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The Planet
Environmentalists Under Fire

By Johanna Congleton

Sometimes protecting the human rights of an environmentalist under fire means becoming one yourself.

Alejandro Queral In April, Alejandro Queral of the Club's Human Rights and the Environment Campaign, visited a state prison in Guerrero, Mexico, where Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera - two farmers and environmental activists - have been held since May 1999. Since their arrest, Montiel and Cabrera have been beaten and tortured by members of the Mexican Army, and forced to sign confessions to charges of illegal drug and weapons possession. Their real crime was angering local landowners and their own government by protesting heavy logging operations near their village.

Alejandro Queral
photo by Kim Todd

Queral was there with representatives from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to present Montiel with the Goldman Environmental Prize - the world's most prestigious environmental activism award.

"From the first day of my arrival in Mexico, I was followed, photographed and questioned by undercover agents," said Queral. "If that's what it's like to be an activist in Mexico, it makes our support for Montiel that much more important."

In August, many were crestfallen when a Mexican court hurled hefty prison sentences at Montiel and Cabrera - Queral and other activists were expecting the release of the two farmers. "We're now meeting with Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, and we have great hope that he will free them," Queral said.

The campaign's enduring support for another environmental activist paid off in September when Aleksandr Nikitin was acquitted. The former Soviet submarine captain and nuclear engineer was jailed for publishing public information about the decaying nuclear submarine fleet in Russia's North Sea, and its detrimental effects on the environment. Nikitin was arrested and charged with treason eight times before the Supreme Court finally rejected the prosecution's ninth attempt to appeal his acquittal.

The news was not so good for another of the campaign's priorities. In Chad and Cameroon, construction of an oil pipeline began in October of this year, only a few months after approval of the World Bank loan to the two countries.

"This multinational project, led by Exxon, Shell and France's Elf, has a history of serious environmental degradation and blindness to patterns of egregious human-rights abuses," said International Program Director Stephen Mills.

Questions raised by the Sierra Club and others about the environmental and community impacts of the project led the World Bank to appoint an international advisory panel to monitor the progress of the project. Unfortunately, it seems that the presence of large multinational corporations is already taking its toll: One of the oil companies gave a $25 million "bonus" to the government of Chad, which spent it on weapons and military equipment.

The cases in Chad, Cameroon, Mexico and Russia are among the stories told in a video called "Defending the Defenders," produced jointly by the Sierra Club and Amnesty International. Club activists toured 13 states, educating and engaging the public on these stories. In the fall, Club leaders visited colleges in Colorado and New Mexico, urging students to become involved with the campaign to free Montiel and Cabrera.

"With the support of the Sierra Student Coalition, we had teach-ins and rallies, and enlisted hundreds of new volunteers," said Sam Parry, conservation organizer. A Youth Summit in late January will bring together 200 college students from around the country.

Important alliances were crafted at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature meeting in Jordan. Every three years, leaders from non-government organizations join with political officials from all over the world to address environmental and human-rights concerns. This time, the passage of a resolution penned by Mills will require the IUCN to publish and distribute a list of individuals and communities that are suffering human-rights abuses at the hands of corporations or their own governments. The resolution was signed by 76 nations, from the Philippines to Panama, and from Egypt to Germany.

"By publishing the names of harassed activists and communities where environmentalists are under fire, we can raise awareness internationally," said Mills. "It gives us another vehicle to call attention to abuses that are widely unknown. We are moving toward a global economy, and with that comes a global responsibility to hold governments and corporations accountable for human rights and the environment."

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