The martyrs of Laudato sì

One year after the publication of Pope Francis’ environment Encyclical Laudato sì (“Praised be you”), many environmentalist leaders have been murdered throughout the planet. The last one was killed last 2 July in Honduras.

Just a little over two months after the publication of the Encyclical, Raimundo dos Santos Rodrigues was killed on 25 August in the Vale do Pindaré, (Maranha State), in north eastern Brazil. He was a member of the  Advisory Council of the Gurupi Biological Reserve which campaigns against illegal deforestation in a protected area. He had already been threatened many times because of his activism. Emerico Samarca was killed, in early September, in a village in Surigao del Sur province, in Mindanao Island, Philippines. He was the Executive Director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Alcadev), which was established on 19 July 2004 as an alternative learning system especially designed to provide secondary education to indigent indigenous youth. A paramilitary group took him away along with two villagers: the three were found later with their throats slit open. The same paramilitary group burnt down the community’s cooperative store.

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On 30 January 2016 three days after being shot, indigenous activist Teresita Navacilla, died in a hospital in Tagum City, in the Southern Mindanao region of the Philippines. The woman was a member of the local movement, a network of indigenous peoples advocating for more stringent environmental protection in the country and opposing the establishment of the King-king open pit mine in the Pantukan region in the Compostela Valley province. The mine would be the second largest gold and copper deposit in the country. The King-king Copper-Gold Project is part of a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) between the Philippine government and the Nationwide Development Corporation (NADECOR), based in Manila. St. Augustine Copper-Gold Ltd (SAGCL), based in Spokane, Washington, USA, is managing the technical aspects of the project, which, if approved, would lead to the displacement of the local tribal populations. Terecita Navacilla was killed in order to weaken indigenous people’s opposition to the project.

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A shocking number of environmental activists were killed inInizio modulo  March 2016. Honduran Indigenous Rights activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated on 3 March 2016. Hers, is one of the most popular faces among those of the martyrs of Laudato sì. The picture portraying her, wearing the typical Lenca Indians ‘shawl’ (or poncho), with Pope Francis on the occasion of the first World Meeting of Popular Movements taking place at the Vatican, has already become a symbol. Berta Caceres also attended the second World Meeting of Popular Movements held in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on 28 October 2014, when Pope  Bergoglio gave the so-called, ‘3 Ts’ speech, of ‘Tierra, Trabajo and Techo’, rendered from Spanish into English as the ‘3 Ls’ of ‘Land, Labour and Lodging’ – as inalienable rights for the poor. Then, on 18 June 2015, the papal environment encyclical Laudato was published, the first text ever dedicated to Creation as our ‘common house’ to preserve written by a Pope. Berta Caceres really hoped that the Pope’s  climate encyclical would give activists a boost. Her death was followed by the assassination of  Nelson Garcia, on 15 March, again in Honduras. Garcia was a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), created by Berta Caceres to build the political strength of Lencas, campesinos, and other grassroots sectors to transform one of the most corrupt, anti-democratic, and unequal societies in the hemisphere. Garcia was killed after being shot four times in the face in the Rio Chiquito community. The assassination happened during an evacuation of occupied land executed by Honduran military police. Around 150 poor families who were members of COPINH had occupied the land at Rio Chiquito. These tragic events  confirm Honduras as the deadliest place for environmental activists with scores of Hondurans killed defending land rights and the environment from mining, dam projects and logging. According to the NGO Global Witness, between 2010 and 2014, 101 activists were murdered in Honduras, the highest rate per capita of any  country.

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Only one day after Nelson Garcia’ s murder, another environmental activist, Walter Barrios Méndez, was shot dead outside his house in Las Cruces, in the department of Petén, Guatemala. He had been committed for years to the defence of the natural resources of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. In the weeks prior to his murder, he had pointed the finger at the Boca del Rio dam and, above all, at the devastating environmental impact of palm oil Inizio moduloproduction in Guatemala. The palm oil industry, in fact, is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. In Guatemala, these plantations have caused the destruction of the rainforest Petén.

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On 21 March, Fr. Vincent Machozi, a religious of the Augustinians of the Assumption, was killed in one of the most tormented countries of Africa today, the Democratic Republic of Congo. His story is the emblem of the inseparable interconnection between the defence of indigenous peoples and environmental issues, just as described in the Laudato sì encyclical. Father Vincent spoke out against  the atrocities suffered by the Nande populations in North Kivu. He denounced what he saw as collusion among political elites, armed factions, and commercial interests in order to exploit the country’s natural resources, especially its rich Coltan deposits. Coltan is a mineral ore used in electronic devices in particular for the technological and military industry, that fuel the conflict in DR Congo. Since when he had returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012, after several years in the United States, Fr. Machozi received many death threats and he was aware of being a target. According to reports, onlookers said Fr. Machozi ’s last words to those who were shooting at him were: “Why are you killing me?”

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The assassination of Sikhosiphi Rhadebe on 22 March in South Africa, closed the list of crimes perpetrated against environment activists during bloody March 2016. Mr. Sikhosiphi Rhadebe was chairman of Amadiba Crisis Committee, an advocacy group launched in 2007 to campaign for the rights of the Xolobeni community. In particular, Rhadebe was at the forefront of the protest against the construction of an open pit titanium mine by a local company controlled by the Australian corporation Mineral Commodities. Another project that would wipe out local communities from their land, putting their survival at risk. Lesbia Janeth Urquia was the last victim, last 2 July. The woman, 49, was killed by a machete attack. She was a member of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh) – the organization founded by Ms. Cáceres – and had been working to stop a hydroelectric project on the Chinacla River. The dam would  flood hectares of land, which is home to the Lenca, an indigenous people in western Honduras. (G.B.)






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