When “eco-friendly” becomes deadly: grassroots activism, green-washing, and resource violence in Mexico

December 29, 2020 Essays

By Víctor Rivera-Díaz | December 29, 2020 | Mexico City

Framing the notion of environmental activism in Mexico is often a byzantine undertaking that delves into issues of human rights violations, political instability, and corruption. In the most extreme cases, the work of environmental activists is a dangerous prospect that can prove to be fatal. To add insult to injury, the actions of the green-conservative Mexican Green Ecological Party (PVEM) and the State-sponsored expansion of renewable energy, particularly wind power and hydro-power in states such Oaxaca and Morelos, present examples of green-washing which perpetrate a cycle of systemic, resource-related violence. Those targeted by this violence are, more often than not, local community members and advocates who oppose large-scale development projects, many of which exclude them in the decision-making process. In parsing the situation on the ground, it is necessary to examine the various factors that undergird the threat of resource violence–much of which is met with impunity.

Uncertainty amid the charm

In a country lauded for its biological mega-diversity and touristic charm, there is also the ill-reputed specter of violence and widespread corruption which permeates into all aspects of daily life for many locals. This deeply-seated uncertainty is at once palpable and hidden somewhere in the colorful backdrop that it runs the risk of being mistaken as a commonplace, though undesirable, fixture of society.1 Yet, the resistance to this societal discord is perhaps equally as strong, if not stronger, and takes the form of community alliances, armed self-defense groups, and proponents for radical structural change.2 Ranging from confrontations with cartel organizations vying for contiguous territory to demonstrations against contract developers, the intent is clear: to protect the social and territorial configurations that have sustained communities for centuries. Among these front line actors are the network of environmental activists, particularly those who are made up of indigenous folks, subsistence farmers, and community-based managers, that carry out the pyrrhic duty of safeguarding the ecological integrity of their surroundings forests, deserts, mountains, and valleys.

History of Environmentalism in Mexico

Beginning with a look into the origins of the environmental movement in Mexico, it is important to stress a few key nuances that distinguish its historical precedents from its evolution into the present day. For instance, conflicts to protect natural resources can be traced back to many significant events throughout history, including a confrontation in Tepoztlan, Morelos between local communities and commercial loggers in the early 1940s.3 The speculation of wood for carbon production was met with a series of protests that successfully halted the commercial enterprise from initiating operations in their surrounding forests. Many scholars on Latin American environmental history posit that a conflict such as this one, while it may implicate issues dealing with the environment, are not always explicitly environmental.4⁠ Instead, the grieved actors involved are contesting a particular convenience or resource to their own benefit, in what Mauricio Folchi terms a “conflict of an environmental nature” as opposed to the more targeted “environmental(-ist) conflict.” So, when locals band together to form a Tzilacatzin-esque⁠5 response to the onrush of extractive industries, the disputed resource often implicates an entire milieu and system of knowledge embedded in the integrity of a heretofore undisturbed ecological system.

Conversely, the origins of the modern environmental movement in Mexico first took hold in any real legal substance in 1971 when the Mexican Congress promulgated a piece of federal legislation known as the Federal Law to Prevent and Control Contamination.6 Following the United Nation’s “first world conference on the environment” held in Stockholm in the year 1972, the federal government of Mexico also created the Sub-secretariat for the Betterment of the Environment, a dependency of the Secretariat of Health. It wasn’t until 1987 that a constitutional reform took place which amended Article 27 and Article 73 of the Mexican Constitution. These reforms obliged the State to implement the necessary measures in order to maintain an ecological equilibrium. A year later, in 1988, the federal government promulgated the General Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Protection of the Environment, a first of its kind in Latin America and what would later serve as a basis for environmental policy throughout the country. At the same time, the Mexican government also signed international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol of 1987 and the Helsinki Protocol of 1985, to commit itself to curbing the depletion of the ozone and curtail sulphur emissions.

