The Voice of the Mountain: Defending One of the Last Remaining Cloud Forests

The Voice of the Mountain: Defending One of the Last Remaining Cloud Forests

In this interview, DGR Latin America correspondents Michael Robles and Alejandro Balentine speak to José Alfredo del Moral García who is part of  a movement called Por la Defensa de la Sierra (In Defense of the Mountain Range) in Coatepec, State of Veracruz (Mexico). Por la Defensa de la Sierra is looking to protect one of the last remaining cloud forests in the world from politicians and companies that wish to exploit the land for profit and urbanization.

Michael Robles – I am very pleased to meet you, José. I am Michael Robles and this is my friend from Colombia, Alejandro.

Alejandro Balentine – Alejandro Balentine.

José del Moral – Hello.

MR – We are here on behalf of Deep Green Resistance to interview you. Can tell us a bit about what is going on in your community. Okay, so, how are you?

JM – I’m well, though we have just received some disturbing news. One of our comrades was assaulted yesterday. She was chased down, and right now we are in a situation, a dilemma to find ways to help in this municipality; how we can help with this security issue.

AB – I see, in DGR we work and support those human and non-human people who are protecting the planet as well as all the living beings and territories that deserve to be protected. We are only just starting to be involved in Latin America as we are an organization that originated in the United States, but it is a movement for the whole world. We are pleased to be with you. Tell us a bit about what is going on in your land, what is the story behind the movement, of the resistance – to create awareness of what is happening to all of you.

JM – Yeah, well, our fight is the Fight for the Voice of the Mountain as we say here. We have become the voice of Mother Earth here in our municipality of Puerto de Veracruz in the state of Veracruz and in Mexico. Fortunately, we have found people with the same objectives on a global scale and we have made contact with Talking Wings in Canada, and we have exchanged information, more than anything else, on how we have lived our struggle because it is something, well, precious.

My life’s purpose is to fight for all living things. It has been a long fight, I have been hunted and even attacked. This makes my position here hard as there are precedents of this sort of thing in Mexico, and in this state, too. I will tell you a bit about this issue: the land we are talking about is special as it is one of the remnants of the main cloud forest in the state of Veracruz. It has such a broad and large ecosystem and it is currently considered in danger – it is categorized as a zone under risk. The Mountain provides water to many communities including local governments such as Xalapa, Cardel, and Coatepec, obviously. This one in particular is very special because around 35 waterfalls have been discovered. We consider there could be more as this zone is quite wooded and water has circulated including where houses have been built, and even more so where trees have been planted we have found water sources. “Ojo de agua” (water spring) as we call them, so we consider there could be more hidden. There are waterfalls inside caves that are such wonderful things, the ecosystem is really beautiful that one just falls in love and you feel the need to protect them. We also have, here in Coatepec, two archaeological sites and the area that is being affected the most is called Old Coatepec. It is an archaeological site that witnessed the arrival of Hernan Cortes and some French & Italian people. It is said that Napoleon’s brother passed through here, so there is a lot of history here in Coatepec. This also gives such value and wealth, both culturally and historically, to this area. We have around 90 endangered species of flora and fauna that are already catalogued. They have already been referenced under Federal law, so it can be said, they are known by federal authorities.

MR – Could you tell us more about these plants and animals?

JM – Sure, we have reptiles. We have one that we call Dragoncito del Sur (Abronia graminea) which is a type of lizard. We have another one that is actually related and is called Dragoncito de la Sierra Madre Oriental. They are very similar, only the size is different. We have another one that we call Abaniquillo del Bosque Nublado (Anolis schiedii) which is also a small type of lizard that climbs trees. There is a great variety and even though we have their scientific names pronouncing them is difficult for me. We have underwater snakes that we know as Culebra de Agua Nómada (Thamnophis eques). As far as mammals we have four species categorized as endangered such as the Tigrillo (Leopardus wiedii), a cat. We have the Tropical Porcupine (Coendou mexicanus). We also have a marsupial known as Cacomixtle (Bassariscus sumichrasti), also known as Seven Stripes. We also have, for example, fungi known as Santitos (Psilocybe barrerae). We have the Hongo del Genio (Psilocybe yungensis), Hongo del Derrumbe (Psylocybe caerulescens), Hongo de Cemita Rey (Boletus edulis) which are the most affected in this area as well as some plants that are mostly orchids (Orchidaceae), Boca del León (Antirrhinum majus), Helecho Maquique (Alsophila firma), Magnolia Chivillo (Magnolia schiedeana) which are also endangered species. We also have around thirteen trees, bushes, bromelias and eight kinds of ferns that we can add to the endangered species list in this area. All this information can be found on our Facebook page – Por la Defensa de la Sierra. On the page you can find some excellent illustrations done by our comrade Monserrat Sánchez Guzmán, who in the spirit of spreading the word and teaching, illustrated each one of the endangered animals, flowers and trees.

MR – Yes, I’ve seen some of her drawings, they are very well done and they explain why they are so special to this place. They are endemic.

JM – They are 100% endemic and we consider that the forest is a natural treasure and that lately it has become affected by a group that I will talk about later. For now, I want to talk about the history of this land.

MB – Yes, please do.

AB – What is the extent of the wooded area, approximately?

JM – The area that is being harmed, or rather violated, is around 2,000 hectares, that is twice the size of our municipality. So, the thing is, Coatepec is a municipality with a lot of history. As I said before we have two archaeological sites. We have a story regarding the jailing of one of our first presidents of Mexico, Antonio López de Santa Anna. He was a prisoner here and then he was taken to the United States for trial. Benito Juarez was here, also Venustiano Carraza. In other words, historically speaking, we have a lot to tell and moreover it has been said our land has been so fertile that, since Colonial times most crop species have been cultivated here. The land will germinate practically any kind of seed you plant here above sea level. We have everything connected to the sea, the woods, the rain forest which all have many dimensions. You have a question?

MR – Who were the original settlers of this territory before the Conquest?

