Craig Williams, winner the Goldman Prize in 2006, is co-founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Alfred Brownell, winner of the Goldman Prize in 2019, is a Liberian lawyer living in exile in the United States and the inaugural chair of the Beau Biden Institute of International Education-Scholar Rescue Fund for threatened scholars.
As environmental activists and human rights defenders, we are alarmed by a spike in violent attacks on and killings of land rights activists across the globe and, most recently, in Latin America. The latest in this disturbing trend is a violent assault on Alberto Curamil, a leader of the Indigenous Mapuche people in southern Chile and an activist working to protect his people’s land, water and other resources. As we write, we fear Alberto could become the latest casualty in a global war against Earth’s front-line protectors.
On April 29, Alberto was attending a protest along with his son and nephew, both teenagers. They were there to show support for Elena Paine, another Mapuche leader, and her community a day after her house and crops in Koyam Montre were burned to the ground. Alberto, Paine and members of the Machupe community believe that the threat may have come from far-right-wing groups in the area.
As Alberto and his teenage relatives were driving away from the protest, the back window of their truck was shattered by a tear-gas canister. When they got out of the vehicle, police shot Alberto at point-blank range three times with buckshot, which lodged in his back, side, arm and the back of his leg. Then, police beat the teens with batons while yelling “Pinche Mapuche” (“Lousy Mapuche”). The three were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct at a public event and breach of sanitary provisions. Alberto was taken to a hospital three hours after being brought into custody, bleeding and in excruciating pain. The teens were bruised, battered and traumatized.
This was not the first time Alberto had been a target of the Chilean government. In 2018, he was arrested and jailed for 15 months on false charges of armed robbery based entirely on hearsay evidence. He was acquitted of all charges and released in December 2019. Due to his imprisonment, he had been unable to receive the Goldman Prize — known as the “green Nobel” — at ceremonies in April and May 2019 in D.C. and San Francisco. He was previously arrested after being violently beaten by police in 2014.
Our alarm has led us, along with several dozen of our fellow Goldman Prize winners from across the globe, to demand assurances from Chilean President Sebastián Piñera that Alberto’s safety will be given the highest priority. We are also seeking support through appeals to the U.S. Congress, the European Union and the United Nations.
We believe time is of the essence, especially given the broader context of violence against those who stand up to protect the Earth. In 2016, the internationally celebrated Honduran Indigenous activist and Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres was murdered by operatives for the power company Desarrollos Energéticos (Desa) for her opposition to a hydroelectric project on the Rio Gualcarque. Seven men accused of plotting Cáceres’s murder were convicted and sentenced to between 30 and 50 years in prison. An eighth suspect, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, president and chief executive of Desa, is currently on trial, accused of masterminding the murder-conspiracy plot.
In its latest report, Global Witness recorded the highest number of environmental defenders killed in a single year — more than 212 people killed in 2019, a rate of four a week. More than two-thirds of the killings took place in Latin America.
The killings of and assaults on Earth’s defenders worldwide have accelerated in some of the most fragile pristine landscapes and biodiverse countries, jeopardizing the fight against climate change and species extinction. In Mexico, police are investigating the suspicious killings of two employees at a butterfly reserve in 2020. That same month, six members of an Indigenous community were killed at a nature reserve in Nicaragua. And in South Africa, environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase was killed last year in an attack local activists fear was related to her opposition to disruptive local mining operations.
In Chile, Indigenous communities’ push for human rights go hand in hand with their struggle for land and water rights, as government-backed companies try to run them off their land with threats, harassment and violence.
Attacks on environmental defenders in Latin America and worldwide are not only an affront to human rights, but also a cause for deep alarm at a time when the world must fight climate change and bring about a sustainable future. We are demanding that the Chilean government take immediate steps to stop these aggressive and often deadly attacks on the Mapuche community. There should also be a thorough, independent investigation into the destruction of Paine’s home.
We must act against this brutality, or we threaten the fight for a planet in crisis.