A Mexican environmental campaigner has been declared missing barely a week after a savage attack on indigenous villagers displaced from the lands she was defending against illegal logging.
Irma Galindo Barrios, a member of the indigenous Mixtec (ñuù savi) people who worked to protect forests in southern Oaxaca state, was last heard from on 27 October. She was scheduled to attend a virtual meeting so she could join a state mechanism for protecting journalists and defenders, but did not attend, according to Rosi Bustamante, a US-based activist who had been in close contact with Galindo.
Earlier that same day, Galindo attempted to present a petition to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the National Palace in Mexico City, but said she was turned away.
“There aren’t any government officials who will go and see how we live … They only send in money that is used to buy weapons that are used to kill us. If there are organizations or groups that want to help us, they end up being criminalized, threatened and harassed,” Galindo wrote on her Facebook page just before her disappearance. “Where does this end? What follows?”
Galindo’s disappearance reinforces Mexico’s reputation as a country where environmental campaigners are frequently targeted for murder.
The Mexican Centre for Environmental Law counted 65 attacks on environmental defenders in 2020 and 18 murders – a sharp increase from the 39 attacks in 2019 – with “structural and generalised violence against those who defend nature, land and territory”, according to the report.
Meanwhile, deforestation continues across Mexico, despite a program from the federal government to pay inhabitants of rural areas to plant fruit and timber trees across southern Mexico.
Galindo’s disappearance was preceded by a spate of horrific violence in her home municipality of San Esteban Atatlahuca.
Over a three-day period from 21 to 23 October, attackers descended on the three communities being clearcut, leaving two people dead, four disappeared and 90 homes torched, according to the Oaxaca human rights lawyer Maurilio Santiago Reyes, who worked closely with Galindo.
Oaxaca media outlets reported at least seven deaths, including a pair of 95-year-old residents, and described an assault carried out by 70 individuals wielding high-calibre weapons.
Galindo previously served in the municipal government as a councillor responsible for cultural promotion in Esteban Atatlahuca, according to Santiago Reyes. But she later turned her efforts to defending pine forests in the mountains of the Mixteco region of Oaxaca – and developed enemies for her activism.
In 2018, loggers moved into three communities in the municipality of San Esteban Atatlahuca – allegedly with protection from the local government. A group of neighbours burned down her house that year, forcing her to flee into the forest.
She petitioned local, state and federal officials to intervene as the logging stripped the local forest. The deforestation was eliminating a source of income through sustainable woodcutting and removing a food source, as residents foraged the hills famed for mushrooms, which supplemented their diets. But no action was taken, according to Santiago Reyes. State and federal officials also failed to intervene.
“The issue in Oaxaca is there is enormous complicity between groups with political power, who sometimes control an area, and people are supposed to benefit from these natural resources,” Santiago Reyes said. “Nobody ever responded to the complaints that were made.”
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