In early September 2007, in defiance of multiple death threats from illegal loggers who opposed their mission, a GPS mapping team made its way by motorized canoe down the Patuca River and into the remote and lawless Tawahka Asongni Biosphere Reserve of Honduras. The Tawahka is one of several linked parks and reserves in the region generally known as Moskitia, a vast swath of savannah and rainforest that takes up most of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua. It is one of the wildest areas left on earth – a sparsely settled wilderness beyond the rule of law. In Moskitia crimes often go unsolved and wanted men can disappear with ease, as the Tawahka team would ultimately learn.
The expedition planned to erect a series of GPS markers in the Tawahka Reserve that would help the Honduran government establish a protected zone in Moskitia, which has been battered by illegal logging. According to the US-based Environmental Investigation Agency, Honduras suffers from one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. From 1990 to 2010 Honduras lost an average of 363,584 acres of trees per year, more than a third of its total forest cover. Much of the logging has been done illegally, the trees cut without permits in the frontier-like stretches of Moskitia, where black-market timber syndicates have free range.
In order to slow the rate of illegal logging, the 2007 mapping team was on a two-part mission. First, they would establish and demarcate a zona nuclea, a protected, logging-free zone that encompassed the heart of the Tawahka Reserve. The second phase consisted of training and equipping the local Indigenous inhabitants of the deep forest with GPS technology, so that they could accurately track the whereabouts of illegal loggers operating in their midst and then report them to national law enforcement authorities.
Word of the team’s mission had leaked out and the expedition was attracting unwanted attention even before it left the mountain town of Catacamas. Several team members had received phone calls or letters warning them that they would be killed if the expedition went ahead. It was widely assumed that the threats had come from people connected to the illegal logging syndicates, which are feared in the hinterlands, and so big and powerful as to cost Honduras up to 6 percent of its GDP each year in lost timber revenues. In the face of the threat from the timber barons, the team sought safety in numbers. It would travel in a small flotilla of canoes that carried more than 30 workers and researchers and would be guarded by a small contingent of armed Honduran soldiers.
Then there was the expedition’s leader – Mario Guifarro. A compact, muscular man of Mestizo descent who wore a .357 revolver in an old army holster and insisted on lugging his guitar through the jungle, Guifarro was locally famous as a tracker, guide, and all-around wilderness savant. “Don Mario knew the country better than anybody,” says Donald Flores, program coordinator for the Institute for Cooperation and Self-Development (ICADE), the Honduras-based NGO that, along with several European partners, had backed Guifarro’s mapping expedition. “He spoke the languages of the Indigenous people, and he understood their cultures. He could live in the rainforest with nothing but a machete, and he knew what plants to eat, and which ones to use for medicine.”
Flores had been working on conservation-related projects with the Flamenco-playing, jaguar-tagging Guifarro since 1998, and he knew that Guifarro’s reputation for bravery had made him a target for the logging companies. “[Guifarro] was a leader who generated respect in the field because he worked so hard and led by example,” Flores said recently during an interview at the ICADE office in Catacamas, in the mountainous Olancho region of Honduras. Flores himself has been threatened many times. In 2006 he suffered an assassination attempt during which he was shot six times from close range. “I feared for a long time that someone would kill him. They [the logging companies] knew how important he was to us. They knew he was the key to our efforts to create a protected zone, because of his relationship to the Indigenous, and his knowledge of the local geography.
“They knew without him there would be no protected zone.”
Flores’ fears for the mapping program – and Guifarro’s life – were well grounded. Targeted assassinations and other forms of repressive violence against environmental activists are all too common in Latin America, which is, not coincidentally, home to some of the last great rainforests on the planet. The steady depletion of forests globally makes such resources ever more valuable, and their increasing value makes them more intensely contested. Those contests – especially in places with a shaky rule of law – often lead to deadly conflict.
“The illegal logging industry [in Latin America] has a history of conflict with activists and local communities,” says Andrea Johnson, director of the Forestry Campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency, which functions as a kind of eco-detective agency and has investigated numerous cases of illegal logging in Mexico and Central and South America, including Honduras. “The rising rate of exploitation goes hand-in-hand with the increased incidents of violence,” Johnson says. “That’s just how it is.”
Repressive violence against environmental activists in Latin America is nothing new, and it’s certainly not limited to Honduras. Because it is home to the bulk of the Amazon Basin, and the most valuable timber reserves in the hemisphere, Brazil has been one of the hardest hit by these tactics: At least 1,150 activists have lost their lives there over the last 20 years, according to the US-based NGO Amazon Watch. They’ve been gunned down by loggers and ranchers, or even by small-scale farmers seeking to practice highly destructive slash-and-burn agriculture in the rainforest. And the violence seems to be getting worse.