In the 1990s, the federal government of Mexico participated in the UN Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro (1992), which was followed by the creation of the Secretariat of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Fisheries (SEMARNAP) as well as the National Institute of Ecology. The later renaming of SEMARNAP in the year 2000 to the Secretariat of the Environmental and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) ushered in a separation between environmental and productive affairs; this also inspired the creation of the Secretariat of Agriculture, Farming, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food (SAGARPA). All things considered, the topic of the environment had graduated from a sanitation concern to a government priority, one that encompasses its own set of public policies and agendas in line with domestic and international orientations.

Environmental shortfalls in the present day

Regarding current environmental regulations, they are lacking in two important aspects: regulation and enforcement. The existing regulatory frameworks take root in normative structures concerning the management of natural resources.7 However, their implementation fails to include economic development as a closely related enterprise in any substantial way; therefore, the corrective market solutions applied to the problem of industry pollution are often not punitive enough to dissuade harmful activities. Without a concrete attempt to internalize the social cost of environmental degradation, securing environmental rights becomes nothing more than token agreement. In 2013, a new piece of legislation known as the “Federal Law of Environmental Responsibility” was passed to regulate future environmental degradation and associated costs through taxes, fines, and reparations on the part of the offenders. Yet, Torre and Mendezcarlo (2019) note that market solutions such as these “presuppose the existence of markets that function reasonably well and the presence of prices not distorted by subsidies.”8 As it stands, the current prices fall short of any real concern to the business-as-usual operations of polluting industries, many of which lack self-regulatory practices. What is more, the President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a strong proponent for renewable energy, announced in January of 2020 that contract audits were underway to determine whether the renewable energy sectors received unjustifiable subsidies in the past. These subsidies were initially meant for consumers, but, according to some sources, were being appropriated by a handful of renewable energy companies.9

⁠The Mexican Green Ecological Party

This brings us to a bit of an anomaly in Mexican environmentalism: the Mexican Green Ecological Party (PVEM). Founded in 1986 as the Mexican Green Party by Jorge González Torres, who comes from a family of well-to-do pharmacy chain owners, the party began as an independent endeavor to uphold green policies that work to secure natural resources and root out government corruption.10⁠ The party’s candidacy first appeared on the ballot in 1991 but did not receive the minimum percentage of votes to maintain its registration with the National Institute of Elections (INE). It wasn’t until 1993 when, upon receiving a renewed registration, PVEM gained considerable traction within the Mexican political arena. Ironically, the party has since then faced a slew of allegations regarding internal corruption, corporate pandering, and most strikingly, for operating under a rare strand of green politics, that is to say, green conservatism.11⁠ More serious still, it is criticized for being a family-run organization, one which forms strategic coalitions with the most favorable party of the day. Most notable perhaps was the coalition it formed under Alianza por el Cambio (“Alliance for Change”) in 2000, along with the right-of-center Nation Action Party (PAN).12 Their joint forces saw the election of the PAN presidential candidate Vicente Fox who held office until 2006. PVEM later backtracked on their support for the aforementioned coalition, claiming that the unilateral, neoliberal stance of the Fox administration, which sided with the failed Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2005 that sought seed patents across Latin America, was antithetical to the protection of the environment.

In the present day, PVEM has yet to demonstrate any redeeming qualities in the eyes of mainstream environmentalists.13 It’s continuous, campaign-heavy support to reinstate capital punishment (for heinous crimes) led the European Green Party (EGP), a federation of green parties across Europe, to withdraw formal recognition of PVEM as a legitimate green party in 2009. Similar calls have been made to pressure the Global Greens, the umbrella international network of green political organizations and movements, to do the same.14⁠ In response, the PVEM has countered with the bold accusation that the EGP was exercising an “anti-democratic” and “colonial” stance regarding the internal affairs of Mexico, particularly on the topic of violence. To this, EGP remained firm in their position: the principles enshrined in the unifying Charter of the Global Greens, which includes “the rejection of the death penalty,” was not up for compromise. Within Mexico, organizations such as the National Academy of Environmental Education and Greenpeace México have come forward to formally denounce the legitimacy of the PVEM as an environmental organization for many of the foregoing reasons.15⁠, 16 Moreover, members of these organizations have criticized the PVEM over the years for providing quid pro quo support to extractive and commercial enterprises that undo or otherwise jeopardize the ecological integrity of existing protected areas, e.g. open-pit mining and fracking are just a few of the problem activities.

