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Eco Roundup: Central American Environmental Defenders Lose Protection with Journalists Under Attack

At the end of every month, I assemble a round-up of stories I’m following and issues I’m covering, with palate cleansers at the end.

Journalists are under attack in Guatemala and across Central America, and it’s a big deal for Indigenous environmental defenders. One of Guatemala’s most important investigative news outlets, El Periódico, shut down last month in the midst of the criminal prosecution of its founder José Rubén Zamora. Zamora was sentenced to six years in prison this month for alleged money laundering, and eight other journalists from his publication are under investigation. Numerous other reporters have been forced into exile.

Guatemala is a dangerous place for people who oppose environmentally harmful projects like mines and dams. The nonprofit Global Witness estimated in a report last year that 80 environmental defenders were assassinated in the country between 2012 and 2021. Locally, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, known as UDEFEGUA (Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala) carefully tracks assassinations and criminal prosecution of all kinds of human rights defenders. In 2022, UDEFEGUA counted 3,574 aggressions against human rights defenders — the highest number it has counted in 22 years. Now even UDEFEGUA is under attack.

Journalists serve as a last line of defense for land and water defenders. The reporters targeted are people who have extensively investigated corruption within the Guatemalan government and whose work has challenged the systematic dismantling in recent years of anti-corruption bodies. Human rights defenders like UDEFEGUA have long pointed to government corruption and a culture of impunity for crime as key forces behind the assassination and criminalization of Indigenous land defenders. Now, environmental defenders lack not only a judicial system that protects them, but also journalists who can draw attention to the threats they face.  

Documentary filmmaker Martyna Starosta and I interviewed UDEFEGUA’s leader, Jorge Santos, for an article and video we did in 2019 about an exiled Xinca land defender. Santos did an amazing job of explaining the forces that lead to Indigenous land defenders’ assassinations in Guatemala, and I encourage you to check it out. I also get into the ways the U.S. government is complicit in all this.

Meanwhile, in April the Salvadoran news outlet El Faro announced it was registering as a nonprofit in Costa Rica in the face of persecution under the government of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele. More than 160 journalists from Nicaragua are also living in exile, and more than 54 news organizations there have been forced to shutter, according to El Faro.

El Periódico’s web site wasn't functioning when I wrote this, so I can’t speak clearly to its coverage of land and water defense stories, but at the time of this writing El Faro had a story on the front page of its English-language site about how military and police riot squads evicted an Afro-Indigenous Garifuna community in Honduras. The story is the kind of accountability journalism that El Faro does well, calling out the hypocrisy of Honduras’s president Xiomara Castro, who was elected via a campaign promising to support Garifuna communities. They also did a big special edition last year on Garifuna fisherman and the land they defend. Publishers outside the region rarely invest in that kind of reporting.  

For English-language coverage of all this check out El Faro’s English-language site, or Nina Lakhani’s work for The Guardian. I also listen to El Faro Audio as well as El Hilo (created by the Radio Ambulante folks), to keep up my Spanish language skills, and both have covered these themes.

In case you missed it:

I published a story in the Appeal showing that over 150 detention facilities faced “hazardous” air quality in early June because of the Canadian wildfire smoke. It matters because people inside prisons are often housed in poorly vented facilities, have higher rates of asthma, and lack easy access to inhalers and other medical treatments. Here’s my newsletter post with some of the details that didn’t make it into the story.

Also, me and Akil Harris learned this month that we won the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for Science/Environment/Climate Reporting for our Climate and Punishment series. We’re also finalists for a Covering Climate Now award in the “multimedia” category. In terms of multimedia, documentarians Stuart Harmon, Travis Mannon, and Lauren Feeney were the forces behind our project’s short video, and Fei Liu built our interactive map, where you can search for individual prisons and see what climate risks they face.

I’d love this month to share the other nominees for Covering Climate Now’s multimedia award, since they are all so freaking good and are all stories you probably haven’t read.  

