Photo: Cloete, Coahuila 

Interview conducted by PBI with Alberto Solís Castro, Executive Director of Services and Consultation for Peace (Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz -- SERAPAZ), an organization dedicated to positively transforming conflicts and fostering peace. They help indigenous and campesino movements that are defending their territory, environment and natural resources from large scale economic projects. SERAPAZ is member of the Espacio_OSC, which is accompanied by PBI.

Communities in opposition [to large scale economic projects] are especially at risk, as they face massive investment projects in which government and elite members of the private sector have economic interests. Some of them also live in regions with high levels of crime and face private companies, organized criminal groups and corrupt government officials. Not all internal issues in the communities are the same, some rural groups are more vulnerable than, for example, cities because urban spaces have a certain level of anonymity to protect movement members. For instance, the Nayeris, an indigenous community that we accompany who are currently rejecting the construction of a dam in Nayarit; they are geographically isolated and it is difficult to reach those communities. There are several limitations to establishing new security measures which specifically respond to the needs of the community members: there is no cellular signal, satellite phones sometimes don’t work, sometimes there is no power. So, if they need to leave their community, it can be very difficult and time-consuming to reach them.

We also need to recognize that the government uses large scale economic projects to disrupt processes in the social structure of communities. For example, when a project is presented as an opportunity for community development and distribution of profits, those who have been coopted become the main opponents of social movements aimed to protect that land and territory, and they are the ones who pose the greatest risk of direct violence towards the population.

When implementing security measures in communities, there are different conditions to consider [than in urban areas]. Sometimes the proposed measures don’t work in said community, or are very complicated to implement. Furthermore, risk analyses are sometimes performed at the community level and therefor may omit some risk factors of specific members of the community. Risk analysis need to be carried out correctly and identify the right protection measures for each given situation. There are some cases where people say ‘there is risk, so we are going to deploy the police’, when the police are often directly associated with the risk situation faced by the community. There are also intercultural elements to consider: indigenous groups have a different conceptualization of collective identity, and a different conceptualization of what is allowed or forbidden. In Mexico, people tend to think that this can be unified, as if all indigenous groups were the same. Classifying all groups in the same category, “indigenous”, is wrong because that concept does not exist, and it can only be used when comparing these communities to western civilizations.

None of these aspects are considered when implementing large scale economic projects, nor when thinking about the protection of community defenders, which is what should be done. The capacity could be developed to take into account different cultural contexts, different impacts in terms of gender, accessibility, social conditions in the region, level of marginalization of communities, the background of the project and what factors are generating risk, the legal conditions around the conflict, etc. We also have to see if there have been elements of previous violence, if it is a community that has already lived situations of repression or murder, the social fabric, political conditions in the region, the level of criminal or organized crime activity, the levels of impunity that exist locally.

We believe that it is very difficult to separate the issue of security of the defenders from what is generating the risk. If risk is not addressed from its root cause -- i.e. large scale economic projects that are being imposed – it is complicated [to provide security]. When trying to address the causes of the conflict and enter into dialogue, interlocution, reviewing anomalies that may have risen in the enforcement process, governments should consider this and even remove this type of projects to avoid generating a greater damage. The most important measures that can be implemented for security are political measures: the recognition of the actors, the presence of government officials to ensure that human rights will be respected. These political measures have a much greater effect than a security fence or a camera in a community. And if there is no political will on a local level because they are involved with the project, then other levels of government should intervene.

Communities in opposition [to large scale economic projects] are especially at risk, as they face massive investment projects in which government and elite members of the private sector have economic interests