The challenges for green market solutions

At its core, the general lack of regulatory enforcement keeps activists hanging in the balance. To provide some context, about 80% of forested land in Mexico is managed by rural and indigenous communities through collective management models.17⁠ This amounts to about eight thousand frontline networks who manage roughly 44 million hectares of forested land, with an average of 5 thousand hectares per community. For this reason, Mexico constitutes one of the few countries in the world where the majority of the forested land resides in the stewardship of locals. These figures are in part one of the reasons why environmental defenders face alarming rates of targeted violence. In response, the Mexican Center for Environmental Rights (CEMDA) has been monitoring the situation on the ground through its annual report on defenders of environmental human rights.18⁠ From the years 2012 to 2019, CEMDA recorded 460 cases of violence and intimidation against environmental activists. 29 percent were related to energy projects, namely hydroelectric and windpower with 66 and 53 cases, respectively. The majority of cases occurred in the state of Oaxaca (79 cases), followed by Sonora (49 cases), and State of Mexico (48 cases).

It is worth noting that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region in Oaxaca, surrounded by tunnel-like mountains, is one of the world’s sites with greatest wind potential. Yet, this Gulf region, and the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza in particular, has been the epicenter of resource-related violence in Mexico. Currently, there are 28 windpower parks in operation in Oaxaca which produce over 2,700 mega watts of energy.19⁠ Despite the government and energy industry’s rhetoric of sustainability and carbon neutrality, local, and largely Zapotec communities argue that they were deceived into leasing their lands for windpower parks such as Gunaa Sicarú.20⁠ Specifically, community members underscore the lack of information, either through poor translation of key documents from Spanish to Zapotec, or undemocratic public consultations, as the principal contributor to community disintegration. Regarding the environmental impacts of the parks, locals point to the petroleum runoff from wind turbines which contaminate nearby surface waters, as well the noise pollution from the turbines themselves. All of these factors, according to Zapotec activists such as Guadalupe Ramirez, create ecological disturbances that affect the fauna of the region and undermine the continued potential for subsistence farming that many rely on.21

To make matters worse, Ramirez and others opposed to large-scale wind energy projects are often unfairly framed as the opposition to progress in the public eye. This broad-stroke stigmatization has resulted in internal community schisms, especially among acquiescent landowners who benefit from leasing their lands to external investors. Pushing back on these claims, Ramirez asserts that “progress can take many forms,” including the possibility of constructing parks on collectively-owned land so that the benefits can be more directly shared among all members.22⁠ Otherwise, the promise of green energy solutions without safeguarding the livelihoods of Zapotec communities is nothing more than a green-washing scheme at best. What is more, the political landscape becomes increasingly murky when taking into account the role that the Mexican federal and state governments play in actively promoting green energy expansion. CEMDA, in their 2019 report, stress that different actors are involved in maintaining a level of precarity for environmental activists, which include government officials who are either directly or indirectly implicated in cases of violence. Of the 460 cases recorded from 2012 to 2019, 39% of cases were primarly orchestrated by local government authorities and municipal police forces through acts of physical aggression and intimidation directed towards environmental human rights defenders.

The story of Samir, a Nahuatl activist

Among the most violent cases of resource-related conflict in 2019, the assassination of Samir Flores Soberanes in the state of Morelos stands out as a tragic example.23 Samir, an indigenous Nahuatl farmer and activist for the Peoples’ Front in Defense of Land and Water – Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala (FPDTA-MPT), was a vocal opponent to the government-sponsored Morelos Integral Project (PIM). The PIM is a $700 million (USD) partnership between the Federal Commission of Electricity (CFE) and Spanish and Italian energy contractors that encompasses two thermoelectric plants along with a 160 km natural gas pipeline. Situated in a fertile valley which saw the revolutionary rural uprising spearheaded by Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the PIM is now the antagonist of a new revolt in towns such Amilcingo, Huexca, and Cuautla, the final resting place of Zapata. On the 20th of February 2019 Samir was assassinated outside his home in Amilcingo, just days prior to a scheduled public consultation with Mexican President Lopez Obrador on the topic of PIM. In the hours following the incident, state prosecutors claimed that Samir’s death was not a result of his activist work, but rather an unfortunate consequence of organized crime in the area. To this, witnesses and humans right groups responded that in the days prior to the incident, Samir and the FPDTA-MPT had been the target of public criticism by a PIM executive who painted them as a significant obstacle in the way of the state-sponsored project.