JM – It is said to be the Nahuas. The archaeological vestiges are of Olmec origin. Here in Coatepec, we assume that in the south the Olmecs lived and in the north, the Nahuas. It is said that Maximiliano de Habsburgo lived some kilometers away in a community called Mahuixtlán. There he had a big parcel of land and it is said that the natives during their struggle, their resistance, chased this emperor away because he was stealing land, stealing water, stealing many things. So people organized and drove him away. In 1984, Coatepec again had civil unrest when water supplies were privatized and piped to take it to other places like Mexico City. Because of this a committee was formed and organized. People from many communities started to come here to the Municipal Capital, expressed their concerns and they were granted an agreement by decree that forests would be left untouched. Also, water, even though it is belongs to everybody, would be quantified to be distributed among the communities. Coatepec is on high-ground and all the micro-watersheds as well as important basins flow in this part of Coatepec. Then all of the water sources meet along a river that travels through Jalcomulco, and then onto José Cardel, and then Chachalaca and finally the sea. Therefore, all the communities that depend on this river whose source is here in Coatepec are also affected and we have had the opportunity to speak with groups that are protecting the water, the rivers, and they are very favourably disposed to helping us out. We support them with the distribution of information and with whatever else we can. However, their struggle is a slightly distinct from ours as an hydroelectric plant is to be built here and the headwaters will be taken away.

Go ahead, speak.

RM – Alejandro, do you have a question?

AB – It is very interesting how you describe this land, how it’s full of life, water, diversity. It is fertile and it is important to always be conscious of it so it can be kept that way. It is rich but it is also a struggle for the people and species that live there, isn’t it? Because, as you said, other people want to steal it.

MR – Yes, it is truly a treasure.

AB – Exactly, it is like a treasure.

JM – It is a treasure, really, that’s why there is such outrage, such unrest, such struggle. That’s why we say we are the Voice of the Mountain because she can’t speak for herself. She can only speak to those of us who are more aware because of environmental knowledge, judgment or conscience. There is a pre-Hispanic heritage that has been constantly sacked and violated by people who are ignorant of history. Their own history and the history of our municipality echoes from its very core. So, we have Nature, as Alejandro said, this treasure that everyone wants to visit and be there with their families, but no one wants to be held accountable, no one wants to preserve, no one wants to keep conserving that history of the land. That is the unrest and outage of many, and I say many because we have noticed when we gather for a demonstration, a “plantón” (occupation). We say here, a plantón (this word is also related to the word “plant”) we use it symbolically as it means “to be planted.” So when we gather for a plantón, we have noticed a lot of people arrive, even through social media there are people supporting us. They even sent food during our last gathering. So, it was surprising that people who wouldn’t even consider it before, now turn up and check what’s happening in the park. They now turn their heads to see what’s happening and have decided “hey, we do not want that.” We want the outsiders to go away, we want the people who are killing this place to be thrown out. There has been a lot of interest by the inhabitants and that is something that we could not achieve before.

Now, what is the current threat and what lies behind it? Right here, coming straight from all the history I told you about before, the constant threat has always been land occupation. Who is behind this? Well, some politicians with bad intentions who make promises, stir up trouble and divide the people. Since January, 2019, militiamen occupied different pieces of land in a zone called Jinicuil Manso. They cut down the woods with the purpose of urbanizing them. Due to this, the Coatepec society as well as the landowners, looked to the government for aid so that this ecocide could be averted. The response was not what was hoped for and these invaders have intensified their actions, justifying their actions by claiming ownership of these 2,000 hectares. Apparently, there was only one person who owned the two thousand hectares, so it has been said that for over forty years he was the owner. There are many persons or owners that have valid documentation and they say that there are Federal funds that have been paid over to them to keep the woods healthy. How is it that for the last 15 or 20 years, Federal projects have been consistently carried out there every 4 years? Now out of nowhere comes someone claiming “I am the owner of these two-thousand hectares. I am the landowner.” I mean, it is inconceivable that a single person is the owner of those two-thousand hectares. I mean, it’s inconceivable to anybody who lives in this municipality that someone has title to all that land.

AB – What are they doing there? I mean, specifically this individual who claims ownership, what is he or she doing in those 2,000 hectares?

JM – They want to build suburbs, streets. They want to build streets, they want to cut the forest down to build houses, stores, whatever they want – they do not cherish life…

AB – Urbanization?

JM – Yes, urbanization. We have given ourselves the task of investigating. We know they have also investigated, so we have given ourselves the task of asking questions and finding out. We know that they are people with economic power. They disguise themselves as low-income individuals, having no land and no house. We have found out that they own other houses and other plots of land which they have stolen in a similar fashion. This is bad situation, and it doesn’t make sense that the municipal, state and federal government act in their favor. I say act in their favor because we have employed investigative lawyers in order to find out why land rights are being handed over to these individuals when there are owners already. The municipality also has areas where water is sequestered for purification and use for the townsfolk. So we say it doesn’t make sense that now they act as if they don’t know who we are or who the owners are and give it all away to other people.

Now, this is not just any group, they are militiamen whose identity we have looked into. They are known as the Central Independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos (The Independent Organization of Agricultural Laborers and Farmers). It is a group that escaped from Chiapas after an armed conflict against the Zapatistas. We know they also are responsible for the assassination of comrade Galeano. During confrontations that’s what they did, and, after investigations and findings they started to fragment. Some of them came here, Veracruz, and they came with the intention of stealing the land. Also, several landowners that we know of have been threatened, assaulted physically, verbally and psychologically. We have a comrade that lives up there and he has been kicked out of his house, it has been stripped away from him – they have left him on the streets and they won’t allow him to go home. They are malicious and that’s what troubles us. We are a very quiet community. We always have a lot of positive energy, or to put it another way we are always thinking about the common good and do no harm.

Then these groups arrive saying “We’ll give it to them. We’ll give them grants. We’ll take away from the rich” (meaning the landowners, meaning us). As defenders of this area we have been called foreigners, been called gringos, been called everything. It is not right that as landowners and as citizens of this town we are the ones that have to protect it because the government does nothing. Some weeks ago, the President of the Mexican Republic, Andrés Manuel [López Obrador] had promised during a speech that he would come to talk to the landowners, sit with us and discuss the matter. Well, he came and he just didn’t allow us to speak. They just sent government employees who we found out later were dismissed and relocated to other positions. In other words, nothing happened. And the investigation file that we have demanded to this day hasn’t been received by our lawyers or the landowners. In other words, they have done nothing. So everything is done out of sight. We know that our municipality’s current political party was paid to sign fake documents. They fraudulently created documents to make themselves appear as the landowners. We have asked for an audience with the State Governor, Cuitláhuac García Jiménez. We have not had any response. We have also asked for an audience with the president of the Republic and we have not yet received a positive response.

