cannot genuinely move forward if they step on the most vulnerable in pursuit of profit.

This Author

Dalena Tran is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology in the Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), where she researches violence against women environmental defenders during ecological distribution conflicts.

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