Nature is in Danger, and so are Nature’s Defenders

Sad news came from the wilds of Mexico recently, with reports of the murder of environmental activist Isidro Baldenegro on January 15. Baldenegro was gunned down while visiting relatives, another casualty of the growing war against those who protect the land and its resources.

Baldenegro lived in the rugged Sierra Madre mountains of the southern Chihuahua. The region is home to the Tarahumara people, most of whom still practice a traditional lifestyle dependent on subsistence farming. In recent decades, the area has been subject to increasing logging followed by conversion of the forests, threatening the Tarahumaras’ existence and impacting the sustainable use of the forest. Controlling large-scale logging was the cause for which Baldenegro gave his life. 

This is a tragic story in itself, but the horror is multiplied over and over in the continuing murders of environmental activists around the world. According to Global Watch, 2015 was the bloodiest year on record for environmentalists, with a total of 185 environmental workers were murdered—about one every other day. Brazil was the most violent country, with 50 murders, followed by the Philippines and Colombia. Latin American was by far the most violent region, accounting for two-thirds of the murders.

Chico & Ilsamar Mendes 1988
Chico Mendes and his wife at their home in Xapuri, Acre, Brazil. Credit: By Miranda Smith, Miranda Productions, Inc., via Wikimedia Commons

The life and death of Isidro Baldenegro parallels that of another environmental hero who suffered a similar fate a generation ago, Chico Mendes. Mendes, who is one of eight great conservationists I profile in Nature's Allies, was a rubber-tapper in the far southwestern corner of Brazil’s Amazon basin. He became a union organizer and later an advocate for rainforest preservation. Fighting against the giveaway of public lands to rich land-barons who converted the forests to pastures, Mendes made powerful enemies. Eventually, those interests chose violence as a weapon against the peaceful, community-based actions that Mendes employed—and murdered him on his back porch a few days before Christmas, 1988.

Violence against nature is hard to understand—that humans can’t recognize the essential importance of working with nature, not against it, to assure our continued quality of life. But violence against those who protect nature, often the most gentle and giving of people, is impossible to understand. Sharing their stories and continuing to fight for the causes they gave their lives for is the surest way to honor their legacies.