Every year, the watchdog group Global Witness publishes a report on the killings of land and environmental defenders around the world. Since 2012, when it started keeping this tally, at least 1,733 activists have been slain trying to protect their land and resources, an average of one defender killed every two days over 10 years.
In January, 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán’s name was added to this grim list. And to a new one: Their death is the first documented case in US history of an environmental activist being killed by law enforcement.
The activist, who went by the affectionate diminutive Tortuguita (Spanish for Little Turtle), was among a group of protestors who had been camping out in Atlanta’s South River Forest for nearly a year to oppose plans to build a massive, $90-million police training center inside the 3,500-acre public forest. On the morning of January 18, a Georgia State trooper shot Terán 13 times during an eviction raid on the encampment. Police say Terán shot and injured the state trooper first, but protestors dispute this claim. The killing is now under investigation.
There are many threads to this tragedy.
Opposition to the project is not only about protecting Atlanta’s green space, though conservationists have been trying to preserve South River Forest as an urban park for more than two decades. It is also part of a larger movement pushing back against mass incarceration and growing police violence against people of color in the US following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. (The killing of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man, by Atlanta police less than a month after Floyd’s killing sparked widespread protests across the city.) And it is about environmental justice.
The so-called “Cop City” would include shooting ranges, an area for explosives training, and a mock city for other training exercises. It is to be located near a predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood in a city that has massive disparities in green space thanks to historical redlining. And it’s to be built over the ruins of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm (OPF). Much like New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, which is featured in our Spring 2023 print issue (“Reimagining Rikers”), OPF has a dark, little-known history rife with overcrowding, abuse, lack of healthcare, and deaths. Prior to the prison, there were slave plantations there. White settlers had forcibly driven off the original inhabitants, the Muscogee Creek tribe, to set them up.
Activists have long asked for this site to be turned into a park and memorial. But in a city where officials label protestors like Terán “terrorists,” and in a country where at least 20 states now have laws restricting the right to peaceful protest, the likelihood of that happening is slim.
In all the years that Global Witness has been documenting land-defender killings, nearly all the victims have been from the global South. But the truth is that environmental activism is becoming increasingly risky in the US as well. It is an exceptionally cruel irony that Tortuguita, who died trying to protect American land, was Venezuelan.
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