Latin America is home to some of the world’s last great reserves of timber, precious metals, and arable land. As a resource-hungry world turns its eyes toward the region’s riches, environmental activists’ efforts to protect their communities are costing them their lives.
“In some parts of the Amazon the deforestation rate has gone up by 50 percent within the last year,” says Leila Salazar-Lopez, the program director of Amazon Watch, citing satellite tracking data compiled by the Brazilian government. “That means increased levels of conflict as activists working with rural communities run up against big corporations and black market forces.”
The numbers bear Salazar-Lopez out. Five activists were killed, in separate attacks, within just a few weeks of each other in May and June of 2011. Salazar-Lopez says that was by design. At the same time those activists were being murdered, the Brazilian Congress was debating legislation that would open up even more of the Amazon to logging and also absolve most logging companies of whatever past violations they might have committed, making them immune to lawsuits from communities whose native forests have been lost, or whose water supply has been polluted. “Just to use one example, [anti-logging activist] Jose da Silva and his wife were killed on the very eve of the new Forestry Code vote, back in May,” Salazar-Lopez says. “And that sent a powerful message to the opposition: ‘If you stand up to us on this, you’ll get killed.’”
Anti-logging activists aren’t the only conservationists who are targeted by death-squads in Latin America. In recent years, anti-mining protestors have been assassinated in El Salvador and Guatemala, as have those protesting agribusinesses in Honduras and others demanding water rights in Ecuador. Many of their counterparts in North America say the murdered activists are victims of unchecked corporate globalization.
“Increased foreign investment, encouraged by the so-called ‘free-trade’ treaties like CAFTA and NAFTA, are driving rampant exploitation in a number of sectors across Latin America,” says Dr. Melina Selverston Scher, a program officer with the Goldman Environmental Prize Foundation in San Francisco. “In other words, corporate greed is destroying the environment and killing people, and regional governments are either letting it happen – or they’re powerless to stop it.”
Scher believes that it is difficult for most US citizens – who live sheltered under the umbrella of relatively robust environmental regulations – to grasp that access to potable water or arable land are often life-and-death issues in many of the politically fractured nations of Latin America. “Clean air and water. Healthy forests. A freedom from industrial poisons – these are things we take for granted in the US,” Scher says. “Or they’re seen as elite, ‘yuppie’ concerns for spoiled liberals. Down there, these things have to be paid for in blood.”
Violence against environmental activists isn’t limited to Latin America. In many parts of the world, beatings, death threats, and murder are a common way of settling political disputes. Since they are often challenging some of the world’s richest and most powerful industries, environmentalists become targets of abuse. These are just some of the environmental activists who have been killed in the last year. …read more…
The EIA’s Andrea Johnson believes that, given the international market forces at work, US consumers need to recognize that they are also complicit in the assassination of environmental activists. Johnson travels regularly to Honduras and other Latin American nations to meet with communities that have been impacted by rampant logging, and she has witnessed the violence against environmentalists. “People should know that the wood they’re buying for door frames and tomato stakes, or the cheap steak they’re eating – those come from somewhere. The cutting of that wood might be causing social conflict. Environmental destruction is implicitly tied to the markets, although a lot of us in the US don’t want to admit that,” she says.
One of the most troubling aspects of the attacks against environmental activists in Latin America is the fact that, on average, fewer than 10 percent of the cases are ever brought to court – and most of those end in acquittals.
“In Brazil, as in so many of these countries, there is complete impunity for even the most heinous of environmental crimes,” Salazar-Lopez of Amazon Watch says. She blames a “lack of political will,” as well as a climate of “pure corruption.” But she also acknowledges that, given Brazil’s fast-growing economy, there are limits to what even well-intentioned lawmakers can do to protect the Amazon. “When it comes to saving the rainforest, at the highest levels of government they’re making promises they can’t keep.”
And they’re not the only ones. In Honduras, law enforcement agencies say they are often helpless when it comes to safeguarding activists or apprehending their assailants.
“Witnesses are terrified to come forward. Officers are afraid to investigate. Even judges are afraid to try the cases,” says Honduran Police Commissioner Julio Benitez Avila. “These criminal syndicates are very well-armed. And very dangerous.” Commissioner Avila, who has trained alongside US law enforcement officers in Panama and New Mexico, says that his officers simply aren’t equipped to handle complicated, long-term investigations. “We need better forensics and training,” he says, “we need more computers. Sometimes it is difficult to apply security, even with the best intentions.”
The murders, combined with the atmosphere of impunity, often have a chilling effect. When other environmentalists receive similar death threats, they have to take them seriously. They must decide whether their efforts to protect the environment are worth the risk of losing their lives.
Harry Guifarro says that was precisely the case in his father’s 2007 mapping trip down the Patuca. “He’d been warned,” the junior Guifarro says. “They’d tried to scare him off. But you have to understand what kind of man my father was. He had lived with the Indians for many years. He could handle snakes and crocs. He could live off the land like the Medicine Man, in that movie,” Harry says, referring to a rainforest-dwelling character played by Sean Connery in a 1992 film. “How do you scare a man like that?”
