Impunity fuels violence against environmental defenders

There are data that must not be forgotten. Keeping them in mind allows us to measure the magnitude of the natural heritage that is still possible to find in Mexico. The country has the privilege of being one of the most biodiverse on the planet: it is the nation with the most pine species, the one that houses the largest number of marine mammals, the one that occupies the second place in reptile species and one of the four if we talk about varieties of vascular plants. That diversity that gives identity to a territory vanishes every year without the environment being seen as a national priority.
Throughout its history, Mexico has not been characterized by looking at the conservation of its natural heritage as a vital issue. So much so that in the seventies and until the beginning of the eighties from the same government deforestation was encouraged, to promote agriculture and livestock, with the National Deforestation Program. It was not until the nineties, and in response to the international impulse, that the country began to design laws and institutions dedicated to the environment.
In recent years, when the world is experiencing a climate emergency and scientists urge to stop the loss of ecosystems and species, these issues remain unprominent on the national agenda.

Spider monkeys, in the Sumidero Canyon National Park. Photo: CONANP/PNCS.
Mongabay Latam consulted scientists, specialists in environmental law, forests and seas, as well as members of indigenous youth groups involved in the defense of territory to take stock of how Mexico ends 2022 when talking about environmental issues.
These voices regret that public policies ignore the increase in violence against environmental and land defenders. In addition, they identify actions that compromise the future of several ecosystems, including the disdain of the federal government itself to comply with environmental laws, the increase in militarization in regions such as the Yucatan Peninsula and the abandonment of forest communities.

Deforested area in the municipality of Bacalar, in Quintana Roo. Photo: Robin Canul.Lee: Paso de la Reina, the community in southern Mexico that has seen river defenders killed

The serious: violence against defenders

Filogonio Martínez Merino was originally from the Chatino indigenous people and lived in Paso de la Reina, south of Oaxaca. He was 60 years old when he was shot dead. He died on October 26, 2022. A year earlier, five of his comrades and members of the Council of United Peoples for the Defense of the Green River (Copudever) were also killed.
After five people belonging to Copudever were murdered in 2021, Filogonio Martínez was one of the members of the Paso de la Reina community who requested precautionary measures from the Mexican government’s Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
Those measures — which were limited to handing over cell phones — did not prevent Filogonio Martínez from being assassinated. His case shows that in Mexico violence against environmental defenders continues unabated.
Filogonio Martínez Merino, defender of the Verde River, murdered in October 2022. Photo: Courtesy of Copudever.
Global Witness’ most recent report, published in September 2022, ranked Mexico as the most dangerous country for defenders of the environment and territory: 54 defenders were killed during 2021; 40% of them were indigenous.
“In the country, structural and generalized violence prevails against those who defend the natural heritage. There is brutal impunity for these murders,” says Gustavo Alanís Ortega, director of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), an organization that since 2014 has produced an annual report on the attacks suffered by defenders. The 2022 report will be presented in March 2023.
April 2022 marked the first year of the entry into force of the Escazú Agreement, a treaty for Latin America that seeks, among other things, that States protect environmental defenders and guarantee a safe environment for the defense of the environment.
The States that have ratified the Escazú Agreement, including Mexico, pledged to prevent, investigate and punish attacks and intimidation suffered by defenders, but “that is not happening in the country,” says Alanís Ortega and demands that there be silence on the subject, especially from the Ministry of the Interior, the agency in charge of the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
In recent years, the number of environmental defenders killed in Mexico has been increasing. Photo: Courtesy.
Rose Marina Flores Cruz, member of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus in Defense of Land and Territory, describes as “extremely serious” the situation of defenders in Mexico. To give more weight to his statement, he recalls what happens with the Morelos Integral Project, which includes two thermoelectric plants and a gas pipeline. Its construction began during the six-year term of Enrique Peña Nieto. Opponents of this megaproject have denounced being victims of criminalization, threats and murders. The best-known case is that of Samir Flores, his killers shot him outside his home in 2019. So far there is only one detainee. Threats against people opposed to the project continue.
“This is just one of the cases,” says Marina Flores, who is also a member of the Indigenous Futures Network, a collective that brings together young people from more than 20 indigenous peoples and who look at the defense of territory as the defense of life.
Marina Flores mentions that with the current government, “which appoints itself progressive and close to the people,” a very delicate situation is being created in the communities that increases the risk of environmental and territorial defenders.
With its social programs, “this government,” says Marina Flores, “is generating a very strong dynamic of clientelism in the territories.” That has led to rising clashes between those who are against or in favor of megaprojects. Even the same people in the communities are the ones who monitor those who oppose the policies of the federal government. “If you add to that the militarization that is taking place in the country, the picture becomes even more complicated.”
Indigenous peoples of the east-central zone of Mexico during the Caravan for Water and Life, in the municipality of Ahuacatlán, Puebla. Photo: Astrid Arellano.
The worrisome: a train that crosses the jungle

