FJA 2020 Shortlist

Category: Excellence in Environmental Journalism

Dora Edelmira Montero Carvajal, Andrés Bermudez Liévano, Tatiana Pardo, María Paula, Murcia Ginna Morelo, Sara Castrillejo, Helena Calle, César Rojas, Jeanneth Valdivieso, Lisset Boon, Ezequiel Fernández, Juliana Mori, Isabela Ponce, Vienna Herrera, Alexa Vélez

(Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela)

Land of Resistance

The original publication is available via the following link: (English, Spanish, Portuguese)

Defending the jungles, mountains, forests and rivers of Latin America has never been so dangerous. 6 out of the 10 most hostile countries for leaders and communities defending the environment and their ancestral lands are in Latin America, according to Special Rapporteur Michel Forst’s 2016 report to the UN.

A team of journalists from ten countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela) came together to investigate such attacks against environmental defenders.

We worked for a year, unveiling in March 2020 a database with 2.367 attacks over the last 11 years (2009-2019) and 13 in-depth stories on individual episodes, which complemented the 16 stories we ran when first publishing our project in April 2019. It isn’t a complete picture of attacks during that time period, as underreporting is rife. However, our database -built with more than 100 sources, including official entities, press archives, social organizations and on-the-ground reporting- shows a heartbreaking panorama.

Our Findings

Our research found 2.133 attacks against individual leaders and 234 against communities or organizations defending the environment.

78.7% of events were against men, perhaps because they traditionally have held community leadership positions, although we also found 441 attacks against women, including Pemon leader Lisa Henrito Percy in Venezuela, Siona leader Martha Liliana Piaguaje in Colombia or Kichwa leader Patricia Gualinga in Ecuador whose stories we told.

From murders to attacks and even judicial harassment and displacement, they have paid a high price for defending their right to a healthy environment and protecting strategic ecosystems within their territories.

Hard-Hit Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic minorities are the target of an alarming 48% of violence cases (1.146 cases), proving that indigenous and Afro-descendant territories are particularly vulnerable to these criminal interests.

Data show 893 attacks against members of 159 different indigenous ethnic groups, with the Lenca in Honduras being the most attacked (71), including murdered leader Berta Caceres. They're followed by the Guarani-kaiowa (54) and Munduruku (39) in Brazil.

17 of our reports document attacks and actions against indigenous communities who try to safeguard their ancestral lands –Lenca in Honduras; Kolla and Atacama in Argentina; Pemon in Venezuela; Shuar and Kichwa in Ecuador; Piratapuyo, Tucano, Pijao, Siona, Zenu and Nutabe in Colombia; Guarani-kaiowaa, Munduruku, Karipuna and Uru-eu-wau-wau in Brazil; Raramuri and Odami in Mexico; Trinitarian Moxeño and Torewa in Bolivia; or Ashaninka and Tikuna in Peru.

The database also shows 148 cases of violence against Afro-descendant populations and 105 against the Garifuna, also of African origin, in Honduras. Three of our investigations show attacks suffered by Afro-descendant communities in the Colombian Pacific and Northeastern Brazil.

What They Defend

Although in many cases environmental leaders try to protect more than one natural resource, in this research we took into consideration the main resource they defend.

Likewise, in many cases, leaders and communities have been defending themselves against several kinds of stakeholders. Our investigation only considered the main sectors affecting the struggling communities, ranging from agribusiness, oil, mining, hydropower and roads, to drug trafficking and illegal timber trade.

These are the main types of violence suffered by leaders. It’s worth noting that, in several cases, leaders or communities have suffered more than one event; therefore, we marked either the gravest event or the first in time.

Amazonia, the Epicenter of Attacks

More than half of our reports investigated violence against leaders, communities and park rangers in the Amazon region in six different countries.

These 16 stories show how dozens of indigenous territories, ancestral communities and national parks throughout the Amazon basin are targeted by attacks and criminal interests. We found and documented cases of settlers invading communal lands, the military attacking indigenous leaders, oil companies omitting responsibility for contaminated water sources, drug traffickers forcing communities to grow coca, park rangers murdered for fulfilling their calling to preserve collective heritage, and woodcutters harassing those who protect the species they covet.

The Hardest Part

The most difficult information to collect was the status of cases within the judicial system. We only found conclusive data from judicial decisions (either convictions, acquittals or pardons) in 303 cases (12,8% of the total) showing that justice is in debt with environmental advocates.

In many of these cases, sentences punish only the perpetrators, but not the masterminds. Such was case with the sentences in Mexico and Honduras regarding the murderers of Isidro Baldenegro and Berta Caceres, both recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. In over 1,000 cases -46% of the total-, we found no information on the investigations’ status.

Equally alarming were the findings indicating that, at least in 1,325 cases (or 56% of the total) risk reports were previously filed before authorities, including State institutions and international bodies, by the victims and their communities.

Our research found that even bringing a case before the Inter-American Commission or Court of Human Rights, the two bodies in charge of watching over human rights in Latin America, doesn’t always lead to effective protection measures.

Tragically, despite popular wisdom indicating that forewarned soldiers should not die in war, violence against leaders has continued or even escalated in five countries –Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela– where States didn’t do enough to protect them, despite precautionary measures or international level risk alerts.

