As we prepare to launch a new initiative supporting human rights defenders to tackle environmental injustices, we remember some of those who have lost their lives fighting for greater protection.
At least 331 human rights defenders were killed in 2020. Three quarters of those killings took place in Latin America, and the majority of those involved defenders working on environmental, land, or indigenous peoples’ rights. Last year was an exceptionally difficult year for indigenous communities worldwide, but human rights defenders worked tirelessly to provide vital supplies to at-risk groups and developed innovative ways of monitoring land exploitation. Governments capitalised on COVID-19 measures to exploit land, making the work of human rights defenders especially important, however during widespread COVID-19 restrictions, they were not classed as essential workers and in some cases, were punished for their work. In others, defenders tragically paid the ultimate price for their commendable action. In this blog, we honour just a few of the human rights activists who were killed while championing land rights in 2020.
Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara
A teacher and community leader, Zezico fiercely defended the rights of indigenous peoples and worked to protect his native amazon rainforest from exploitation. A member of Guardians of the Forest and director of an indigenous education centre, he was well-loved in his community. He was heavily involved in the resistance against illegal logging and an instrumental voice for the Awá-Guajá people, who are considered highly endangered due to encroachment on their lands. He was ambushed and killed in March 2020.
Raimundo Paulino da Silva Filho
Raimundo was a trade unionist and a community leader who worked to defend land rights in the south of Para, an Amazonian region in the north of Brazil. He was a well-known and respected activist and former city councillor in Ourilândia do Norte representing a large indigenous community. He was shot in February.
Alejandro Alberto Treuquil Treuquil
Alejandro was the leader of a Mapuche community in Chile. His community, the We Newén, is one of several located in Chile and southwestern Argentina, and claims ancestral rights to a piece of land it has been occupying for several years, of which electrical company Frontel was the former owner. His community had been the target of increased policing, often without explanation before his June killing by a gunshot wound while he was looking for a lost horse. He is survived by his four children.
Nacilio, an indigenous Mayangna from the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, campaigned passionately against illegal gold mining and logging taking place on land inhabited by his community. He was killed in November while actively protecting his land.
Jehry Rivera Rivera
Jehry was an indigenous leader of the Naso Bröran people of Costa Rica. He fought the case for indigenous land rights in the face of extractive hydroelectric projects that were threatening his community. Before his death in February, there had been reports of intimidation by armed non-indigenous intruders who set up campsites on indigenous lands belonging to nearby communities.
Fikile was a leader of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, (MCEJO), and was involved with legal challenges against mining activities of Tendele Coal. She was a well-known opponent of extension plans of Somkhele coal mine, one of South Africa’s largest open coal mines which borders one of the oldest nature reserves in Africa. Known for her courage, outspokenness and unyielding ethics, her death in October 2020 left a huge hole in her community.
Arbildo Meléndez Grandes
Arbildo was the leader of the Cacataibo Indigenous community in central Peru. He fought for a land title for his community from the government but as a result, was threatened by land grabbers and narco-traffickers who wanted to claim the land. He was an active defender of the rainforest against logging, mining, and drug activities before tragically being shot while hunting in April.
Karla Ignacia Piota Martínez
Karla was a close relation of an important spiritual leader of the Garífuna people, a mixed African and Indigenous community that is at threat of expulsion from its ancestral lands. She was an active member of OFRANEH, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, and her work was vital to the protection of the community’s beaches, lagoons, and forests. She died on January 11 from bullet wounds and joins at least two others killed in the community in recent years.
Dominga Ramos Saloj
Dominga was a Mayan indigenous leader and member of CODECA, an organisation of indigenous women and men farmers. She and her husband were part of a movement committed to defending indigenous rights relating to labour, land and gender equality. Her killing in March added to a list of other defenders who fell victim to attack for resisting violations against their community.
Laura Duckett, Lawyers Against Poverty (LAP) Volunteer