In 2022, the urgency of the federal government to build the so-called Mayan Train in the Yucatan Peninsula became more evident. This year also heard more voices against this megaproject that, according to government plans, will have 1500 kilometers of roads that will cross five states of the country and whose cost could reach 20 billion dollars, about 8 million dollars more than had been planned.
Citizens, non-governmental organizations and communities demonstrated that in several sections of the project the works began without the approval of the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). That led the courts to grant several injunctions that forced companies and the government to stop the work until the legal issue was resolved. That didn’t happen. In all cases, the work continued.
Gustavo Alanís, director of Cemda, also recalls that in some sections of the train areas were cut down without having all the environmental permits, including the authorizations for change of use of forest land and, therefore, what the General Law of Sustainable Forestry Development indicates was ignored. The Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Profepa) “was ignored. He should have shut down the works and demanded restoration.”
One of the areas in the Ejido Playa del Carmen that have been cut down to make way for the Mayan train. Photo: Octavio Martínez.
With the construction of the Dos Bocas refinery, something similar happened: a mangrove area was cut down without environmental authorizations, despite the fact that Article 418 of the Federal Criminal Code states that a penalty of six months to nine years in prison and a fine will be imposed on anyone who illegally clears or changes the use of forest land.
“Being government works, they would have to be impeccable, comply with all the regulations. By not doing so, the principles of legality, legal certainty and division of powers are being violated,” says Dr. Marisol Anglés Hernández, a specialist in environmental law at the Institute of Legal Research of the UNAM.
In the case of the Mayan Train, the researcher mentions that there are many environmental implications that will be had when presenting MIAs for each of the sections and not for the entire project. “That’s minimizing the impacts, when in fact the damage is gigantic.”
Construction works of the Mayan Train. Photo Robin Canul.
In early December, members of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights noted that considering the Mayan Train project as a national security issue “does not allow Mexico to shirk its international obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of the people affected by this megaproject and to protect the environment in accordance with international standards.”
In a statement, the UN experts also noted that human rights defenders who have disclosed the irregularitiesThose surrounding the megaproject face threats, attacks and limited access to an independent and impartial tribunal.
Fernanda Hopenhaym, chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, said: “The increasing involvement of the military in the construction and management of the project is also of great concern.
The map shows the different sections contemplated by the Mayan Train project. Image taken from the Fonatur website.
Starting in March, engineers from the Ministry of National Defense (Sedena) began the construction of the entire Section 5 of the so-called Mayan Train, after the route was changed and the tender that Grupo Mexico had won, a company that now claims compensation, was canceled.
Section 5 is just one of the three that are in charge of the Sedena. The involvement of the military is not limited only to the construction of the megaproject. President López Obrador has indicated that it will be an army company that manages the so-called Mayan Train, in addition to the airports of Tulum, Chetumal and Palenque. The profits generated by this company, said the president in December 2020, will be used to “strengthen the finances for retirees and retirees of the Armed Forces.”
During an appearance in the Senate held in early December, the head of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat), María Luisa Albores, defended the construction of the Mayan Train by stressing that “in the communities it is seen as a virtue that can change their reality, making sustainable development.”
Works to obtain materials used for the construction of the Mayan Train. Photo: Robin Canul.
For researcher Marisol Anglés, the Mayan Train is the opposite of sustainable development: it is a work that, in addition to destroying the Mayan jungle, ignores all the scientific evidence that warns about the fragility of the calcareous soil of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Dr. Luis Zambrano, from the Institute of Biology of the UNAM, highlights that the megaproject and the infrastructure developments that are carried out around it, among other things, will contribute to modify the water flow of the Peninsula and that will have effects throughout the region, especially in places such as the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and in species that depend on the hydrological dynamics that exist in the area.
“When we destroy all that for the sake of misunderstanding tourism, we cause biodiversity loss,” Zambrano warns.
Construction of section 3 of the Mayan Train. Photo: Robin Canul.
The critical: an environmental sector without resources

