By Anesti Vega
March 10, 2017
When most people stop to think about the most dangerous jobs around, they often think of high-risk jobs, like firefighters or deep sea fishermen. Does an environmental conservationist come to mind? It definitely might if you’re Indigenous. An alarming trend throughout the Americas is violence against and the assassination of Indigenous community leaders and organizers focused on protecting the environment.
Just last year, Indigenous tribes protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline as it approached the Standing Rock Sioux treaty land. Many tribes banded together—the largest gathering of Native Americans since Little Bighorn—in an effort to protect Indigenous sovereignty. Water protectors’ primary fear was that the water supply coming from the Missouri River would be contaminated, and considering Energy Transfer Partners’ poor track record of incidents and the fact that the pipeline would deliver about 470,000 barrels of oil daily.
The protests at Standing Rock, and the violent police brutality that ensued, catapulted the fight to protect the environment into the national spotlight, rallying millions to stand in solidarity and call themselves ‘water protectors’.
Much like the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, Indigenous people have been at the forefront of many of these longstanding environmental battles all over the Americas; the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation in Canada resisting the growing development of Alberta’s tar sands and fracking; The Yaqui tribe in Mexico battling the Agua Prieta Pipeline; and the Xingu peoples of Brazil fighting the Belo Monte Dam that will devastate 1,500 square kilometers and displace 40,000 people, are but a few examples. Donald Trump’s signing of an Executive Order on January 24th, 2017 to move forward with the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone Pipeline is just one of many actions in motion to endanger our environment.
Advocates continue to push back projects that harm the environment and threaten clean water across the nation, including the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana and the Sabal Trail pipeline in Florida, demanding cleaner and renewable energy sources.
Make no mistake though, to be Indigenous and a leader of environmental activism is to be subjected to intimidation, death threats, assault, kidnapping, and assassination.
In December of 2016, A lawyer for the Yaqui tribe, Anabela Carlon Flores, and her husband were kidnapped while they were on their way to a community meeting regarding next steps against the Agua Prieta Pipeline. According to reports, the lawyer and her husband were kidnapped by a group of masked men who stopped the car they were driving. She was then dropped near Ciudad Obregon, but her husband has remained in captivity, with Flores receiving communications to drop her work against Agua Prieta or she will never see her husband again. Prior to this incident, Yaqui tribe members noted an increasing number of attacks, especially on those members showing greatest opposition to the Sempra Energy pipeline project construction, a project aiming to deliver natural gas to Sonora from Arizona by crossing the territory of the Yaqui tribe.
Berta Cáceres, a Goldman prize winner and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, was assassinated in her own home in March of 2016. As the leader of the Lenca people, she led a successful campaign to stop the Agua Zarca dam from being built on the Gualcarque River, but paid the ultimate price. Eight people have been arrested in connection with Cáceres’ murder so far, three of whom served in the Honduran Army Special Forces and received training from the United States Special Operations Command. One of those individuals was still serving as Chief of Army Intelligence at the time of his arrest and was quickly discharged, though officials have denied any state official involvement. Over 120 environmental activists have been killed since 2010 in Honduras alone and at least 7 colleagues of Cáceres have been murdered in the year since her assassination.
Another Goldman prize winner Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, an Indigenous activist fighting illegal logging in the Sierra Madre mountains in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, was assassinated in January 2017. Marisela Tombe, a peasant leader in the Colombian province of Cuaca, was murdered in February 2016. Adilson, a Munduruku tribal member of Brazil opposed to the development of dams in the Tapajós Basin, was shot and killed in a government sanctioned altercation and occupation of their village, reminiscent of Wounded Knee. These are just a handful of incidents that are well documented, as it is difficult to gather accurate data in these regions due to rurality and corruption. In Brazil alone, noted as the most dangerous region for environmental activists, there have been over 454 documented cases of murder of environmental defenders between 2002 and 2014.
If you live in the United States and think these matters aren’t of concern for you, know that this turmoil exists, in part, as a result of U.S. intervention in Latin America for the last 100+ years. This violence occurs under the watch of, and often times the sanction of, regimes that the U.S. has had a strong hand in bringing to power with tax dollars. While kidnapping and murder against environmental activists is not currently the norm here in the U.S., we also know that by studying the history of events in Latin America, that the militarized police brutality we saw at Standing Rock can easily serve as a precedent if we do not continue to push for policy change and regulation that will assist in normalizing the importance of environmental awareness.
Indigenous people have been and continue to be at the forefront of protecting this Earth. We understand that the land does not belong to us, but that we belong to the land. We are warriors, entrusted to protect and defend what is sacred. We also know we can not do it alone. The battles waged against corporate destruction of sacred land and resources aren’t just an issue of Indigenous sovereignty, they are battles to protect clean air and water that all of us need to live on this planet.
Many Indigenous members and leaders have paid the ultimate price and the violence doesn’t seem to have a clear end in sight. We remain fearless, however, knowing that we are fighting for this planet and for our future generations, ensuring that their lives and the lands are flowing and fruitful.
With that said, here is a proverb of the resistance from Mexico: ‘Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas’, meaning ‘They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds’.
Anesti Vega is the Manager of Online Organizing here at The Praxis Project and a member of the Tupinambá tribe of Brazil. His full bio can be found on our Staff Page.