We are ridiculed by those who are there to protect the people. So, there’s is another discussion to be had: Which “people”? Who are these people? We have been labeled as priistas (militants from the PRI party), panistas (PAN party), everything. Even here, a PAN government, we have been labeled as morenistas (MORENA party) and the Morenistas have labeled us as priistas and panistas. Nobody really wants to face up to and solve the issue. We have given ourselves the task of spreading the word, bringing news to each of the inhabitants of this place and to those outside about this issue because we want them to unite as one voice and to say ‘Stop this! Stop cutting down the trees. Stop this ecocide! Enough of promises and of campaign commitments that are never delivered.’

Any questions?

AB – From what you’re saying I see the hypocrisy and cynicism of the governments that call themselves progressive. I am Colombian and when all Latin America celebrated López’ victory I know that the president portrayed an image of a progressive and supposedly he is in conversations with different social sectors. But in the end, he either can’t deliver or has given in to certain private interests. This seems to happen in different supposedly progressive governments in Latin America. It is very sad, but it is the way it is. I believe we should denounce that hypocrisy and make what they do known and make the lack of a proper response from this supposed government known because it should be there to protect these important lands.

JM – Yes, most importantly to be more conscious of so many things in the world that are being exhausted very quickly. Countries have been invaded so that their natural wealth can be stolen. In Coatepec, and perhaps I speak also for Jalcomulco, there have been many attempts to steal water, to undermine the ecosystem. People here have dedicated their lives to planting and harvesting coffee. We found out about contracts with international companies, and later we saw small planes spraying many places and the harvest ceased. The crops started to disappear and we had to resort to other crops. An international company entered our land and they wanted to sell us coffee when we know their chemicals only nurture their crops and that don’t work for our crops. Many things like that have happened around here. Coatepec was a great producer of oranges, bananas and coffee. Companies would arrive and introduce plagues and oranges were taken away from us, then bananas, then coffee. We considered this natural wealth as very important for ecotourism but now it just can’t be done. They are introducing people that aren’t from this land and they are cutting trees down and eliminating our last collective hope of subsistence – economically speaking. There are people who live up there, 100% farmers from generation to generation and they live off the land. There were agreements that said “look, if your land is about 8 hectares, 2 or 3 will be for you and the other ones will be part of the forest. We’ll pay you for forest preservation.” That’s a way to earn a living, isn’t? What I mean, it was a really good deal for them. What happened? Well, these people come, cut trees down, fine owners (because of course law is enforced for that) due to the government programs that were in existence. Therefore, those who are acting and destroying aren’t punished or kicked out. Nothing is done to them. They are even supported to do so, and, well, this is the reason of such outrage.

MR – Do they have a set timeframe? When will the building start or has anything of the sort been announced? Or is it just being done surreptitiously little by little?

JM – The buildings are already there, and they are being done by those people. They are laying out the streets, building stores, building houses. They started by placing some tents. Others would start with sticks and tarps and they progressed little by little. By the time we realized, there was a house there already. They started to bring in sheeting and materials. It is not all the time but sporadically. For example, the landowners and ourselves perform watches and we have asked the National Guard to be present so the destruction is halted. Every time a landowner cuts down a tree they get fined for using this federal resource. We asked for the National Guard to be with us (something that they do not consistently do) and the perpetrators just make sure that they carry on bringing materials and cutting and building when the Guard isn’t around. So, it has been in stages, but even the pyramids have been sacked due to this dream, this idea that inside of them there’s gold. Mounds have been brought down as well as some pyramids and they have placed their tents there.

MR – What a tragedy! It has been happening little by little in the shadows and they have been gaining ground and they have also sought political backing.

JM – Exactly. Now, who’s behind, politically, this Central Independiente de Obreros? There are two parties that we know of. In fact, you can go to the official website and it shows that they are under command of Panistas and the Partido Verde Ecologista (Green Party). They are the ones who support that group politically and probably economically and they have greeted them with open doors to perform this ecocide.

AB – What have been the strategies that you have applied to oppose this? Resistance? Awareness raising? Protests? How can you defend yourselves?

JM – Well, we consider that it is fundamental to spread the word. We have a local radio station which is the Teocelo Community Radio. We are constantly in communication with them. So, if something happens, we immediately talk to them, they broadcast live and we give them the news of what is going on. A few journalists have also shown up. Many of them have been assaulted. They have been chased away. Some of them have been assaulted and their cameras taken off them because they don’t want the news to spread.
We also know the land very well so we can take alternative routes and still take pictures of the whole process. Every weekend, they throw huge parties with huge feasts where we have seen a lot of people who are not from here and its they who throw their parties here. So, we make ourselves aware of what is going on and then we spread the word. We have pictures of how they pollute the river and how they use it for waste disposal. What was once life, what was once a clean river, full of life, is now nothing but sewage. That’s what outrages us.

What we are also doing is resisting through our movement, “Por la Defensa”, we have been interviewed for different media outlets such as Jornada Veracruz, El Socialista, Radio Teocelo, Radio Huaya and have spread the news. This is pretty much what we are dedicating ourselves to, telling people where we stand on these matters and all the actions that we are carrying out. We do it just as our comrade Montserrat does through her illustrations. We do so through videos that I have sent to Michael – they are on the Facebook page. You can also find information on Youtube as “Por la Defensa.” We have participated in international and national gatherings such as Talking Wings and even through Max [Wilbert]. We have also participated via some comrades, spokeswomen of our struggle who fight under the name of Mujeres Zapatistas and, well, all of us have spread the voice of the Mountain and we have shared it with everyone. We consider it important because the more people who know about this, the more people can take the matter into their own hands. Globally, we also thank those people who have created links to sign petitions and make other countries aware of the situation. Such is the case in Switzerland and the United States that have helped to spread the news to our compatriots abroad, not only in Veracruz and Mexico.

MR – Yes, that’s very good and that takes us to our next question – what can the people from Mexico and abroad do to support The Voice of the Mountain?

JM – Well, our actions, which we share, are always focused on supporting, on spreading information, on being the spokespeople of the land, Mother Earth. Everyone should request a meeting with leaders, not only from Mexico but from around the world so we can stop this. I believe we are involved in a process to save the land. There is no turning back, it is now or never. That is what we and what I personally believe; we have arrived at a point of no return. It is now or never! Because there is only one life, we only live once. We have to enjoy life as a whole race not only as a few people, don’t you think? Let’s pay our respects to the land. If you consider it important to spread the word, then you’re welcome to do so. If you think there is another way you consider could help then you can contact us on social media: on Facebook, on Instagram, “Por la Defensa de la Sierra” and we can reach and decide what might be best. We can not only spread the word about our struggle, we can also be spokespeople for other struggles around the world.

