Environmental Ruin, Aided by Drug War: How Can Defenders Fight Back?

    Land use and control, combined with prohibition, is the fundamental motor driving environmental harm relating to production and sales of illicit drugs, as previous parts of this series have shown. Yet even eliminating illicit drugs, an impossibility, would not protect habitats that are systematically destroyed when they are turned over—officially, or effectively—to miners, cattle ranchers, developers, fossil fuel extraction companies or electricity plants.

    Indigenous land defenders’ struggle to wrest back control of landfrom both illicit actors (like drug trafficking organizations or wildcat, “artisanal” miners) and, increasingly and usually more significantly, legal or nominally legal onesis a difficult, dangerous and terribly lopsided battle.

    Perhaps, as Guatemalan ecological activist Julio González suggested to Filter, it is inevitable that people living in relative harmony with environmentally and culturally significant land will be pushed too far by those seeking to extract profit at any cost, and armed conflict will (continue to) erupt around the world.

    But land defenders continue to pursue new avenues to end impunity for the destruction of irreplaceable ecological heritage and ways of life.


    Going International

    Pedro Landa, a Honduran human rights defender, spoke with Filter on the seventh anniversary of the murder of his former colleague, Berta Cáceres.

    Cáceres was a beloved Lenca Indigenous leader and environmental activist who co-founded and led the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). She had been fighting the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project on the Gualcarque river in the country’s northwest. Her assassination in her own home in 2016, a couple of days before her 45th birthday, drew international outrage.

    Berta Cáceres in 2015. Photograph by coolloud via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0


    Murders of people defending their ancestral, environmentally sensitive territories remain rampant and mostly garner little attention, with the 2022 killings of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira a rare exception.

    As Landa described, the situation for land defenders on the ground is truly grim. By September 2022, close to 90 environmentalists had filed complaints relating to threats to their person in that year alone, according to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.

    The convictions have triggered no changes to protect land defenders on the ground, Landa said.

    Landa has worked over the years in Africa, as well as Central and South America, on organizing committees and with many different local advocates. So he’s in close contact with many Indigenous groups defending their waterways and ancestral lands, and has observed again and again how their opponents operate.

    “I’ve identified common patterns of imposition that occur,” he said, of a neoliberal, extractive model that allows private companies to pillage Indigenous lands. These “permit impunity, the non-application of the law to companies but also to public functionaries who, in collusion with companies, sack territories and are responsible for crime such as assassinations.”

    In 2022, Roberto David Castillo, the former CEO of Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA)—and once an intelligence officer in the Honduran army, trained by the United States military—was sentenced for his role as “intellectual author” of Berta Cáceres’ murder, having monitored her for years before planning, arranging and getting the money to pay for the fatal hit. Castillo was the eighth person to be sentenced in relation to her death.

    DESA, a Honduran state company, was one financier of the Agua Zarca project along with Chinese and European investors (this is a good overview of the case, and how international companies tacitly or actively assent to repressive practices against local opposition). Other powerful shareholders in the dam, believed to be implicated, remain untouched.

    Yet the convictions have triggered no changes to protect land defenders on the ground, Landa said.

    Honduras and El Salvador are the only Latin American or Caribbean nations which have not signed on to the Escazú Accord, an initiative of the United Nations agency CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America). This 2018 agreement contains legally binding requirements for signatories to protect environmental defenders. Globally, about 200 land defenders are murdered every year, according to a 2022 Global Witness report.

    Since 2010, 120 Honduran environmentalists have been murdered. Two Honduran activists were assassinated in the first week of 2023.

    Cáceres’ 25-year-old daughter, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, now heads her mother’s organization. Colleagues of Landa and Cáceres continue to face regular threats.

    “Worst of all,” Landa said, “in addition to the corruption [of companies and officials], we have the issue of drug trafficking: narcominería, or the investment of cartels in extractive projects in order to launder their money.”

    Organizations that would not exist, of course, without global drug prohibition.

    Sometimes, Landa said, minerals aren’t even mined, but illicit earnings are reported as resulting from mining (a claim supported by research). Vast profits are laundered in this way. Indigenous and other land defenders therefore face conflict with mining companies and trafficking groups alike.

