Situated in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, the village of Cuetzalan has a wealth of natural resources, colourful landscapes and a rich cultural heritage. Villagers have preserved their ancestors’ way of life. The village is imbued with the Indigenous culture of most its inhabitants, a culture whose way of life and of thinking about their relationship with nature emphasize caring for the environment.
The Tosepan Cooperative Union is a civil society organization made up of Indigenous campesinos (peasant farmers) whose aim is to improve the quality of life of people living in Sierra Norte de Puebla. Its members are involved in sustainable farming; producing fair trade coffee, honey and peppers; and protecting the environment. They are also fighting for decent housing and food and for better basic services such as drinking water, electricity and sanitation.
Seven members of the Tosepan Cooperative Union and other organizations working to defend the environment are the subjects of a criminal complaint which was filed in January 2017 by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). This complaint is linked to a protest camp set up in November 2016 by the Maseual, Totonaku and Mestizo Peoples’ Assembly on private land next to the site of a planned electricity substation. The Assembly considered that construction work was taking place without their consent and without free, prior and informed consultation with the communities.
Defending the territory in Cuetzalan is not only putting the freedom of human rights defenders at risk, it may also have cost the life of an environmental defender. On 14 May, Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez, a member of the Independent Rural and Urban Popular Movement for Workers and Farmers (MIOCUP) and of the Antonio Esteban Human Rights Centre, was killed in Cuetzalan. Manuel was named in the criminal complaint filed by the CFE.
Communities and individuals who defend rights to the land, territory and environment are often accused of opposing development and economic projects. However, Tosepan and defenders in the Sierra Norte de Puebla are only asking to be consulted before work on these projects begins on their territory. They are calling for a kind of development that has more respect for nature and for their culture and that will benefit all members of the community.
In April 2018, members of the Tosepan Cooperative Union became the targets of a smear campaign. Statements and articles vilifying them started to appear in the press and on social medial. These dangerous smear campaigns open the way for more serious attacks.
The Mexican authorities have an obligation to recognize the legitimate work of defenders. They must also ensure that the justice system is not used for the sole purpose of weakening and discrediting the struggle of human rights defenders.
All over the world brave people are raising their voices to defend the rights of others. It is our duty to defend them and ensure that they can keep demanding these rights. Fighting for rights to territory should not be a death sentence.
Cuetzalan is crying out for us to protect its guardians. Sign the petition here to call for human rights defenders to be protected and to demand that they are not criminalized for exercising their right to defend: https://amnistia.org.mx/cuetzalan/
A version of this article was published in Spanish by The Huffington Post