AB – These people who are threatening the forest and your community, I imagine that they perceive it as a nuisance that news of this issue is spreading and that leads to their aggressiveness and threats. The violence has escalated against you. You must keep being a thorn on their side until they go away, until they leave your land. Do you think that would dissuade them? Because as we see through history, spreading the word sometimes is not enough, but sometimes it could be. I mean, it has to be a combination of different strategies.

JM – Well, for example, the first time we gathered for a plantón the world turned upside down. They wanted to punish us for gathering people together when it is prohibited because of the pandemic. However, the town mayor allows all the townsfolk to make a pilgrimage and hold a mass in church. His arguments are illogical, but we noticed something: at the beginning of our struggle, we were told not to say anything, that we should stay on the sidelines because it would be counter-productive to spread it around. The landowners started to get scared and there is something here that I would like to highlight: there’s the landowners and the movement. We as a movement wanted to partner with the landowners and help them spread the word on this particular issue. Four of us started the movement and then we started to grow. We were then told not to spread the word around because it would be counter-productive, legally speaking. We would say, how is something that is public knowledge be counter-productive or be legally harmful? It is illogical. Yet we respected the landowners decision during that time until we realized that their land was going to be taken away when the Mexican Secretariat for Agrarian, Land and Urban Development (SEDATU) arrived and said that they would establish boundaries in order give away their land and this is when we recognized that it was time to start spreading the word. We started to spread around as much information as possible; we copied documents, who was the sole owner, what was the urbanization project and we started to disseminate the information.

The lives that are in danger, the rivers, the trees, the mammals, we started to disseminate everything we had, and we had to make everyone aware of it. Then we started to share the videos and many other things. Eventually the second plantón took place. We were surprised to find out the crowd was bigger. There were people present that said, “I disagree with the forests being cut down” “I disagree with the pollution of rivers” “I disagree with the murders.” We started to have many more Voices of the Mountain and that encouraged us to keep spreading the word until we can do so no more. Yes, we are running towards danger. Yes, in Mexico there have been missing comrades who have fought in favor of the land, but this is not only in Mexico, it is around the world. What we want is to spread information about what is unfair and whatever is against life itself. That’s why it is important for us to spread the word.

Today, we received some news saying that Veracruz’ judicial branch president was relieved of her position, probably because of legal non-compliance. This is because she acted illegally, and word got out. In our case, we want to get to all organizations of all kinds so they know and become aware and take action in these matters because we are tired when a politician comes in and messes around with the needs of the people. We are tired of being promised land, being promised a wholesome life. Mexico has a great cultural diversity and it is not really fit for only one Nation project but for several kinds of Nation projects. We want to keep spreading the news until it is heard on every corner, that it echoes from the last tree and plant and animal so they feel safe knowing that there are people reporting what’s going on here.

MR – Thank you very much for such important work. I don’t know if you have more questions, Alejandro?

AB – Yes, actually, I wanted to ask, when you mentioned about this person that has self-proclaimed ownership of these two-thousand hectares – does it mean that you have information about this person. Do you know who it is? Or do you keep that information to yourselves as a safety measure?

JM – Let me double check that information. I didn’t consider we would talk about this person because he is a senior citizen that we think was brainwashed and was promised a lot of things. His name is Francisco Ruiz, the self-proclaimed landowner of the two-thousand hectares.

AB – Is it a natural person or does he represent a company?

JM – We do not know if he is a farmer or not, but he is not from here. He provided a fake address and we asked around. We were told that nobody knows him, they don’t even know who he is. We showed a picture of him and they said “we don’t know him, he’s not from here.” We continued investigating. He has a brother named Valerio Ruiz. I know they are from another place, another municipality and that they only put their names to become owners of that land, but they have nothing to do with Coatepec.

AB – Have you asked the Coatepec authorities? What answers have been given to you? What is the reason for this happening?

JM – We have been promised answers to our questions. Up until now we have had no answers. There was a meeting, on July 10th there was a convention to give the land to these people. Obviously as landowners and citizens we opposed the agreement because it would require the trees to be cut down, passing through where life thrives and we didn’t want any more setbacks. We chose not to let it through and we went to the meeting which was in session at that very moment and we were asked absurdities such as, “if you are the owner, how many trees are on your land?” There are people who have records of their trees and harvest and so they can give that information, but there are also farmers who say, “well, sir, I just sowed maize and I have delivered the harvest, I have already sold it” and it’s like, I don’t know, it’s just not logical. If you didn’t have that information then you couldn’t participate and the meeting was orchestrated by the mayor. There were meetings which ended up being outrageous because we were labeled as ignorant, labeled as demagogues, labeled as Morenistas, while all us who are defending the land including the landowners were labeled as invaders. Till this day we have received nothing substantial. We are told they will provide answers tomorrow, in two weeks, in a month, and just like that there are no answers from the municipality or the state. We have no way to establish contact with the Coatepec citizens and if we do, we are sent to the mayor and the mayor only talks about what will benefit him. He doesn’t listen to the voice of the people, he actually just listens to the voice of the politicians and it seems pointless to explain their interests.

As a community, as owners nothing has been given to us and when we go to court for support there really isn’t anything. Both parties must show up: the owners and the pseudo-owner of the land. When the latter doesn’t show up, we are simply told that there can be no audience because he didn’t come. But it could happen that if we don’t appear to court one day, they could say to him: “if you are the only person interested then we shall make a ruling.” Both results and actions are quite ambiguous. Nothing is clear. That’s why we are spreading the word around. We don’t have any other choice but to do so. People find out about what is happening, what is being carried out and they can’t really organize. They can’t really choose a way through, or say we have done this and that, because both the landowners and citizens aren’t aware of the issue so the perpetrators feel they can do what they want. When the spread of the information began, we managed to achieve a stalemate because nothing else could be done by the perpetrators. Therefore, there are many versions from the self-proclaimed owner, the mayor and from us who are in the movement. We protect ourselves in accordance to what the true landowners report to us as they are the ones who have direct contact with the issue. We spread the information and we perform watches and we do investigations, but the most tangible stuff is with the landowners.

AB – Thank you very much for your work. You are very brave.

JM – More than being brave, I think that as humans we must know that life comes from Nature. Culture comes from Nature. Everything comes from her and we go back to her. We have to be more conscious of that and thank you very much.

How You Can help!

