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News > Latin America

Human Rights in Latin America: A Struggle for Land and Life

  • Human Rights in Latin America: A Struggle for Land and Life

    | Photo: albaciudad.org

Published 10 December 2018

For International Day of Human Rights, teleSUR reflects on the many lenses through which human rights can be viewed: environmental, feminist, and government violence. 

Perhaps the most common struggle in Latin America, and the one that unites it, is the fight for land. And with that, comes the struggle for life.


Bolsonaro Abolishes Human Rights Ministry For 'Family Values'

Private companies, looking to maximize their profit, set their gaze over territories. What’s seen for many as the means for life, is seen by large-scale projects and economic ventures as capital and natural resources. Those who stand in the middle, environmental activists and land defenders, are the ones in danger.

Besides that, the life of women, the Indigenous, and working class people is of little value in this system. Political dissidents are targeted by governments and anyone can be the victim of informal armed militias taking over economic activities in a territory.

Environmental Rights

Being an environmental activist in Latin America can cost you your life. Defending your community’s river from a hydroelectric project or a mountain range from large-scale miners based in Canada are acts that get you persecuted by governments colluding with private interests in the name of progress and modernity.

Human rights ultimately depend on having a suitable environment for the development of humanity. Failing to protect the environment is therefore a violation of human rights.

In 2017, Brazil led the list of environmentalists murdered with 57 killed , followed by the Philippines with 48 murders. Colombia and Mexico registered 24 and 15 respectively, according to a report by Global Witness. Out of 207 murders registered that year, 60 percent took place in Latin America.

With Jair Bolsonaro taking over Brazil in January, the future of “the world’s lungs” is at stake. Bolsonaro has suggested arming  large landowners to protect them from defenders and social movements as the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), formed by poor Campesinos aiming to recover land used for industrial production and large agribusiness.

His plans include to reform legislation to allow agribusiness and mines into territories protected by the autonomy and self-determination rights of indigenous peoples, driven by profit and fueled by a blatant nationalist narrative. Arguing that the indigenous people should integrate into society, Bolsonaro has compared indigenous to animals and their reservations to zoos in which they are incarcerated.

His transition team announced that the National Foundation for the Indigenous (FUNAI), in charge of overseeing over indigenous territories and their rights, including isolated groups, would be adhered to the Environment Ministry, which he in turn handed to a legislated that has veiled for the interests of agribusiness giants.

Indigenous people from various tribes dance as they want to deliver a letter to Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro at a transitional government building in Brasilia, Brazil, December 6, 2018. Photo | Reuters

After a backlash from FUNAI leaders and representatives, Bolsonaro changed his mind and the transitional team announced the foundation would be integrated to a new human rights, family and women super ministry led by a conservative evangelical preacher who leads an organization that relocates indigenous children from remote communities in order to give them a christian education.

In the country with the most murders of environmental leaders, Bolsonaro has pledged to “not give one more inch” to the indigenous reservations and review their composition to allow economic ventures into their territory and is already paving the legislative way for private interests in the name of “the will of majorities.”

One of Bolsonaro’s main campaign promises is to pull out Brazil for the Paris accord on climate change, following the steps of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the current government of Michel Temer already cancelled Brazil’s offer to host the 2019 COP25 conference on climate change.

In Colombia, two year after the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an historical peace agreement that ended up with a decades long conflict that took thousands of lives, social leaders are still being targeted and persecuted by illegal armed groups that control large territories of the country.

According to teleSUR’s own numbers, there have been at least 178 social leaders and rights defenders in 2018 alone, and more than 400 since the peace agreement was signed in November 2016.

The power vacuum left when the FARC demobilized and turned into a legal political party allowed other armed groups to take over territories for illegal activities, threatening local populations and their lifestyles.

Local rights group Research Institute for Development and Peace, or Indepaz, places the number of victims between November 2016 and May 2018 at 385, while teleSUR’s own monitoring of these cases places the up-to-date number at over 400.

Although it’s unclear who commits the crimes, some experts agree that there’s an stigmatization of rights defenders from right-wing organizations and individuals that have a great influence power over society. Human rights groups suspect of paramilitary organizations, such as the Black Eagles, of eliminating defenders that oppose private interests.

Part of a nation-wide vigil demanding protection and respect for social leaders and rights defenders as the number of murders has been increasing since the signing of the peace accords. Some demonstrators have accused the government of being negligent to their petitions. Medellin, Colombia, July 6, 2018. Photo | EFE

Michel Forst, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights who visited Colombia in November, thinks that human rights defenders “are an easy target for those who see in them and their agenda an obstacle to their interests,” especially in rural areas “where the absence of the State is coupled with a large presence of organized and illegal armed groups.”

Society has organized to demand President Ivan Duque to protect social leader and rights defenders, including those who are protecting their communities, the environment, or trying to replace illegal crops with sustainable alternatives.

Forced Disappearances

During the dictatorship of Rafael Videla in Argentina, in 1977 a group of mothers and relatives of missing people started to gather at the Plaza de Mayo to demand the authorities information about the whereabouts of their beloved ones.

Most of the disappeared people were political dissidents and activists critical of the dictatorship, and the mothers claim their sons and daughters were target of State terrorism to eliminate the opposition or force them to exile in other countries.

After decades of struggle, full of good and bad news, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo are still marching and demanding information while joining to other human rights movements in Argentina.

When a court ruled that Lucia Perez, 16, died of a drug-induced heart attack and wasn’t raped by her sexual aggressor, thousands of women and supporters of feminist movements marched across the country. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo were there, marching for social justice and against femicide.

When the Senate voted against abortion rights that would save the lives of hundreds of women forced to try unsafe methods or attend to clandestine clinics, thousands of women also marched against the decision. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo were there.

Nora Cortiñas, from the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Founding Line, stand in solidarity with relatives and friends of the victims of one of the worst train crashes in Argentina's history. Buenos Aires,  February 22, 2018. Photo | EFE

Argentina became a lighthouse of feminist resistance and its example helped expand the “green wave” movement to the rest of the continent, as the fight for reproductive rights is internationalizing while conservative governments are taking over States.

There are groups such as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in every place in Latin America where blood politics prevailed. In Mexico, mothers of disappeared people founded groups such as Colectivo Solecito in Veracruz, taking action in their own hands after being disappointed by the government’s negligence.

Colectivo Solecito is self-financed and directed by mothers who are looking for their missing children. In their struggle they have investigated and searched fields, finding illegal mass graves with hundreds of remains.

Finding such mass graves is a big step in their search for truth, but the collective doesn’t have the means to carry out DNA tests or complex forensic investigation, and they thus depend again on the government’s will, finding another giant obstacle that doesn’t stop them from continuing.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court at The Hague announced it will proceed to review a lawsuit against Peña Nieto accused of being responsible for crimes against humanity and systematized corruption in the atrocities involving or committed in Tlatlaya, Apatzingan, Tanhuato, Ostula and Iguala regions, in which the army and security forces carried out forced disappearances and massacres against civilians.

But Colectivo Solecito’s main objective is not to find the responsible people and punish them, but to find the missing people. For them, finding any clue on where their children might be is more important than any ruling against Peña Nieto.

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