    It is hard to overstate the degree to which narcominería and other forms of corruption related to the global drug trade shape Honduras. Porfirio Lobo, the son of the country’s 2010-2014 president, trafficked cocaine for the long-dominant Cachiros organization—which laundered profits through companies that won contracts from the Lobo administration.

    After Lobo came Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother was convicted in the US for drug (and weapons) trafficking. The president himself is accused (in testimony from the US trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Gúzman) of accepting millions in campaign donations from traffickers—giving him their “license” to lead the country (as explained by Nina Lahkani in her book on the Cáceres murder, and her longtime reporting from Honduras).

    It is on the international front that Landa sees the possibility, however slight, of change.

    Tight, complex connections between elected officials, private security forces, resource extraction companies and traffickers with tremendous resources make it impossible to trust the “system” to protect Hondurans who want a project off their land.

    “When there is conflict,” Landa said, following destruction of water reserves or assassinations, for example, “the powers responsible for administration of justice are also co-opted.”

    So it is on the international front that Landa sees the possibility, however slight, of change.

    He attributes the current situation to the wave of multilateral and free trade agreements countries like Honduras and Guatemala signed in the 1980s, which privileged private profit over national autonomy, forcing lower environmental and social expectations. Vast profits made from drug prohibition—profits best hidden, at least nominally—create a perfect storm of corruption and violence.

    “And this is why you see that we have to go to the international bodies,” Landa said, “like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or like the International Court of Justice in the Hague, or look for judicial process in the countries of origin of corporations […] or the banks that finance them.”

    To these ends, Landa works as project coordinator and country representative for Honduras with a coalition called the International Platform Against Impunity. He’s also involved in the development of guiding principles relating to corporations and human rights with the United Nations and the European Union, and has participated in networks of different Amazon countries facing similar issues. Seeking enforcement of internationally recognized rights within Honduras, Landa has addressed the United States Department of State, the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights and COP23. In 2011, he testified to Canada’s House of Commons about the situation in Honduras and the complicity of Canadian mining companies.

    But such multinational efforts, often seeking consensus between numerous parties, can be as slow-moving as they are necessary. And it may simultaneously be possible, sometimes, to use national legal systems to preserve land title and ensure enforcement of environmental protections. For this, there is perhaps no more compelling example than that of the Atrato River, in Colombia.


    If a Corporation Can Be a Person, Why Not a River?

    Like the Ganges in India, or the Whanganui in New Zealand, the Atrato River is not merely a long waterway (Colombia’s third-largest). It’s the site of a complex relationship between the people who live along its banks, and ecologies connecting the forest and other lands through which it runs with that of the river itself.

    The Atrato River. Photograph by Almajoir via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0


    Cutting through different regions and communities, the Atrato nourishes plant, animal and human life, sustaining livelihoods through fishing and agriculture. And it is used to transport all manner of goods. The Atrato is a major route for cocaine shipments bound for Panama and the Caribbean.

    “You’ll have noticed I’m a backpack lawyer, because I live so much in the field,” Andrea Torres told Filter on a video call. A lawyer for the Colombian non-profit Tierra Digna, she was speaking from a hotel, minutes before she was due to fly by small plane into the rainforest.

    There, in the western state of Chocó, she spends much of her time among the communities she represents: Afrodescendent peoples who live in intimate relationship with the Atrato river. They taught her of their need to make Colombia’s Constitutional Court understand it’s not possible to separate ancestral human activity from the ecology of the river.

    Torres explained that Chocó, through which the Atrato flows, is remote and difficult to enter. Some communities can only be reached by boat. Infrastructure is scarce in this mountainous rainforest region, and poverty widespread.

    “We don’t have other ways to live. But we don’t want to cultivate drugs, we don’t want to mine gold. We need our ancestral ways of life…”

    Besides cocaine being shipped along the Atrato, illegal gold mining takes place there, with monstrous floating dredges dubbed “dragons” that suck up silt. There is an ongoing history of armed conflict and forced displacement, and sometimes the cocaine traffickers and gold miners are paramilitary groups for whom these are sources of financing, along with illicit logging.

    The Atrato is also an important legal trade route between Chocó’s river communities and the port cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena. And the ecology of the river biome and the lives of its people are imperiled by mercury contamination and environmental degradation. Despite Chocó holding the world’s rainiest lowlands, with close to 400 inches of annual precipitation, there is a lack of potable water in its capital, Quibdó.

