—Murder of a Mexican Activist Has Global Ramifications

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

Isidro Baldenegro Lopez 


The roster of those who pay with their lives because of their efforts to defend natural habitats from the powerful, the rapacious and the greedy, continues to grow. Some of their names are well known—Dian Fossey, Chico Mendes—others not so much—Pierre Achille Zomadel, Leroy Jackson, Jairo Mora, Berta Caceras. The name of yet another hero was added to that dolorous list on January 15, 2017, that of Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, who dared to oppose powerful interests intent upon clear-cutting the last remnants of the ecologically unique western slope of Mexico’s famous Sierra Madre Mountains.

Isidro was a member of the Tarahumara people, whose homeland includes Mexico’s Copper Canyon region. Not so much warlike or aggressive as stubbornly resistant, the Tarahumara were never absorbed into the Aztec Empire. For centuries, they have defiantly withstood first Spanish and then Mexican encroachments upon their lives, continuing to maintain much of their language and many of their religious beliefs. Beneath the veneer of Christianity, an ancestral moral code was so rigorously enforced that a Tarahumara could not even tell a lie.

Following the destruction of the Aztec Empire by cruel Spaniards armed with guns, germs and steel, the Tarahumara were subjected to harsh forced labor and marginalization within their own country. Seeking to escape Spanish cruelty, the Tarahumara withdrew into the Sierra Madre of Southern Chihuahua.

Never satisfied, reaffirming Thoreau’s observation that, “Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions,” Europeans proceeded to penetrate into the canyons and ravines of even the Sierra Madre, seeking silver and other minerals, while loggers and ranchers wreaked havoc upon the forested slopes. During the 1800’s, a railroad was cut into the mountains to assist loggers in their plundering.

Today, the railroad transports tourists, while roads provide loggers with arteries over which to deliver their spoils. Historically, the Tarahumara made their living by cultivating crops of beans, squash, potatoes and orchard fruits and by grazing small herds of livestock. There are an approximate 70,000 remaining Tarahumara, well known for their skills as potters, weavers and basket makers. They are also renowned as long distance runners, winners of many international competitions.

The “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” lies not in the gold described in B. Traven’s famous novel but in the region’s unique biodiversity that provides habitat for 26 threatened or endangered species, including the spotted owl and northern goshawk. The area includes four canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. However, even though 99% of the old growth timber has already been logged out, the remaining forest and its indigenous people continue to be threatened by resource extraction. The region today is dominated by criminal elements who launder drug money through such legitimate enterprises as ranching and logging.    

Isidro, who witnessed his father’s assassination because of his opposition to clear cutting, took up the cause himself. His adversaries continued to react violently. Isidro founded an organization in 1993 to combat deforestation and organized a boycott in 2002 to stop all logging. After he organized a protest with the wives of murdered activists in 2003, a court temporarily banned all logging in the area.

It was also in 2003 that Isidro was arrested and incarcerated on trumped up charges of possessing drugs and weapons. This blatant injustice caused Isidro to be adopted by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. Isidro was acquitted after serving 15 months in prison, and 2005, he was awarded the Goldman Prize, a honor accorded each year for the achievements and leadership of grassroots environmental activists from around the world.  

This past January, Isidro was assassinated. Martyred is perhaps a more accurate term, given that he risked all, even his life, for his people and for the region they love, the definition of a classical hero.

As I penned these lines, I received an alert from the Rainforest Alliance that forty villagers had just been arrested and forced from their land and homes in the Indonesian village of Tiberias by the corporation PT. Malisya Sejehtera. The company moved into the area in 2015 and began its program of harassment in order to force people from land where it wished to produce coconut and palm oil. Homes were burning as I wrote, and military police and the Indonesian army were firing into what is left of those buildings, in yet another incidence of corrupt government officials conspiring hand in hand with corporate bullies.

Chico Mendes, Isidro Baldenegro Lopez and all the other environmental martyrs must look down upon such a scene and weep. And so the Roll of Honor continues to grow. An estimated 122 environmental activists were killed in Latin America alone in 2015, 185 worldwide. 2016 ended with the murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceras for her successful opposition to a destructive hydroelectric power project. 2017 began with the assassination of Isidro.  There will be more.


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