–  Follow the “Movimiento por la Defensa de la Sierra” on social media and share the story with everyone you know.

–  Show your support by commenting on their page, and/or sharing a video of support.

In Ecuador, a Forest Has Legal Rights

In Ecuador, a Forest Has Legal Rights

This is a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity

Ecuador’s Highest Court Enforces Constitutional ‘Rights of Nature’ to Safeguard Los Cedros Protected Forest

QUITO, Ecuador— In an unprecedented case, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador has applied the constitutional provision on the “Rights of Nature” to safeguard the Los Cedros cloud forest from mining concessions. The court voted seven in favor, with two abstentions.

In the wake of the ruling, which was published Dec. 1, the Constitutional Court will develop a binding area of law in which the Rights of Nature, the right to a healthy environment, the right to water and environmental consultation must be respected.

The court decided that activities that threaten the rights of nature should not be carried out within the Los Cedros Protected Forest ecosystem. The ruling bans mining and all types of extractive activities in the protected area. Water and environmental permits to mining companies must also be denied.

Mining concessions have been granted to two thirds of the incredible Los Cedros reserve. The Ecuadorian state mining company ENAMI holds the rights. The new ruling means that mining concessions, environmental and water permits in the forest must be cancelled.

“This precedent-setting case is important not only for Ecuador but also for the international community,” said Alejandro Olivera, senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This progressive and innovative ruling recognizes that nature can and does have rights. It protects Los Cedros’ imperiled wildlife, like the endangered brown-headed spider monkeys and spectacled bears, from mining companies.”

In September 2020 Earth Law Center, Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court. The groups asked the court to protect Los Cedros and robustly enforce constitutional provisions that establish basic rights of nature, or “pachamama,” including the right to exist, the right to restoration and the rights of the rivers, especially the river Magdalena.

“This is a historic victory in favor of nature,” said Natalia Greene from the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. “The Constitutional Court states that no activity that threatens the Rights of Nature can be developed within the ecosystem of Los Cedros Protected Forest, including mining and any other extractive activity. Mining is now banned from this amazing and unique protected forest. This sets a great juridical precedent to continue with other threatened Protected Forests. Today, the endangered frogs, the spectacled bears, the spider monkey, the birds and nature as a whole have won an unprecedented battle.”

“It is undoubtedly good news but the situation of the Los Cedros Protective Forest is not an isolated event in Ecuador,” said Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin American legal lead at Earth Law Center. “This is a problem of the forests throughout the country. In recent years mining concessions that overlap with protective forests have been awarded.”

The brown-headed spider monkey, found in Los Cedros and threatened by the mining, has lost more than 80% of its original area of distribution in northwest Ecuador. In 2005 scientists estimated that there were fewer than 250 brown-headed spider monkeys globally, making the species among the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.

The case is of great significance, both for Ecuador and the world, because it establishes important and influential “Earth jurisprudence” that will help guide humanity to be a benefit rather than a destructive presence within the community of life. The proposed mining is unlawful, the groups say, because it violates the rights of the Los Cedros Protective Forest as an ecosystem as well as the rights of the many members of that living community.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Recognizing the true guardians of the forest: Q&A with David Kaimowitz

Recognizing the true guardians of the forest: Q&A with David Kaimowitz

Indigenous peoples worldwide are the victims of the largest genocide in human history, which is ongoing. Wherever indigenous cultures have not been completely destroyed or assimilated, they stand as relentless defenders of the landbases and natural communities which are there ancestral homes. They also provide living proof that humans as a species are not inherently destructive, but a societal structure based on large scale monoculture, endless energy consumption, accumulation of wealth and power for a few elites, human supremacy and patriarchy (i.e. civilization) is. DGR stands in strong solidarity with indigenous peoples.

This article originally appeared on Mongabay.

by  on 14 April 2021

India: With Just Sickles And Sticks, Adivasi Women Save A Forest

India: With Just Sickles And Sticks, Adivasi Women Save A Forest

Featured image by Souparno Chatterjee

    by Chandan SarmaYouth Ki Awaaz

Hakim Sinan village, Ranibandh Block, Bankura District, West Bengal:

It was getting dark in the forest. At a distance, light was gleaming from oil lamps in the village.

“Did you breastfeed these Saal trees? Why are you stopping us from cutting them down?” growled the poachers.

“How can you breastfeed your own mother?” retorted the resolute Adivasi women.

Culturally, forests have played a vital role in the lives of the Santhal tribes. This is much more evident in villages that live on the fringes of the forests. It is a relationship built on reverence and compassion.

Forests provide the tribes with fuelwood, leaves, herbs, fruits and honey. It is also the abode of many Gods and Goddesses. In fact, Santhals are proudly the forest people. The isolated Hakim Sinan village in Bankura district of West Bengal is an embodiment of this relationship of tribal communities with the forest. For Adivasi women, this bond is even stronger; the forest nurtures the community like a mother.

Illegal logging in this forest village had always been a problem. There had been intermittent and uncoordinated protests by many in the community. Women in the village had raised the issue on their own when they would cross the timber mafia in the forests. But not a leaf moved.

When NGO PRADAN started organising the Santhal women of Hakim Sinan village into Self-Help Groups (SHG) some years back, it was their first close interaction with outsiders. Interestingly, no one in this village had ever been to a bank: let alone open a bank account. A savings and credit group was formed which helped the families save money periodically and supported them for their credit needs. But this is not a story of financial sustainability – it is a story of the transformation of women from this village into an unwavering collective who can stand for their rights and values they cherish. Even in the face of life-threatening danger.

As poor and vulnerable Adivasi women in this village were organised, they grew in strength and confidence. Unfortunately, during this period, unabated illegal logging exacerbated to the point that it threatened the very existence of their forest. The destruction of their culture and harmonious relationship with Mother Nature stared at them. Moved by this destruction, this unified group of women decided to take a stand. But they were up against men with arms and influence. All they had were mere sickles and sticks and an insurmountable belief in their own collective strength.

When the women in one of their group meetings announced that they would now take turns to guard the forest every night, the rest of the village was bewildered‘How will these frail women take on the poachers?’

So, it began: the women grouped themselves and every night, one group would vigil the forests. Simultaneously, they lodged a complaint at the forest department.

The Nights Of Skirmish

On a moonlit night, one group of ‘guarding women’ came face to face with the poachers. One woman ran back to the village. An altercation ensued. A knife was put to the throat of Lokkhimuni Soren. The mighty were ready to shed blood. In the meantime, the rest of the women dashed to the forest. This group of 15 women was not backing down. The poachers threatened to come back with greater force.

