The green wave of popular outrage in Latin America

Concern over environmental plunder is fueling protests that could reshape politics in several countries.

Members of the Guatemalan Army patrol the El Estor indigenous municipality on Oct. 26, following environmental protests against a nickel mining company. – JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Angry villagers have forced the closure of an oil pipeline in Peru. A town in Guatemala where residents blocked entry to a nickel mine has been placed under martial law. An Indigenous activist working to stop construction of a dam in Honduras was shot dead in front of his church.

These conflicts reflect a wave of environmental militancy that is sweeping across Latin America. So does the odd fate of a New York lawyer who has just begun serving a prison sentence for contempt of court after he enraged Chevron by winning a court judgment ordering the company to pay $9.5 billion for polluting forests and rivers in Ecuador.

Protests have been part of Latin American life for generations. In the past, though, most have been narrowly political. People pour out onto the streets to demand the resignation of a president, the writing of a new constitution, or the passage or repeal of a controversial law. That still happens, but today more protests are sparked by assaults on the environment. It’s no accident. Multinational corporations have intensified their interest in Latin America’s rich resources. In partnership with pliant regimes, they are eagerly damming rivers, digging mines, drilling for oil, and clear-cutting forests. People across the continent have responded with what amounts to a green wave of popular outrage.

Outsiders have been plundering Latin America’s resources since the days of the Spanish conquest. Often their projects ravage land that has long sustained native people. In the past, victims had few ways to resist. That has changed dramatically. Social media and cellphone video have given protesters invaluable organizing tools. Indigenous leaders, often intimidated in the past, now direct many protests. Most important of all are the compounding effects of climate change. As lakes dry, rivers shrink, and forests fall, local people who never protested before have been stirred to action.

These protests often threaten projects that enrich powerful political and business leaders. Backlash is fierce. Last year, according to the monitoring group Global Witness, nearly two-thirds of the 227 environmental activists killed worldwide were Latin American. This year is on track to be even deadlier.

One of the recent victims, Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante, helped lead a group opposing construction of a hydroelectric dam in Honduras until he was gunned down in March. Honduras is among the hemisphere’s most corrupt countries and therefore attractive to some foreign companies interested in resource extraction. Hundreds of activists have been killed there since 2009. That makes Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to practice environmentalism — though last year, even more environmental activists were killed in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil.

Last month, protesters in the Peruvian Amazon seized and shut a pumping station that regulates a Canadian company’s oil pipeline network. In another part of Peru, protesters lifted their blockade of a mining corridor used by the Anglo-Swiss company Glencore and the Chinese company MMG after forcing the resignation of the country’s prime minister, whom they considered anti-environment.

Two thousand miles to the north, in Guatemala, shooting broke out in a Q’eqchi Maya town near the country’s largest lake, Lake Izabal. Fishermen and other residents had obstructed operations at a Swiss-owned nickel mine that they say is polluting the lake. Last week hundreds of police officers arrived, decreed a curfew, and placed the town under martial law.

A long-running legal case in New York provides a bizarre American counterpoint to this grim panorama. It began in 2011, when an environmental lawyer, Steven Donziger, capped years of work alongside Indigenous tribes in Ecuador with a stunning victory over Chevron. An Ecuadoran court ruled that the company’s oil spills had devastated a large region and ordered it to pay damages later fixed at $9.5 billion. Determined not to comply, Chevron launched a multifaceted counterattack against Donziger in American courts, accusing him of manipulating evidence and bribing a judge. After he refused to surrender his cellphone and laptop, Donziger was found in contempt, confined in his apartment for more than two years, and sentenced to six months in prison, which he began serving on Oct. 27. Donziger has been disbarred for his conduct, but the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions determined that the charges against him “appear to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of Indigenous communities, as he refuses to disclose confidential correspondence with his clients in a very high-profile case against a multinational business enterprise.”

Environmental devastation, now accelerated by the effects of climate change, does more than drive emigration from stricken countries. It also motivates those who stay home. As governments and power brokers extend their search for new revenue from mining, drilling, logging, and agribusiness projects, many people in rural areas fear ever more urgently for their future. That sets off the protests that seek to reshape Latin America.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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