In the far-flung and isolated rainforests of Honduras, those who are responsible for environmental destruction are often quick to use violence to suppress protests and dissent, long before law enforcement can become involved. Honduras has a murder rate of 86 per 100,000 people – the highest of any country in the world. In the last two years, Honduras has also been home to at least 126 politically or environmentally motivated assassinations, almost all of which have gone unsolved.
So Mario Guifarro was used to being on guard. He knew that illegal loggers had been operating in the Tawahka Asongni Biosphere Reserve, and that they were often armed. When the voyage down the river began, he ordered the Honduran soldiers traveling with the expedition to keep their rifles at hand at all times, including during meals and while sleeping at night.
Even without the constant threat of an attack by illegal loggers or their mercenaries, the expedition’s work was grueling. The concrete and bronze plaques that they were using to delineate the nascent no-logging zone weighed as much as 400 pounds. The plaques had to be lugged through the jungle and then cemented into place using sacked concrete, which also had to be carried from the river. Sometimes the team had to take the materials as far as 25 miles from the river, all of it through trackless jungle.
“The work was very difficult, but my father was always enthusiastic for it,” says Harry Guifarro, who had accompanied his father on several previous mapping trips along the Patuca. Perhaps due to safety concerns, his father did not allow Harry on the Tawahka trip, a decision that might have saved the 22-year-old’s life. When asked if he thinks his father was spooked by the rash of death threats he’d received before the expedition left Catacamas, the young man says: “My father loved the mountains, and he loved the forest, and he worried that they were being destroyed. If he was afraid of anything, it would not have been for himself – it would’ve been for the wild places that he loved.”
On the morning of September 15, 2007, Mario Guifarro left the rest of the expedition sitting on the muddy banks of the Patuca and started downriver on foot toward a tiny, riverside hamlet called Parawas, where he hoped to hire additional workers to help the team construct the next GPS marker. Because he was concerned that the Honduran soldiers and the size of the expedition would intimidate the villagers, Guifarro set off with just one other person – another of his sons, Harry’s older brother, Shamir.
“Witnesses are terrified to come forward. Officers are afraid to investigate. Even judges are afraid to try the cases.”
Before they reached the outskirts of the Parawas village, the Guifarros noticed a launch with three men in mismatched military fatigues, approaching from upriver. The men hailed Mario Guifarro and called him by name. They were laughing and friendly, Shamir remembered later.
The men who landed on the bank and came down the trail toward the Guifarros were armed with M-16s and sidearms and wearing good jungle boots. As they approached, one of the men noticed that Mario Guifarro was carrying a guitar on his back. Still smiling, the man asked that Guifarro play them a tune.
The last song Mario Guifarro ever played was an old traditional number called “Mujeres Divinas,” or “Divine Women.” When he reached the end of the last verse – “One has to suffer/when one loves” – and turned to hand Shamir his guitar, one of the still-smiling men opened fire with his M-16. A three-shot burst hit Guifarro in the wrist, throat, and head, killing him instantly. His .357 never cleared its holster; the soldiers meant to guard him were kilometers behind. Shamir, the only witness, managed to escape and hide in the bush. He too would be gunned down, along with two other activists, under almost identical circumstances less than nine months later.
“And that was the end of ICADE’s mapping program along the Patuca,” says ICADE Program Coordinator Flores. Although he survived his own 2006 assassination attempt, the attack put Flores in a coma for a week, required months of hospitalization, and left him with deep scars across his torso. He is still in debt from his hospital bills. “The loggers won. They shut us down. Just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “They knew that would happen when they killed Mario. They knew we couldn’t run the program without him – and they were right.”
No suspects have been named and no arrests have been made in the deaths of Mario and Shamir Guifarro. Commissioner Avila says successful investigations are almost impossible in a remote region like Tawahka, both due to travel difficulties and because “nobody in their right mind will testify, even if they know who is guilty, because they know it will get them shot.”
Yet the threat of murder hasn’t dissuaded either Flores or Harry Guifarro from continuing their efforts. Guifarro, like his father, now serves as a guide for ICADE. And Flores, who has finally recovered from his wounds, still works with Indigenous communities deep in the forest, helping them understand their rights and to protect their lands from illegal loggers.
“If I die for this cause, then I die with pleasure,” Flores says, pulling up his shirt to show the thick scars on his belly. “If I have helped the forest, then I die with value. Because the forest, she is in danger of dying too. She too is under attack. And the end of the forest is the end of the way of life for all the Indigenous who live there.”
Jeremy Kryt is a regular contributor to Earth Island Journal. He has also written for In These Times, The Huffington Post, YM, and others.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.