    Tierra Digna has worked in the region since 2010: providing training for leaders in the large Afrodescendent community, identifying megaprojects that threaten their way of life and those of Indigenous communities also living on the Atrato, and listening to what community members want.

    “We don’t have other ways to live,” Torres recalled them telling her. “But we don’t want to cultivate drugs, we don’t want to mine gold. We need our ancestral ways of life…”

    Protection for the river that includes protection for these ways of living, they have emphasized over and over, must be guaranteed rights.

    Through long stays in the Amazon, Torres and her Tierra Digna colleagues began to understand that the communities held a view of these rights that differed from the dominant economic or environmental models. “They taught us that we have to show the Constitutional Court this different vision of the relationship between humans and nature,” Torres said.

    Tierra Digna agreed to represent several Afrodescendent, Indigenous and subsistence farming communitiesand on their behalf, Torres spearheaded the acción tutela for the protection of constitutional rights. She argued that the government’s failure to prevent illegal mining in Chocó violated communities’ constitutionally-protected fundamental rights to life, health, water, food security, a clean environment, and to their ethnic cultures and territory.

    The communities in question share with communities living alongside the Ganges in India a similar “spiritual and philosophical vision of the relationship between humans and nature,” Torres said. This underlies the rights lawyers sought on their behalf for both the Ganges and the Atrato.

    The different Indigenous groups who have lived on the Atrato, and the Afrodescendent people whose ancestors were brought there as slaves, have distinct “cosmovisions,” as Torres put it—her Afrodescendent clients’ concepts are informed by Yoruba spiritual beliefs—but fundamental commonalities. “Both peoples and both visions coincide in that nature is essential for their existence.”

    Torres paused and smiled. “I’ll be honest. We did not expect what resulted.”

    Her clients proposed that rather than creating a defensive policy to respond to the incursions of armed conflict, drug traffickers and illegal miners, the lawyers help them develop a positive response, focusing on the concept of interdependence.

    The lawyers thought this would be a sort of symbolic case, where they could at least get a different vision to the extractive economic model heard and recorded. “We wanted the court to hear the people and understand that there are different ways to see things … That there must be a model where nature is treated like a human being, with care, with respect.”

    Torres paused and smiled. “I’ll be honest. We did not expect what resulted.”

    To their surprise, the court was deeply affected by community members’ testimonies. Its judgment, delivered on November 10, 2016, formally recognized the river itself, with its tributaries, as a subject of rights—a legal entity—distinct from the rights of the communities that live on it.

    This means that the Atrato has the right to be protected, maintained and restored by the government and the communities. With a series of orders, the judgment required the Colombian government to move to a vision of the region in which the relationship between people and nature is considered indivisible. The government must consider climate change when developing energy and mining policies; must create an economic development plan that respects interdependence; and must appoint two guardians, one from the government itself and one from the claimant communities, to represent the rights of the river.

    Even if policy details had yet to be determined, a fundamental principle was established. 


    Rivers With Rights

    As it happens, just a month before the Atrato decision, a constitutional court in New Zealand made a similar judgment on the Whanganui, where similar interdependence exists between river, humans and non-human life. And at the very same time, a tribunal in India granted biocultural rights to the great Ganges.

    The Colombian Constitutional Court cited the freshly-delivered Whanganui decision and a related law in its judgment, with the two-guardian model derived from New Zealand’s—showing that step by step, communities separated by thousands of miles may be able to indirectly support each other’s efforts to change the framework.

    “Implementation has been terribly difficult.”

    But it’s one thing to get an amazingly good judgment in the court, and another to see its effect in daily life on the remote river. “Implementation has been terribly difficult,” Torres admitted.

    There has been a notable lack of success in putting together the policy required by the Constitutional Court. The government, Torres feels, still doesn’t understand the conceptual shift grounding the notion of the river having biocultural rights.

    “It’s been five years, and it seems that the government of Colombia doesn’t really understand the philosophy,” she said. “So they haven’t been able to develop a public environmental policy that respects the contribution of [the people living alongside the river].”

    In April 2018, the Supreme Court of Colombia built on the Constitutional Court’s Atrato decision by further granting legal rights to the Amazon river ecosystem. It did so in its judgment on a lawsuit brought against the then-president, national ministries and agencies, and local governments by 25 young people, alleging that their rights were violated through continued deforestation of the Amazon.