For 2022, the federal government allocated to the environmental sector a budget of just over 40,795 million pesos (just over 1986 million dollars), a figure that does not compare with the more than 67 billion pesos it had in 2015. It was just in that year that government resources for the environment began to dwindle.
In the last seven years, according to calculations made by Cemda, the resources that Mexico allocates to the environmental sector have been reduced by almost 60%. This low budget, several of the interviewees point out, has had consequences in the lack of personnel and resources to carry out inspection and surveillance actions in protected natural areas and other areas of environmental importance.
The country’s 138.7 million hectares of forest land (71% of the national land area) have also suffered from a lack of resources. For 2022, the National Forestry Commission (Conafor) had a budget of just over 2.44 billion pesos (about 123 million dollars), an amount that is diluted when compared to the more than 29 billion pesos received by Sembrando Vida, the main social program of the López Obrador government.
The lack of resources for the forestry sector is reflected, among other things, in the increase in the area of forests affected by pests: in 2020 it was 47 807 hectares, by 2022 that number reached 56 251 hectares.
Works to eliminate the plague of bark beetles in the forest of the ejido La Estancia. Photo: Andrea Vega.
“The institutional capacities of the environmental sector have been significantly eroded, because many people with technical knowledge have left and because of the lack of budget,” says José Iván Zúñiga, forest manager of WRI-Mexico.
In addition to the decrease in resources, the environmental sector has faced a restructuring that has led Semarnat to absorb agencies such as the National Institute of Climate Change (INECC) and the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio). The latter, in addition, changed executive secretary: after 30 years, the doctor in ecology José Sarukhán left that position and in his place the doctor in Urban Studies D was appointed.aniel Quezada.
When appearing before the senators, Secretary María Luisa Albores assured that Conabio will not disappear, “it is integrated as an Administrative Unit of Semarnat, which gives budgetary, labor, legal and administrative certainty to its personnel.”
For researchers like Luis Zambrano, what happened with Conabio is a sample of “the destruction of institutions that took a lot of work to forge… What we need are large institutions that truly protect the environment and are not at the behest of a person’s whim; institutions that promote high-quality scientific research to make good decisions.”
Forest area in Bacalar, Quintana Roo. Photo: Robin Canul.
The unfortunate: biodiversity and forest communities, forgotten

At the end of July 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified as an endangered species the monarch butterfly that migrates to the forests of central Mexico every winter.
In addition to the migratory monarch, there are dozens of species in Mexico that are also at risk of just being passed. One of them is the vaquita marina, which is only found in the Gulf of California, and several species of axolotl such as the Ambystoma mexicanum, endemic to the Valley of Mexico.
The fact that these species fail to recover their populations is a sign of “our complete inability as a society and as a government to understand the importance of conserving species,” says Dr. Zambrano.
In addition, the researcher warns that with megaprojects such as the Mayan Train “the habitat of many of the species is being destroyed. The foundations for major extinctions in the future are being consolidated.”
The monarch butterfly makes a journey of 4500 to spend the winter in the forests of central Mexico. Photo: ©AlianzaWWF-FundaciónTelmexTelcel.
In several regions of the country where forests and jungles are being cut down to replace them with urban infrastructure, tourism or monocultures, there is also the loss of ecological interactions. “In an ecosystem a species may be interacting with dozens of species. A single disturbance in a species can have cascading effects,” explains Dr. Alfonso Valiente Banuet, researcher at the Institute of Ecology of the UNAM.
This loss of forest cover is occurring in regions such as Jalisco, Michoacán, Chiapas, Campeche or Quintana Roo, as Mongabay Latam documented in the journalistic investigation Sembrar Deforestation.
As of December 2022, neither Semarnat nor Conafor had released official and updated figures on deforestation in Mexico. In the National Forest Information System, the latest available data is from 2019 when the deforested area reached 226,581 hectares.
Forest area cleared to install an avocado orchard, south of the state of Jalisco. Satellite image taken from Google Earth.
Analysis by the University of Maryland and the Global Forest Watch platform shows that Mexico lost 300,000 hectares of tree cover in 2020. By 2021 that figure had fallen to 189,000 hectares. These data were presented by the head of Semarnat in her appearance before the senators to ensure that “our country returned to the levels of loss of forest cover that it had ten years ago.”
José Iván Zúñiga, forest manager of WRI-Mexico, points out that “the fact that the rate of loss of forest ecosystems is being reduced does not necessarily indicate that we are doing better, especially because ecosystems of great importance continue to be lost, especially the jungles of the south and southeast of the country; especially the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas.”
In addition, Zúñiga observes other worrying situations that are occurring in the territories where there is forest: “Communities with forest resources are increasingly affected by insecurity problems. Not only do they suffer from illegal logging, there is also a lack of control and access to territory. Insecurity is impacting the issue of governance within communities.”
Illegally logged forests in the Sierra Tarahumara. Photo: Thelma Gómez Durán.
There are regions where armed groups are forcing communities and ejidos to sell them raw materials at a price that does not even pay the cost of production. In other areas, these groups are taking control of sawmills. There are also communities that are extorted. And there are cases where these groups are responsible for cutting down the mountain.
In addition, in recent years, government support and attention is concentrated only on those small communities and ejidos that do community forest management. “There is a lot of neglect of larger, more advanced community initiatives”, says Zúñiga. Ideally, he says, all forest communities should be served.
Zúñiga recalls that when investing in the forestry sector there are economic, social and environmental benefits: “It is the communities themselves that take care of pests, forest diseases, fires and prevent illegal logging. They keep the bush in good condition.”
Forest with community forest management. Photo: Courtesy ejido Cordón Grande.
You can read the full report on Mongabay Latam
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Original source in Spanish

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