On another night of skirmish, the poachers growled, “Did you breastfeed these saal trees? Why are you stopping us from cutting them down? Who are you to stop us?” 

“How can you breastfeed your own mother? This forest is our mother and we will give our lives but will not let you cut the trees,” they retorted.

The poachers had to go back empty-handed again. More skirmishes followed but they halted the devastation of their forest.

The news of Adivasi women standing up to powerful poachers spread like forest fire. The women also repeatedly engaged with the Forest Ranger. An official meeting was arranged between them and forest officers. All poachers were subsequently arrested. Each one of them was fined ₹5,000. Illegal logging of trees in the vicinity of Hakim Sinan village and beyond has abated. There is still an undercurrent of threat to this collective from vested interests but the women of this SHG are confident of taking on any challenge to save their forest: their Goddess, their Mother.

Photo Credit: Souparno Chatterjee, PRADAN

Additional Inputs to the Story: Souparno Chatterjee; PRADAN Khatra Team, Bankura district, West Bengal.

Originally published on Youth Ki Awaaz.  Republished with permission.

Clouds of Uncertainty

Clouds of Uncertainty

A web of impunity, corruption and extractivism confronts indigenous leaders in Colombia’s southwest

Featured image: A cloud hangs over Rioblanco, a Yanacona reservation in the municipality of Sotará, in Cauca, Colombia. Photo: Robin Llewellyn

     by Robin Llewellyn / Intercontinental Cry

When the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in June 2016, it brought a tentative end to more than five decades of violent armed conflict. But ever since the peace accord was signed, social leaders across Colombia have been threatened and killed with alarming regularity. The province of Cauca is at the epicenter of this new wave of violence.

On March 5 of this year, a death threat was anonymously placed under the door of the Yanacona’s council hall in Rioblanco, an indigenous reservation in the municipality of Sotará, high up in the mountains of south-western Colombia. The death threat pointed squarely at the Yanacona’s Governor and Vice-governor, as well as one security guard. The message was as obscure as it was threatening; there was just one hint of who what behind it. The letter was signed, “from the assassins of Popayán.”

A year earlier, on March 2, 2016, the young governor of Rioblanco, William Alexander Oime Alarcón, was shot dead in the historic center of Cauca’s capital, the UNESCO-registered “white city” of Popayan. CCTV footage shows an attacker struggling with the governor for his bag which contained the 20 million pesos (US$6,500) that he had just withdrawn from a bank to use in social programs in the reservation, then the attacker shoots the governor in the head, back, and legs, and flees on a motorbike driven by an accomplice. Although no-one attempted to intervene the attacker did not take the bag.

The governor died that evening. He had been known to have no tolerance for corruption and had opposed the expansion of all forms of mining into the area. He had arranged an appointment with the Ombudsman for the following morning to discuss a number of death threats made against him.

The governor had been accompanied to the bank by two youths from his reservation. Immediately after the attack, one of them quietly took Oime Alarcón’s phone from his body; he would reportedly refuse to pass it over to the investigator for two weeks. During that time the slain governor would occasionally appear to be available on his Facebook account, as though his phone was being accessed by a third party.

The other youth who had been present was escorted to an office of the SIJIN (Seccional de Investigación Criminal – Colombia’s criminal investigative authority), where he saw, in an adjoining office, the attacker and his accomplice. He immediately attempted to physically attack them but was restrained and guided away to give his account of the attack. When he came out the two had left; they would not be among the eight people later arrested for the crime (and quickly released on bail). The next stage of the judicial process against them is due to begin this coming October.

The governor was to have been accompanied to the office of the Ombudsman by his cousin, Alexis Barahona, who had shared the governor’s house in Rioblanco before moving to the city of Cali to find work. It was in a visit to Cali that, in October 2015, Oime Alarcón would drink a beer with his cousin and first speak about the threats he was receiving.

“He said that they threatened him at every opportunity”, remembered Alexis. “He told me names and everything. The threats kept arriving at the house, and he simply told me these things and smiled. Two people were threatening him over some funds, some differences that existed in the council: for some money that my cousin didn’t want them to use. At the same time he told me that there were differences between himself and those who wanted to use land for mining.”

The names Oime Alarcón shared with his cousin were Mesias Chicangana and Ancizar Paz, former governors of the reservation. According to Alexis Barahona the governor didn’t take their threats seriously, believing that this “cartel de los gordos”(“cartel of the fatties”), didn’t possess the power to hurt him. The murdered governor then told his cousin that a threatening text message had referred to him as a guerrilla, and that that when coltan had been discovered above the reservation it had led to pressure from some within the community to allow exploratory mining. He also mentioned that a representative of mining interests had once arrived from outside the reservation and had asked him to sign a letter of consent to allow them to enter the territory, a request he refused. According to Alexis the two members of the “cartel de los gordos” were investigated in relation to Oime Alarcón’s killing, but were cleared of all involvement.

There had been one more thing the governor had told his cousin over a beer that evening in Cali. “I’m doing something significant, I’m trying to avoid something big happening to Rioblanco”, he had told Alexis, but he didn’t tell his cousin what it was; only the ombudsman would be told. “He didn’t want to talk to anyone else, not to the Police nor to the CRIC [Consejo Regional Indigena del Cauca / Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca].”

Immediately after Oime Alarcón’s murder, while the event was still being described as a botched robbery, indigenous leader Aida Quilcué said that investigators should consider whether recent activities that the Yanacona community had carried out in the Paramo of Barbillas had been a cause. The paramo ecosystems of the Yanacona territories are highly vulnerable to a range of environmental threats, and there the booming illegal gold mining sector has been targeted for closure by indigenous guards and indigenous authorities. “They were exercising territorial control there just eight days before” she said of the dead governor and his colleagues. “We consider that these acts could be related to the case… I don’t believe that it was a simple robbery; it’s a persecution.”

But the governor’s sister, Elizabeth Alarcón, is skeptical about automatically connecting her brother’s death with mining: she points to the death in 1995 of another leader who struggled against corruption in the reservation, Dimas Onel Majin. “The two men shared many characteristics and those responsible for both deaths have never been identified… If you look at the origin of the threats that have recently arrived, they were delivered within the community.”

In Rioblanco, she added, “there have been a number of people who have been in authority, in control of the territory, and then he [Oime Alarcón] arrived as a different type of leader, much closer to the people… He wanted to do things differently and he encountered corruption, and in Cauca there is corruption, and in his own community there is corruption.”