    But the challenges Tierra Digna observes with implementation of the Atrato decision don’t seem to bode well for the various required action plans. The economic policy aspects have been a particular challenge, with policymakers struggling to grasp the ways in which these should vary from standard national economic policy.

    “They’ve never developed a policy of environmental conservation starting from the guardians of nature, that is, from the philosophy and way of life of these communities,” Torres said of the Atrato case. “Why haven’t we been able in Colombia to develop a public economic and environmental policy from this philosophy?”

    With no answers, Torres will be meeting in April with other lawyers, experts, forest guardians and stakeholders—as required by the Constitutional Court—to discuss the ongoing challenges of ensuring rights granted to the Atrato and its peoples don’t exist merely on paper. Torres and her colleagues are right now working with Chocó communities to prepare for this meeting.

    She believes that coca must be legalized and regulated “just like alcohol.”

    Other projects may ultimately help. A partnership between Chocó locals and a university in Scotland, for example, aims to equip land defenders to generate evidence—such as on heavy metals resulting from mining—that can be used to demand specific protection or rehabilitation interventions under the Colombian government’s new legal obligations.

    But there are obvious challenges that can’t be easily fixed by granting a sort of personhood to the river. Torres argues that to make the victory meaningful, alternative policies are needed to give people options for economic survival beyond mining and coca cultivation.

    She believes, at the same time, that coca must be legalized and regulated “just like alcohol … that is how to get rid of the mafias.” Illegal mining, she said, should also be addressed via locally controlled economies and international regulation. And finally, after nearly 60 years of conflict, there must—somehow—be disarmament of armed groups, and total peace.

    There have been criticisms—mostly academic—of the biocultural rights approach. These range from its uneven and limited application to the critique that it perpetuates anthropocentric framing (individualizing rights and responsibilities under law and internalizing neoliberalism, rather than emphasizing interconnectedness).

    And then there is the challenge of enforcement.

    If “persons” don’t have practical guarantees of their rights—when governments and their legal and enforcement systems are too often corrupt, or see their role as defending private interests—can we really expect that personhood language will do better for a river?


    The Belly of the Beast

    Another approach is to attack the very profit motive that tramples ecosystems and human rights. As Torres said, one part of that is legalizing coca and other drugs. But beyond that, an entire network of interests benefits from illicit trade and corruption.

    In fact, when Landa argues that change will need to come by using international law to force compliance with environmental and human rights obligations, he suggests that the targets may not be in countries like Honduras or Colombia. Rather, they may be thousands of miles away: in the centers of finance where international resource extraction companies have their head offices, and where their shareholders live.

    My home city, Toronto, is what the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network describes as “the belly of the beast.”

    This would require far greater vigilance over financial transactions and money laundering, together with the dismantling of prohibitionist policies—and implementation of policies that incentivize and mandate sustainable, harmonious land management. Taxes and elimination of loopholes are basic ways to discourage companies from entering environmentally sensitive land at all. But the bigger-picture need is a more fundamental shift—essentially, reversing the last 30 or so years of neo-colonialist economic policy by removing commitments that overrule the integrity of irreplaceable natural environments and their peoples, and creating economic policies that support this change.

    My home city, Toronto, is what the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network describes as “the belly of the beast.” Projects that garner outrage in Africa and Latin America for their blatant human rights violations and environmental destruction originate here, high in the gleaming towers of Bay Streetthe financial district where many of Canada’s mining and energy companies make their homes and their deals.

    Bay Street. Photograph by Ken Lund via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0


    Back in 2011 when Pedro Landa testified in Canada’s House of Commons, he noted how “Unfortunately, Canada is seen abroad as a country that makes off with other countries’ natural resources without any concern for society.”

    Canada is not alone here. The United States, of course, has countless environmentally voracious companies of its own—plus a long record of exporting its War on Drugs and providing military support to repressive governments in the name of anti-Communism.

    Following the 2008 coup in Honduras, and right up to Berta Cáseres’ murder by a US-trained military intelligence officer, the US supplied the country with some $200 million in military and police aidproviding material support for the despoiling of traditional lands and their re-titling to private companies. Private security companies employed by trafficking groups and mining concerns alike may rely on US-provided counterinsurgency training to violently suppress Indigenous land defenders.

