Women environmental rights defenders face threats and violence for their work, as do the journalists who tell their stories

As women journalists report on environmental crimes in Mexico and Colombia, IMS profiled their own occupational hazards to illustrate the shared safety threats between them and the women environmental rights defenders they report on.

“When I visit the communities under attack and people are listening to me about how to fight for their rights, I say to myself ‘It is better to die fighting for something that gives me value than do nothing’,” Evelia Baena said, a smile lining her otherwise subdued expression.

We were driving deep into the state of Guerrero, Mexico, rights defender Baena’s home, where the land became scorched, measuring up to its nickname, tierra caliente (hot earth).

Evelia’s home community in the mountainous parts of southern Mexico has been reeling from the impacts of mining and drilling for minerals. Many locals are forced to work in the mines or related industries, while tens of thousands have lost their homes or left the area due to the violence between cartels affiliated with the mines. 

“Barren” is the only way to describe the vast expanses of land surrounding the mineral-rich mountains, where mining companies such as Canadian-owned Torex Gold Resources Inc, have set up extractive empires. These lands were burnt down to chase out the local farmers and herders and to pave way for the mining projects. Amid the rapid environmental degradation, loss of livelihoods and displacement, corporations, cartels and local officials continue to exploit natural resources.

Over May 2020, the Global Response team at IMS shadowed Mexican journalist Verónica Basurto as she collected interviews from women land and environmental rights defenders, including Baena, for a story facilitated by Mediabridge – a platform that aids niche investigations in hard to reach places.

As borders shuttered across the world due to Covid-19, IMS and Mediabrdige noticed an alarming rise in killings and disappearances of rights defenders and journalists across the globe. 

Baena herself survived three attempts on her life due to her work. Having lost two of her peers to assassinations in the past years, she braces herself for attacks every day. Unfortunately, Baena’s experience is part of a much larger global trend in which women are often invisible and specifically vulnerable due to their gender. 

According to a latest Global Witness reporting, the killings and disappearances of rights activists have been on the rise across the globe. In 2019, at least 304 rights defenders were killed in relation to their work, 40 percent of whom worked on land, environment and indigenous rights. By 2020, this number had risen to 331, with nearly 70 percent working on environment and land rights.

With these alarming trends in mind, IMS and Mediabridge cooperated to publish a multimedia series that spanned Colombia and Mexico – the first and second most dangerous countries for land and environmental rights defenders, according to the same report

Timed with the ongoing COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, the project was published through a cross-border collaboration between two media outlets: Animal Político in Mexico and El Turbión in Colombia as a standalone project. The local reporters profiled the courageous efforts of women rights defenders from diverse communities and analysed the figures to relay the multiple types of violence and social-political challenges that they face in their advocacy efforts. This series of investigative reports exposed the alarming number of murders, attacks and threats suffered by women defenders and community leaders who are dedicated – despite intense pressure and hostility – to protect threatened ecosystems, to defend territory, to promote a universal right to fresh water and to preserve a healthy environment.

While the journalists reported about environmental crimes in conflict-riddled areas, we profiled their own occupational hazards to illustrate the shared safety threats between the women land and environmental human rights defenders and the women journalists covering their stories. Our aim was to depict the overlapping vulnerabilities of the populations affected by environmental injustice, the human rights defenders who have pledged to protect these populations and the media workers who cover this content in the public interest.   

In Mexico, 18 human rights defenders were murdered in 2020, the highest recorded number for the country. The majority were environment and land rights activists. But, alongside its abysmal record for violations against rights defenders, Mexico was also ranked the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2020. Verónica, who has more than 30 years’ experience investigating cases of public and private corruption, is no stranger to threats associated with her profession.

Yet, she has pressed on with her work to relay the messages of activists like Claudia and Evelia, and to call for their protection. “Giving the activists a voice is vital for safeguarding the rights of hundreds of thousands of civilians”, who are losing their livelihoods, local habitats and land, Verónica says.

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It is clear that when the voices of the journalists who cover social justice stories are stifled through intimidation and direct attacks, the activists and their communities become more invisible to the outside world.

The experiences of Evelia and Veronica prove that protection of one sector is directly inter-linked to the protection of the other and directly tied to the democratic rights of citizens at large. In countries like Mexico, despite several protection mechanisms dedicated to their profession, journalists experience high levels of risks and attacks while performing their jobs. Notably, as women in both professions often face additional threats of rape and physical violence and threats to their families, cooperation and solidarity among the different sectors could make a resounding impact, as outlined in IMS’ 2019 breifng paper, Safer together? Considerations for cooperation to address safety in the media support, humanitarian and human rights sectors.

The International Civil Society Organisation on the Safety of Journalists Coalition led a mission to Mexico in November 2019, coordinated by IMS and 16 other international organisations and and found that the country had failed to implement its various mechanisms at several levels of its governance. The committee called for extra resources to combat the rampant violations against freedom of expression. When coupled with social stigmas towards investigative journalists and a strong machismo culture, we found that women reporters like Verónica are often left to fend for themselves.

For instance, when Verónica started to investigate the transfer of illicit drugs and weapons through the Mexico City airport, the story landed her in the midst of a national corruption case involving federal police and high-level public officials who had colluded with several well-known cartels. 

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While Verónica received support from the Mexican Human Rights Commission (independent from the federal government) in establishing her case for immediate protection, the government itself did little to help her. In fact, one of the top investigators who was working on the corruption case Verónica unearthed advised that she leave overnight.

After eight months of death threats and moving home five times, Verónica left Mexico with the help of Reporters Without Borders. She was forced into exile in Spain and France for several years, where she sought support from similar organisations. But bound to her life-long calling, she eventually returned to Mexico and continues to work as a journalist.

Despite having several protection mechanisms dedicated to their profession, journalists in Mexico experience high levels of risks and attacks while performing their jobs.

While the COP26 tries to find social and political justice for communities and countries most vulnerable to the impact of environmental deterioration, the protection of journalists covering the most pressing theme of our time should come hand-in-hand.

At IMS, we continue to rally for stringent media reforms in countries where independent journalism voices and protections for journalists are scarce, while helping build diverse media landscapes in more than 30 countries around the globe.

The video stories were published as part of IMS’ advocacy campaign for Safety of Journalists via openDemocracy.