A mural in the square of Rioblanco remembering Alexander Oime Alarcón.

With the failure of the state investigators to reveal the authors of the killing, Elizabeth Alarcón has been left facing a host of questions related to the attack: “One could say that it’s extraordinary because they assassinated him in the very center of Popayan where one supposes that there’s a lot of security, but there was not a police response in time, there was not an ambulance response in time… people have told me that he lay there shot in the street for 15 minutes. And it’s relatively close to the hospitals. They shot him here and there is the clinic. To organize an assassination in the manner that the investigators first described, they [the authors of the attack] used many people, six or eight, and every person had their function: one to do this, one to do that. So I think that behind this there’s a lot of money and a lot of power.”

The Yanakona authorities and the CRIC responded to the threat “from the assassins of Popayan” by calling a public meeting in Rioblanco that denounced threats and attacks across Yanacona areas.

The president of the CRIC, Carlos Maca, began by decrying the presence of “new armed actors that are gathering in the [indigenous] territories, BACRIM [“bandas criminales” – ‘criminal bands’ that resemble former or current paramilitary groups such as the Gaitanistas/UrabeñosAguilas Negras, and Rastrojos] that affect the territories, they come to systematically violate human rights; they never cease to threaten our leaders, they carry out selective and extra-judicial killings of social leaders – not just against indigenous but also against Afro-Colombian and campesino leaders. But the government doesn’t want to accept this reality, nor the commissions for human rights that, in a similar manner, disregard the organization of these new armed actors.”

Outside the meeting hall, vast clouds obscured the surrounding mountainsides, only occasionally breaking to allow a view of the emerald-green slopes beyond. Across Cauca, criminal impunity rates stand at over 90%, cloaking the identities not just of those who were involved in the attack against Governor Alarcón, but also of the identities of the armed groups that have sprung up across the region. But as the number of threats and the number of killings of social leaders in Cauca have surpassed that in every other province of Colombia, analysts are pointing to several key dynamics.

In May 2017 the Pacifista! website noted that “Ten of the 35 leaders killed in Colombia since the beginning of December 2016 died in Cauca, almost all in broad daylight and in populated areas”. They found that among the principal causes of the deaths was the entrance of new criminal power structures into areas abandoned by the FARC following their demobilization. These groups included the ELN guerrillas as well as groups of what they called ‘post-demobilization paramilitaries’ – organizations that had grown out of the officially disbanded AUC(“United Self-defense Forces” – right-wing paramilitaries that had supported the state’s crackdown on guerrillas while also stealing large stretches of land). The authors drew on a report from the Ombudsman entitled, Violence and threats against social leaders and human rights defenders, that said these new armed groups have particularly “threatened community leaders and inhabitants that oppose both illegal and large-scale mining.”

The website also mentioned the prevalence in Cauca of the coca industry, the deadly continuation of the land conflict between indigenous Nasa communities and the sugar industry, and the stigmatization and subsequent attacks against activists linked to the CRIC and to the left-wing Marcha Patriotica political movement, visible in the many pamphlets produced under the claimed authorship of the Aguilas Negras.

Others support the importance of the mining sector in driving the violence. The CRIC’s human rights team was in attendance at the meeting in Rioblanco, and Maria Ovidia Palechor reiterated that the social leaders killed in the renewed wave of killings have been “men and women who have said ‘No to mining. They have said “no to mega-projects’”.

It remains difficult to confidently attribute responsibility for the deaths or to see past the clouds of uncertainty that Colombia’s extreme criminal impunity rate has created. Do the dynamics explored above alone explain how the killers of Oime Alarcón knew he was about to testify to the Ombudsman? Or that he would be withdrawing money from a specific bank at a specific time? And do they alone explain why his phone was taken from him as he lay dying in the street?

It’s possible that we may never know, but returning to the theme of general dynamics of criminality may at least be helpful in understanding the wave of violence that has claimed the lives of other social leaders. What is the illegal mining sector in Cauca that many have seen as responsible for the governor’s death, and how does it relate to other political and economic interests in the region?

At the public meeting in Rioblanco, the governors of each community sat in the front row of the assembly holding their staffs of office, surrounding a chakana, a pre-Colombian cross laid out on the floor symbolizing Yanacona philosophy and spirituality. In the other seats and around the vast doorway gathered members of the community, one of whom announced his concern with the delay in advancing the investigation of Oime Alarcón, and recommending that another state investigator should take control of the case.

Others spoke more broadly about the history of violent conflict that was affecting the region, and condemned state institutions for their lack of interest and engagement, visible again in the failure of state officials to attend the event. Almost all the attendees wore heavy woolen ruanas against the cold, including the head governor of the Yanacona People, Ferley Quintero, who presented to the audience the measures being taken to advance their security: “The Yanacona People, their authorities and the community, have been able to advance actions of peace that enable us to live harmoniously as a people in our territory and to demand that we be respected by the armed groups. We are fortifying the position of the indigenous guards in defending our territory, in preventing the consumption of alcohol in the territory, in preventing the cultivation of coca and marijuana, and in disarming members of the community. But we have seen our efforts countered by the violation of our right to free, prior and informed consent through the installation of a High Mountain Battalion in our territory which represents a social and territorial disequilibrium, and additionally we’re threatened by the mining and energy policy that the government is forcing into our territories.”

Photo: Robin Llewellyn

Outside the hall, IC asked a member of the human rights team of the CRIC how mining represented a threat to their communities:

“In the indigenous territories there’s one problem of illegal mining, and there’s another in the form of legal mining, carried out by the multinationals. The national government is facilitating these dynamics through providing mining titles. In relation to the multinationals the government doesn’t want to accept that paramilitarism is active today in Colombia, and logically these threats come from that side because the BACRIM and the paramilitaries are returning and they, like before, are protecting the wealth and property of the rich. The other illegal mining is very well-organized, and is arriving to the rivers and mountains where there is evidence of gold, and they threaten the communities, the indigenous authorities, and the indigenous guards.”

Nelson Cuspián Jiménez, Vice-Governor of the indigenous council of Frontino, La Sierra, was also in attendance, and he told IC: “In the year 2006 Anglo Gold Ashanti arrived in the community, but thanks to the CRIC y the Grand Council of the Yanacona People, actions were organized to protect the territory and its communities. AngloGold had initiated its works without exercising prior consultation as demanded by the legal norms. But then last week that they would enter again “con toda” (with everything). We are worried that as indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino communities we’ll be displaced from our territories, endangering the elderly, children, and women. It would equate to the termination of the indigenous community. The state should assert the relevance of prior consultation.”

