Another Forest-Defending Peasant Behind Bars
By Diego Cevallos*
Felipe Arriaga, defender of the forests in the Mexican state of Guerrero, stands accused of assassination. ''I'm innocent,'' he told Tierramérica in an interview from his jail cell.
Arriaga is the fifth peasant farmer and anti-logging activist to be imprisoned since 1999. The other four were released after intense international campaigns for their rights.
MEXICO CITY - Being a poor farmer and fighting deforestation in Mexico appear to be sufficient reason to end up in jail, as suggested by the five such cases here since 1999. The latest is Felipe Arriaga, arrested in November on a murder charge -- and he may be joined by 13 more whose charges are pending.
''My problem is because of defending the forests. It's not for nothing that the man accusing me is a logger,'' Arriaga said in Tierramérica interview from prison in Guerrero, the southeastern Mexican state where he worked with the Organization of Ecologist Peasant Farmers of the Sierra de Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán.
Arriaga's testimony is practically a copy of those made by four other environmental activist small farmers, all of whom were poor and semi-literate.
The accused have claimed that because they fought deforestation they became victims of fabricated evidence and of torture at the hands of the authorities.
Local and international human rights groups launched major campaigns, and argued that these men were prisoners of conscience. Ultimately, the four were released. But now Arriaga languishes in prison.
In Mexico, the judicial system is used to silence or discourage dissident voices and civil society opposition, with false or unfounded criminal charges, said the London-based rights group Amnesty International about the series of imprisoned activist farmers.
Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, colleagues of Arriaga in the Organization of Ecologist Peasant Farmers in Guerrero, were released from prison in 2001 when President Vicente Fox stepped in. Citing the inmates' health problems he ordered their pardon, exempting them from up to 10 years in prison and closing the court cases against them.
Montiel and Cabrera, arrested in 1999, were accused of weapons possession and of growing marijuana. They have filed a case against the government in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights for reparations, sanctions against the military officers who detained and tortured them, and for a declaration of their full innocence.
Today, Montiel and Cabrera are living semi-clandestinely, far from Guerrero, because they fear attacks from the loggers whose actions they fought in the past.
''Arriaga's case is very similar to Montiel and Cabrera's. It involves suspicious accusations against someone who fought deforestation,'' Mario Patrón, legal coordinator of Tlachinollan, a human rights group in Guerrero, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.
Patrón was one of Montiel and Cabrera's lawyers, and he may take up the case of Arriaga, who is accused of participating in the 1998 murder of a son of Bernardino Batista, leader of logging groups. For that same crime there are 13 more arrest orders pending -- all for peasant farmers who have fought deforestation in Guerrero.
''I'm going to be clear: you run up against certain interests, that is the problem. That is why I'm here (in prison). But I am sure that they will have to release me because I didn't do anything wrong, like my brothers Montiel and Cabrera, who are already free,'' said Arriaga.
With less than 28 percent of its total area covered in forest, Mexico each year loses 500,000 hectares of trees. Much of the deforestation occurs at the hands of groups associated with organized crime.
While still in prison, Montiel and Cabrera received the 125,000-dollar Goldman Prize, considered the environmental Nobel, from U.S. organizations. The also won the Chico Mendes Award, named for the Brazilian peasant farmer, unionist and environmentalist who was assassinated in 1988.
Patrón says the destruction of the forests in the Guerrero mountains slowed while his clients were behind bars, but has been reactivated in the past two years.
Almost 40 percent of the forest in the Petetlán and Coyuca de Catalán areas of Guerrero, where Montiel and Cabrera lived, was destroyed between 1992 and 2000, according to the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace.
Satellite images show that these once tree-covered hills in eight years lost 86,000 of the 226,203 hectares of forest that existed.
Similar destruction has been seen in Coloradas de la Virgen, an area of more than 50,000 hectares in the northern state of Chihuahua, ancestral home to the Rarámuri Indians, where some 360 families still live.
That is where Isidro Baldenegro and Hermenegildo Rivas fought deforestation. The two indigenous men were released from prison in June as the result of a court decision. They had spent just over two years behind bars on charges of weapons and drug possession.
''I made a pledge to continue the fight, and now I feel even more committed because many people and organizations fought for my freedom,'' Baldenegro told Tierramérica in a phone conversation from his community in Sierra Tarahumara.
Baldenegro, son of a rural leader who was murdered in 1986, apparently for challenging loggers, has police protection because he fears there could be attempts on his life.
''I haven't felt the presence of danger or threats very close yet, but if we win in the courts and they have to stop the logging operations, I think (the logging groups) will be very angry and would try to eliminate some of us,'' said the peasant farmer and activist.
In the trial against Baldenegro and Rivas, the court found that the charges were groundless and that several police had planted evidence against them. But the men responsible for the crimes against the two Indians, like the military officers who accused and tortured Montiel and Cabrera, remain free and were never brought to justice.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.