Wed, Jul 25, 2018 - Page 9 News List

‘A hitman could come and kill me’: the fight for indigenous land

Mexican nurse-turned-activist Isela Gonzalez lives with bodyguards and constant threats in her fight against her nation’s destructive economic interests

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian

Not all land defenders fight in remote forests and coastlands. Some take the battle to the centers of power: to courtrooms, parliament buildings and corporate headquarters.

The veneer of urban civility might be glossier here, but the struggle is no less dangerous.

In some cases, it can be worse.

Isela Gonzalez has been threatened more times than she can remember by university-educated men in suits, whose business interests — in logging, mining, agriculture and narcotics — are challenged by her work as director of Alianza Sierra Madre, which protects indigenous land rights in Mexico’s western Sierra Madre.

The warnings have been muttered on steps outside legal hearings, whispered on the telephone, or via conversations she has been deliberately allowed to overhear.

They are not idle.

The nurse-turned-activist has seen dozens of her fellow campaigners murdered in recent years.

Armed guards have been deployed by the state to provide her with 24-hour protection, panic-buttons have been installed in her office, locks have been upgraded in her home, and she and her staff have received crisis training, but her enemies, she says, can hire an assassin for as little as 100 pesos (US$5.31) or a few bottles of beer, regardless of whether she is in a remote village or Chihuahua city.

“Even if I am not in the community a hitman could come and kill me,” she said. “We have protocols to protect us, but we are at high risk, and we are conscious, fully aware, that even if we have bodyguards, if they want to do something to us they will do it.”

Mexico is rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous nations in the world for environmental and land activists.

Last year, 15 defenders were killed (a more than fivefold rise over the previous year), pushing the nation up from 14th to fourth place in the grim global rankings.

All but two of the victims were indigenous.

The most prominent in recent years was Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, a Tarahumara leader who won the Goldman environment prize for his efforts to protect the old-growth forests of pine and oak in the Sierra Madre.

He was killed by a gunman in January last year.

The backdrop is a broader wave of assassinations and disappearances of civil rights activists and journalists in Mexico.

While narco-gangs are usually blamed, the state is often complicit. Senior politicians receive bribes and kickbacks for granting lucrative mining and logging concessions on indigenous land. When local communities resist attempts to clear their forests, pollute their rivers or destroy their crops, they are met with violence and assassinations.

“This is about the government giving permits to exploit everything recently, and then you have communities who don’t want to sell the land, they have a different vision of things, they want to keep things as they are,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez has no material incentive to risk her life. She is not a member of the indigenous groups that she defends. She has no land at stake. She simply believes it is the right thing to do.

A nurse by training, she later switched to anthropology. Twenty-two years ago, her research took her for the first time to isolated villages among the pine-oak forests of the Sierra Madre, where she spent time with three peoples — the Raramuri, Odami and Tepehuan (who are together jointly named the Tarahumara by outsiders).

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