    Yet Canada’s anti-corruption laws and enforcement are weaker than those in the US, and a 2010 bill that would have forced mining, oil and gas companies operating abroad to meet social responsibility standards was defeated. Although the current government pledged to institute an independent ombudsperson with the power to subpoena enterprises, it did not come through.

    So Canada remains a concentrated example of the internationally exploitative model. Its resource-oriented economy includes a strong, subsidized mining sector active both within and beyond its borders—typically in regions where Indigenous people live in close relationship with natural resources. Canadian mining and hydro-electric companies are disproportionately implicated in many of the land-grabs described in this series.

    “Canadians are everywhere,” Jamie Kneen, Canada program lead and outreach coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, told Filter. His organization is one of a handful of nonprofits focused on the harms of mining projects both abroad and in Canada—and the immense power imbalances that characterize these projects’ relationships with local and Indigenous communities.

    Take this investment and shove it isn’t something you can tell a shareholder meeting.”

    The Indigenous-led legal rights approach had been attempted unsuccessfully in Canada before. But in 2021, the Mutuhekau Shipu, or Magpie River, in northern Quebec, which runs through ancestral lands of the Ekuanitshit Innu community, was granted similar legal rights to the Atrato. As a legal person, it now has the right to flow, to maintain biodiversity, even to sue. Whether enforcement in the face of hydroelectric development will succeed remains to be seen.

    In Toronto or Ottawa, where Kneen works, prospects for change seem muted. Most Canadians are blithely unaware of the damage their companies do abroad, and the government is strongly supportive of exporting traditional strengths in resource extraction.

    MiningWatch is busy defending Canada’s environmental laws as an intervenor in court, doing research and speaking out on industry trends in Canada and abroad, and providing input on policies—such as a proposed free trade agreement with Ecuador that local land defenders believe will increase both human rights violations and Canadian mining companies’ destructive impact.

    Among MiningWatch’s projects to combat environmentally and socially harmful mining abroad is its campaign, with other organizations, for Canada to adopt a corporate due diligence law, similar to one in France (Switzerland also has a weaker version).

    It does seem that no single approach or target is yielding substantial success.

    But rejection of a mining or hydroelectric or monocropping project on traditional lands isn’t one of the goals built into any proposed laws on corruption or corporate due diligence.

    “Clearly stopping a project is not on that list,” Kneen acknowledged. “Take this investment and shove it isn’t something you can tell a shareholder meeting.”

    That, however, is precisely what Julio González, the Guatemalan environmental activist who spoke with Filter in Part 2 of this series, described as land defenders’ demand.

    While activists like Landa see potential in taking on destructive companies in their countries of origin, Kneen recognizes severe limitations to this approach, even though his work is devoted to supporting, from Canada, the work of land defenders abroad.

    “All we can meaningfully do here,” he said, “is to try and ensure that there’s enough attention and focus on what they’re doing to provide some protection and some political space for them to do what they do.”

    While the Canadian response may appear lackluster given the life-or-death stakes, it does seem that no single approach or target is yielding substantial success. So long as companies are able to purchase a license to destroy a river, a valley or a community by pledging to open a school or community center—or simply paying a bribe—the land-grabs and the violence against environmental defenders and communities are likely to continue almost unchecked.

    We must work to deepen solidarity with those fighting the worst consequences on the ground.

    As this series has explored, the drug war substantially set the stage for—and continues to supply a profit motive for—corruption with devastating, irreversible consequences for human lives, biodiversity, natural resources and ancestral ways of life.

    On World Drug Day last June, Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium noted that the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime fails to recognize the impact of prohibitionist drug policy on the environment—even as it discusses this nexus for the first time.

    “UNODC again falls short of outlining how drug policies themselves can fuel environmental damage and making clear what policy changes are needed,” she wrote.

    As we demand an end to prohibition and the drug war from North America, drug policy reform advocates must be insistent in linking their impact on global environmental, Indigenous and human rights. And we must work to deepen solidarity with those fighting the worst consequences on the ground.


    This article is the third in a three-part series examining intersections of environmental injustice and the drug war. Part 1, published on January 23, is How the Drug War Fosters Devastating Land-Grabs. Part 2, published on Feburary 9, is How the Global Drug War Threatens Environmental Defenders.  

    Top photograph of land defenders in Guatemala by Julio González

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