Although our measurement is not scientific but journalistic, the two most violent years were 2017 (13.9%) and 2018 (10%). 2019 accounted for 7.4% of them, even though many sources hadn’t yet concluded their investigations at the time of publication. The murder of several indigenous leaders in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia in March 2020 shows that not even the COVID-19 pandemic managed to stop violence.

These advocates not only protect the land that gives them life, but also mountains that provide us with water and forests that clean the air from cities. They're being threatened and murdered at a frightening rate. They’re more than a number. These are their tales of struggle and resistance.



The Siona Governors and Their Disputed Territory

On the Ecuadorian border, two Siona women –Milena Payoguaje and Martha Liliana Piaguaje– govern indigenous territories within one of Colombia's most disputed areas. There is a company seeking to extract oil and seismic explosives appeared within their land.

The water reaches her shin, about ten centimeters from the edge of her rubber boots. Her waterproof pants are already wet. On the belt, he carries a machete and a pouch to store essential objects. The governor of the Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservation, Martha Liliana Piaguaje, carries her baton across her chest as she records on her cell phone camera one of the points where the company Amerisur Resources (recently sold to Chilean company Geopark) installed Sismigel explosive charges to carry out seismic studies.

This photo was taken in early October 2019, when Liliana and her indigenous guard went to their reservation’s limits with representatives of Amerisur and the Ministry of Interior, among other officials of Corpoamazonia and other local authorities, to tell them that the company should never have buried that material there. The company states the explosives are outside Siona indigenous territory, but Liliana and her colleagues claim they have evidence to prove that Amerisur crossed the reservation’s limits, two hours downstream from Puerto Asis, on the Putumayo River.


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“Attacks against indigenous communities aim to militarize our territory”

Lisa Henrito has been accused of secessionism and treason by the Venezuelan military high command, which triggered urgent action by Amnesty International. In a context of predominantly male leadership, she stands out in a region threatened by mining and smuggling, as well as for her tenacity in defending her people’s land.

A short woman with long, dark hair faces a major of the Venezuelan Army who is guarded by three men in olive-green uniforms. Neither the men’s insignias nor height seem to intimidate her. "If you want to do in this municipality what you are doing in the rest of the country, you are very much mistaken, because there is a people here and we'ren’t going to allow it," she tells him, defiantly. With strong, determined mannerisms, she stands her ground in the argument with the military man who was trying to get past an indigenous checkpoint on a road in Great Savanna, Southeastern Venezuela. "You are looking out for your own interests. We're defending ours. You know full well who are corrupt here and now you are trying to accuse an entire people," said the woman in an anonymous video.

The woman who firmly achieved the military’s withdrawal from the road is Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy, a native female leader of the Pemon indigenous people, who have lived in the territory demarcated as Venezuela’s southern state of Bolívar (bordering with Guyana and Brazil) since ancient times.


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Death and Oblivion in the Tolupan forest

The Tolupan San Francisco de Locomapa Tribe, in Yoro, Honduras, has suffered murders, judicial harassment and attacks due to its opposition to electricity projects in their territory, which is now in dispute. In the past 20 years, 40 Tolupan indigenous persons were murdered and its population faces its own extermination.

Consuelo Soto speaks always looking at the other side of the street, as if expecting another attack from the members of her community who have harassed her for years. A couple of weeks ago, she was threatened again. She answers questions almost whispering, in front of her house, which preserves the memory of the violence perpetrated against the tribe.

Consuelo is one of the Tolupan leaders facing threats and attacks for defending the Tolupan territory of San Francisco de Locomapa in the Yoro department, North Honduras. The conflict within the tribe was triggered in 2009 when two companies, Venta Local de Madera y Transformación Ocotillo (Velomato) and Industria Maderera Rene Eleazar (Inmare) along with the National Institute for the Preservation and Development of Forests, Protected Areas and Wildlife (ICF) developed forest management plans giving rise to the sale of wood extracted from forests located within Tolupan territory.


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White gold: The water dispute

For some years, the Puna desert in North Argentina has been experiencing a particular mutation. Near the crossroads of national routes 52 and 70, at a height of 4,000 mts, a bunch of channels spread out for 14 kilometers connecting the Cauchari – Olaroz basin with the lithium carbonate plant owned by Exar, a mining company. They're about the width of a person and, in 2021, when extraction starts, thousands of liters of brine per day will go through them until reaching the evaporation stream pools.

Once they have dried, the lithium carbonate will go to several destinations, mainly the United States, China and Japan. These countries are going to convert it into lithium ion to be used by almost the entire light technological industry we carry in

our backpacks: tablets, cellphones, notebooks and, in particular, the production of batteries for electrical cars. Exar’s forecasts (owned by Chinese and Canadian capitals) indicates that this basin has reserves to produce a total of 40,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year for 40 years and they have already announced an initial investment of USD 565 million. Just in Jujuy province, 13 projects of this kind are now operational.

Cristian Aragón owns a contractor company that mining extraction sells supplies, in particular for works in the salt flats. In this project, he is responsible for building a part of the external pipe through which Exar is going to transport the brine.

Now, he stands at in the security cabin that controls the employee’s access to Exar’s plant. He is waiting for a ride, smokes, and wears black sunglasses, a grey shirt, a silk kerchief around the neck, blue jeans, working boots, and carries a crocodile leather bag that matches another couple of boots made of the same material.


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