“Everyone wants to have a piece of paradise”

It only rarely comes into my work now, but as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota, my senior thesis paper focused on the question of whether sustainable tourism could ever really be sustainable. This was 2009, and I remember friends at that time mentioning going to visit Tulum, a coastal paradise in Mexico that was described to me as off-the-beaten-path. Tulum has grown exponentially as a tourism hub since then, with enormous environmental consequences, according to reporters with Mexico’s N+Focus. Reporter Alejandro Melgoza Rocha describes the “leveling of dunes, mangroves, reefs and jungle by businessmen, public officials and ejidatario leaders in search of a piece of land to exploit” and points out that Tulum is the gateway to one of the country’s main mangrove carbon reserves. The author examined 288 complaints of environmental harm between 2005 and 2022, and carefully documented the public officials and businesspeople behind the devastation. I did not realize that “urban stain” in Spanish is “mancha urbana” or “urban stain.” How appropriate.

“Can East Africa avoid water resources apocalypse?”

InfoNile’s team of writers and filmmakers tell a devastating story of environmental degradation of freshwater lakes that have long been central to life in East African communities. "Shrinking Lakes" features mini profiles on individual lakes along the Nile’s river basin in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. “The fishery sector is currently shrouded in uncertainty as pollution, dangerous human activities on the environment, and climate change threaten water bodies, especially the freshwater lakes, which are the most significant source of fish in East Africa,“ the intro says. I was particularly interested to learn about the impact of Total’s oil-drilling efforts near Lake Albert in Uganda. A crude oil pipeline designed to transport the area’s oil is expected to displace more than 13,000 households in Uganda and Tanzania, according to one of the videos.

“I was hearing phantom rain.”

Aidila Razak and Arulldass Sinnappan of Malaysiakini tell the story of individual Malaysians escaping floods and grappling with the post-traumatic stress of waiting for the waters to rise again. The stories are interspersed with super-clear diagrams explaining how climate change works and drawing a direct line between the people impacted and the science explaining what happened. It’s the kind of climate journalism that every community deserves, breaking down exactly how much more rain is expected as the climate crisis deepens. I can’t help but imagine how meaningful it would be to have that kind of journalism in local papers in places like Florida. They published their project in Chinese, Malay, and English, which is pretty inspiring.

"The water is like sand."

The New York Time and The Intercept Brazil used satellite images to map 1,269 unregistered airstrips in the Brazilian Amazon. More than half of the airstrips are on Indigenous or protected areas where mining isn’t supposed to happen. The most upsetting part of all this is its implications for the health of the Yanomami people, who have been fighting the mining for a very long time. “A recent government analysis of water collected from four Yanomami rivers found mercury levels 8,600 percent higher than what’s considered safe for human consumption,” the story says. Mercury poisoning can impair children’s development.

Palate Cleansers

I cover topics that are heavy and distressing to take in, so I'm ending these posts with things that make me feel grounded: food, nature, community.

Something Delicious: Savory Rhubarb

I love the creative challenge of being a part of CSA. For those who don’t know, Community Supported Agriculture means I pay a bunch of money to a farm in the spring to get a surprise box of vegetables every week of the growing season. Several times now I’ve ended up with rhubarb, and, since my capacity for sweet treats is limited, I’ve been super enjoying savory rhubarb concoctions.

This rhubarb chicken ruled.

So did this Iranian rhubarb and bean stew.

Garden update: Mean Squirrels

I don’t even know about this garden. The squirrels are destroying everything. I guess I’m going to build cages out of chicken wire to put over my plants?? Squirrels are so mean.

My main joy right now is this big plastic storage bin that I poked holes in to use as a planter. I started just throwing extra seeds in there after I planted stuff, and that tangle of herbs is giving me life. The squirrels don’t care about that bin for some reason (they only like cute little pots) plus it has more moisture than the cute little pots.

Bulletin Board: Infinite Beauty

My friend Farihah Zaman has been curating this super cool film series titled “Infinite Beauty,” focused on Muslim and MENASA (Middle East, North African, and South Asian) identity on screen. The screenings are at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, but this month’s selection can also be streamed online until July 7. It’s special for Pride, with an all-queer lineup. “These nonfiction films run the gamut—from animated reflections of the past to dreams of imagined futures, from a close reading of archival subtext to find ourselves in the historical record to recreations of intimate family moments to understand the present,” the blurb says. I haven’t watched yet, but I did go see Rita Bagdhadi’s documentary Sirens, about Lebanon’s first all-female metal band, which was also part of Infitie Beauty and was excellent.