In Frontino, the Vice-Governor continued, “there is illegal mining, the gold-panners have used pressure hoses that have caused environmental damage for a number of years, no such ‘artesian mining’ should be done. The legal and illegal mining is carried out by people from outside, but also some from the campesinocommunities of the region. But the threats related to mining always come from outside.”

The explosion in illegal mining has spread across Cauca only in the last decade, according to journalist Moritz Tenthoff: “The gold fever, woken in 2008 by the financial crisis in speculative capital, increased fivefold the price of the metal between 2002 and 2010. Although in Cauca there was no company exploiting gold until that date, the production of gold has increased, according to the Sistema de Información Minero Colombiano (Information System of Colombian Mining – Simco), in a vertiginous manner, passing 621.54 kilos in 2008 to 3,544.39 kilos in 2013.”

The government has, according to the Colombian writer Alfredo Molano, exacerbated the problem. He spoke out in 2012 over the impact that Resolution 0045 would have. The Act, passed by the National Agency of Mining in June 2012, created vast new ‘strategic areas’ of mining, and would undoubtedly cause, according to Molano: “thousands of large and small miners to prepare expeditions to take possession of the ‘strategic reserve areas’ located in the few regions still preserving indigenous and black cultures, forests, rivers and wetlands. Who is going to prevent that mass of miners from invading the 22 million hectares and contaminating rivers and streams with mercury and cyanide, and from buying indigenous and municipal authorities? Moreover, when they arrive they will be giving the guerrillas and paramilitary commanders tips to provide the miners with a security service.”

The threats quickly ensued, some of which correspond with the entrance of the mining sector in various communities: The Comité de Integración del Macizo Colombiano (Committee for the Integration of the Colombian Massif) announcedthat in 2013 and 2014: “Environmentalist, authorities and social leaders of the Colombian Massif denounce how in the last weeks, they have been the victims of constant followings, threats, and harassments for defending their territory and rivers from large scale and illegal mining that is being developed in Cauca.”

Oime Alarcón’s successor as governor of Rioblanco is Juan Buenaventura Yangana. He asserted that the community remained in the dark over the identity of the killers: “We can’t truly confirm which are the sources of the criminal action that took the life of our governor last year.”

IC asked his position on mining: “We don’t take part in mining projects because they destroy our Mother Earth: they fill her with pollution, with cyanide, with all the chemicals that one has to use in mining. Mining also creates violence because it generates a lot of ready money, it creates violence and prostitution. What one has to see in relation to resources of money is that they generate deaths. For the indigenous Peoples, the places where they have detected precious metals have to be respected as sacred sites as we have determined them, and they are not there to enrich but to maintain as something sacred in our Mother Earth.”

In such words, one can perceive the vital elements of a conflict, whether or not such dynamics were at play in the specific case of the former governor’s death: the wave of illegal mining meeting such perspectives with many of the threats and attacks that have taken the region to the center of the current epidemic of violence.

The wave has also crowded many of the riversides of the department with yellow earth-movers, notwithstanding the illegality of their presence, nor their proximity to the main highways along which daily pass functionaries of the institutions of state. To a member of the CRIC who asked not to be identified, this cohabitation testifies not only to the bribes and the intimidation that have deterred mayors and governors from enforcing strict legal controls on the transport of earthmovers, but also to a tacit support by the state and multinational companies for the illegal mining sector. The violence and pollution caused by illegal miners weakens the social fabric of communities, which are then less able or less inclined to resist the entrance of the multinationals. The activist claimed that people in affected areas are left desperate, and more inclined to believe the promise of reduced environmental contamination that is implicit in the slogan shared by the large-scale mining lobby and the Colombian Ministry of Mines“minería bien hecha” – “mining well done”.

Ministry of Mines slogan “mineria bien hecha” – “mining well done”.

The vast majority of Cauca’s gold is produced today in untitled mines and then sold through commercializing companies to enter the ‘legal’ markets in Cali and Medellin. Moritz Tenthoff was able to secure an interview with one of the kingpins in the illegal mining sector in Cauca, Alexander Duque Builes, who attributed the birth of the sector to the policies of ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez: “When the ‘democratic security’ policy arrived [Uribe’s pursuit of a military crack-down against the guerrillas that relied on the involvement of paramilitary groups] we saw an opportunity to grow and strengthen. Cauca has immense mining potential, the mining zones are large, only the issue of public order has been the cause of the slow growth that Cauca has had.”

The majority of areas that today produce gold in Cauca are frequented by illegal armed groups including the ELN and BACRIM/paramilitaries, that charge protection money from the miners who sometimes have been displaced from failing sections of the rural economy. These payments then feed into other interests of criminal actors, including narco-trafficking and extortion, all of which serve to challenge the territorial control exercised by indigenous authorities.

Miller Hormiga, lawyer for the CRIC, represents those victimized by the killing of Oime Alarcón, and he attempted to explain why the impunity rate in Cauca is so high: “The Colombian justice system lacks the strong tools needed to guide its investigations. We sometimes overlook the technological aspect of investigative agencies, of the judicial police, which is still not at a good international standard. We still have many deficiencies, a great lack in personnel, the impossibility of reaching all territories, the context of risk that causes witness not to participate in an opportune way, the great accumulation of cases that one lawyer and judge will face… all of these things together generate a climate that favors impunity: that many cases don’t succeed in establishing who were the material and intellectual authors of the acts. It’s an enormous difficulty.

When asked about the impact mining has had on Cauca, Hormiga said that, “One of the things that we have always viewed with suspicion is that the activities of illegal mining precede the interests or activities of legal mining of a national or international character. This worries us. And what we do know is that there is interest from outside in pursuing mining in indigenous territories, and we have seen that mining truly represents a potent risk for the lives of indigenous Peoples.”

Threats continue to be made across indigenous Cauca. Just a few days ago, ICreturned with a voice-recorder that went unused because a victim wouldn’t talk to the media. Was mining involved? Probably, but without being able to conduct interviews the clouds of uncertainty continue to conceal vital details. In relation to justice, the impunity that Hormiga described could prove to be as potent a threat to the lives of Indigenous Peoples as the boom in illegal mining, and could it be that a synergy between these two dynamics was at play behind the actions of the “assassins of Popayan”.