At the time of writing this essay, one year and 10 months after Samir’s death, the orchestrators of the assassination have not been brought to justice.24 Even after months-long pleas from Samir’s family, the six lines of investigation being conducted by the federal and state governments have yet to turn up any leads as to who might have been behind the act. An act which some community members are keen to believe was deliberate for one obvious reason: Samir’s vocal opposition to PIM had generated nameless animosity somewhere in the bureaucratic mix. While construction operations for PIM had been suspended following fierce resistance from groups such the Huexca Committee in Resistance, the month of November 2020 brought about the restart of operations against what humans rights experts claim is a violation of the “resolutions issued in 10 of 19 current amparo (constitutional protection) trials that order the suspension of the PIM operation.”25⁠ Moreover, it is seen as a breach of the rule of law, one which places environmental human rights defenders at an increased risk in an already precarious landscape.

The open rivers of Latin America

It remains to be seen whether state or industry officials were somehow involved in the assassination of Samir. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time the integrity of such actors are called into question – either in Mexico or the rest of Latin America. As it stands, Mexico is in third place with Brazil on the Frontline Defender’s list of most dangerous countries for environmental activists; Colombia and Honduras occupy first and second place, respectively.26 In Honduras, the activist work of Berta Cáceres, a Lenca indigenous woman and life-long human rights defender, came to an abrupt end when she was assassinated inside her home on the 2nd of March 2016 following weeks of receiving threats.27 Two years later, on the 30th of November 2018, the Honduran National Criminal Court convicted a total of seven men for the assassination, all of whom were found to have a connection with the hydroelectric company Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA). Berta’s defense of the Gualcarque River, where a proposed dam was being contested by the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations (COPINH), was found to be the principal motive behind the fatal attack. For environmental activists across Latin America, the legacy of Berta’s lionhearted efforts to protect the forests and rivers that, according to local cosmovisions, gave fruit to the Lenca indigenous people, echoes in the many courtrooms, chambers of government, and threatened lands where environmental struggles are fought.

Upholding justice in Abya Yala

With all of the challenges that Latin American environmental activists face in the current climate, the introduction of the “Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean,” or Escazú Agreement for short, comes as a breath of fresh air.28 This United Nations agreement, signed by 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries on the 5th of May 2015, in Escazú, Costa Rica, includes a commitment to respect the rule of law. Moreover, it serves as a legal instrument to safeguard human rights and engage environmental activists in the decision-making process, as well as ensures that the application of justice in cases of violence is held to the highest standard. Most significantly, it works to dispel the environment-economic divide: “Growth cannot take place at the expense of the environment and the environment cannot be managed if our economies and peoples are ignored.” Many are calling this agreement, which has been ratified by 11 members to date, including Mexico, as a watershed moment in the fight to defend the environment. In countries such as Mexico, Honduras, and Colombia, the creation of a safe and fair climate in which to advocate for the environment is perhaps one of the agreement’s most crucial endeavors.

When all is said and done, the defense of the environment in Mexico cannot, and will not move forward in any meaningful way without addressing the green-washing effect of economic corruption. It is the sole instigator of a pernicious strand of environmentalism that has nothing environmentalist about it. On the contrary, the industry appeal to sustainability and renewable energy can be best described as green neoliberalism, one that is as the same time predatory and illusory. By parading itself as the beacon of progress, it makes itself impervious to the allegations of advocates who it depicts as wide-eyed dissidents. In doing so, this apparatus of so-called economic progress places the lives of the people it claims to uplift in harm’s way – the harm, as it turns out, emanates from the apparatus itself. It is an irony similar to a wolf’s howl that can be heard near and far, only getting close when it thinks its outdone the good-natured shepherd. In good time, however, it reveals itself by never shedding its rapacious instinct.

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