On August 9, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples was commemorated under the theme "COVID-19 and the resilience of indigenous peoples", recognizing the effort of indigenous communities to seek their own solutions to the pandemic through knowledge and traditional practices1. The UN has recognized that indigenous peoples can exemplify how to reduce the risk of future pandemics and rebalance relationships with nature; indigenous territories are home to 80% of the world's biodiversity.2
Despite being a fundamental source of knowledge, indigenous peoples are one of the most vulnerable populations facing the current pandemic. In Mexico, they continue to be so, due to the high level of structural marginalization and poverty they face3, despite the fact that it is estimated that 25 million people (two out of ten) who live in Mexican territory recognize themselves as indigenous, according to data from the National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI).
Indigenous land and territory defenders are a highly threatened group. According to the latest report by Global Witness4, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems faced by land and environmental defenders worldwide. The report highlights that in several countries governments have used the crisis to take drastic measures in order to control their citizens and roll back the existing environmental regulations. For example, concessions have been granted without the prior consultation of the communities. The report reports that of the 212 land and environmental defenders killed in 2019 worldwide, 40% belonged to indigenous communities when those communities represent only 5% of the world's population. More than two thirds of the murders occurred in Latin America, which in recent years has always positioned itself as the most affected region. Mexico ranks fourth with 18 murders.
Otilia Martínez Cruz and her son Gregorio Chaparro Cruz, from the indigenous community of Coloradas de la Virgen in the Municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, Chihuahua, accompanied by the organization Alianza Sierra Madre (ASMAC)5 were among the 18 defenders murdered last year. Otilia and Gregorio were relatives of Julián Carrillo and of 5 other defenders who have been murdered since 20136. Otilia and Gregorio were allegedly executed on the orders of local loggers in retaliation for their fight to stop illegal deforestation on their ancestral lands in the Sierra Tarahumara.
The Sierra of Chihuahua is one of the riskiest areas for indigenous human rights defenders. In its latest report, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA)7 recorded 39 attacks against defenders of the land and the environment in 2019, with Chihuahua in fifth place among Mexican states8. The killings represent just the tip of the iceberg of many other forms of violence they face, including harassment, threats, injuries, property damage, and the forced displacement of entire families.
Recently, ASMAC, an organization accompanied by PBI since 2018, together with other organizations that work in the Sierra Tarahumara, alerted through a statement (spanish only) that an armed group threatened members of the Ódami indigenous community as well as members of ASMAC on behalf of people known to the community and the authorities. Likewise, the Red TdT issued an Urgent Alert in which calls on the Government to guarantee the safety of the communities of Guadalupe and Calvo and the members of ASMAC9. PBI expressed concern10 about the seriousness of these events, which took place despite the fact that the state’s attorney general has several investigation files open on the intellectual authors11. We call on the responsible authorities to do what is necessary to guarantee the safety of both the community and the members of ASMAC, so that those responsible for this aggression are punished and the continuity of the human rights defenders’ important work in the region is guaranteed.
In this climate of impunity and institutional delays, exacerbated by the global health emergency situation, the work of ASMAC and of the indigenous defenders of land, territory and the environment they accompany is invaluable; we celebrate the dedication to their struggles, which inspires us every day, and their fundamental contributions to the work of promoting and protecting human rights and the preservation of our natural resources.
3 According to data from the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval), almost seven out of ten people of the indigenous population lived in poverty in 2018 (8.4 million), against 40% of the rest of the population. https://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2020/08/09/dia-internacional-de-los-pueblos-indigenas-las-deudas-que-tiene-mexico con-ellos/
4 Global Witness, ‘DEFENDING TOMORROW: The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders’, 29 of july 2020.
6 Global Witness, ‘¿Enemigos del Estado?: De como los gobiernos y las empresas silencian las personas defensoras de la tierra y del medio ambiente’, july 2019
7 Mexican Center for Environmental Law -CEMDA (2019). Report on the situation of environmental human rights defenders. México 2019. Available in https://www.cemda.org.mx/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/informe-personas-defensoras-2019.pdf
8 The Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources recently stated that it is very difficult to stop attacks against defenders of the territory and natural resources because in Mexico there is a weak, fragile and underfunded judicial system and an ambiguous environmental regulatory system https://www.eldiariodechihuahua.mx/nacional/van-10-defensores-ambientales-asesinados-durante-pandemia-20200527-1667412.html