Statement On Alberto Curamil

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy
Alberto Curamil

Congressional Record
May 23, 2019

Mr. LEAHY. I want to bring to the Senate’s attention the story, and the example, of Alberto Curamil, an environmental activist who is a member of the indigenous Mapuche people in Chile’s Araucania region. The Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous group, and since the 1800s they have struggled to protect their culture, territory, rivers, forests, and natural resources against encroachment and destruction by settlers and energy companies that have often acted with impunity and the backing of the government. Mr. Curamil has dedicated his life to this cause. It is the existential struggle of indigenous people in scores of countries as the insatiable global demand for energy, arable land, water, timber, oil, gas, and minerals threatens their ancestral lands and way of life.

Several years ago, during a prolonged drought in Chile, the Ministry of Energy announced a plan for two large hydroelectric projects in Araucania, without consulting the Mapuche people who live there. The projects would reportedly divert more than 500 million gallons of water for power generation, severely limiting water flow and damaging the ecosystem of the Cautin River on which many of the Mapuche people depend for survival.

Mr. Curamil, who has three children, lives on the outskirts of the town of Curacautin. He is a farmer who raises animals. His wife teaches the Mapuche language. Fearing what the harm to the river would mean for his people, he organized Mapuche and non-Mapuche, environmental organizations, lawyers and academics, to try to stop the projects. In public protests and in court, they argued that the government had ignored Chilean law which requires free, prior, and informed consent of affected communities before approving such projects. Despite harassment, threats, and violent attacks, Mr. Curamil succeeded in uniting the opposition and in 2016 the projects were canceled.

But that was not the end of it.

On August 14, 2018, Mr. Curamil was arrested by Chile’s national police and imprisoned. He has been charged with assault during a bank robbery in which a guard was injured and hostages taken. An anonymous witness reportedly said that one of the robbers looked like a Mapuche, and they arrested Mr. Curamil. There have been no judicial proceedings, and Mr. Curamil remains in pretrial detention.

Mr. Curamil and his family say that he is a victim of retaliation for his environmental activism, that he was attending a meeting in a different town at the time of the robbery, and that multiple people can attest to his presence there. At the time of his arrest, his house was ransacked by police and left in a shambles. In November 2018, another Mapuche, Camilo Catrillanca, age 24, died after being shot in the back by police. He was a member of the Mapuche Territorial Alliance, a grassroots organization that seeks to reintegrate the Mapuche people through reclaiming their language, territory, and rights that were fractured and repeatedly violated during the past two centuries.

I mention these events to put in context the recent announcement that Alberto Curamil was selected as one of the 2019 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The Prize honors grassroots environmental activists from around the world, singling out individuals for their extraordinary and sustained efforts to protect the natural environment, often at great personal risk.

Not only did Mr. Curamil lead a successful challenge to the unlawful decision by the Chilean Ministry of Energy, he is being subjected to what many suspect is a flagrant and vindictive abuse of the judicial process of the type that we have come to expect in countries with authoritarian governments like Russia, but not democracies like Chile.

If the Chilean authorities have credible evidence to support the charge against Mr. Curamil, they should produce it in a public trial and provide him with the opportunity to defend himself. Instead, nearly 10 months since his arrest, he languishes in jail while his wife and children are alone fending for themselves.

The attempts to intimidate and silence Mr. Curamil, and the threats to his people and the natural environment, are not unique. This is happening to indigenous people all over the world, and each year the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize helps to call attention to those like Mr. Curamil who have risked their lives on behalf of their communities, wildlife species, rivers, lakes, forests and oceans that are being threatened or destroyed.

Mr. Curamil is an activist for environmental and social justice that Chileans should take pride in. Like the many hundreds in attendance in San Francisco and Washington who cheered when his daughter, Belen Curamil, received the Prize on his behalf, the Chilean people should recognize Mr. Curamil for his courageous defense of Chile’s natural environment and diverse cultural heritage.

We should also be concerned that Mr. Curamil’s arrest takes place against a backdrop of escalating violence between the national police and Mapuche activists. At the heart of the dispute is land ownership and lack of consultation on legislation or investment projects that directly affect the Mapuche. Timber is Chile’s second-largest export commodity, worth billions of dollars annually, and the political elite is deeply invested in the industry. Mapuche activists are engaged in a campaign against the timber industry and its defenders in the government. In response, prosecutors are using an anti-terrorism law originally introduced by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to stifle political dissent. The law allows for indefinite pretrial detention, investigations being kept secret for up to six months, and evidence admitted in oral hearings from anonymous witnesses, as in Mr. Curamil’s case.

This situation is aptly described by Global Witness in its 2017 report, Defenders of the Earth: “It is increasingly clear that, globally, governments and business are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk … Ironically, it is the activists themselves who are painted as criminals, facing trumped-up criminal charges and aggressive civil cases brought by governments and companies seeking to silence them. This criminalization is used to intimidate defenders, tarnish their reputations and lock them into costly legal battles.”

Chile’s police have intervened violently on the side of private companies, intimidating Mapuche communities. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples warned that the government and police are increasingly targeting activists who are campaigning to protect their land from mining, logging, and dams. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has condemned the Chilean government for applying anti-terrorism laws against Mapuche leaders.

According to Amnesty International: “Although violence against defenders is a constant in the region, little is known about what is happening in Chile, especially in relation to the historical context of criminalization and stigmatization of the Mapuche and their leaders. The Chilean authorities have an obligation to guarantee conditions that enable human rights defenders to carry out their work and to establish protection mechanisms for environmental defenders and Indigenous leaders who face constant criminalization and stigmatization.”

Again, these circumstances are not unique to Chile. Similar confrontations are occurring in many countries. But Mr. Curamil’s receipt of the Goldman Environmental Prize should cause everyone to pay attention, and to ask: Should not these issues be handled better? Is it acceptable for the Chilean government to label these largely defenseless, mostly impoverished people as “terrorists,” for trying to protect their territory and way of life? Should not the Chilean government act as a convener of a dialogue that recognizes the legitimate rights of its indigenous population, that ensures they are consulted in a timely and meaningful way, as the law requires, about decisions that affect them, and that their views are properly reflected in those decisions? Is that not the government’s responsibility? To listen to its citizens who have traditionally been ignored and whose way of life is threatened, and to find creative, sustainable solutions?

I join others in congratulating Alberto Curamil for setting an example at a time when the natural environment is under siege due to human development, recklessness, and greed. We see the consequences on every continent. Tropical forests cut down for oil palm plantations, coral reefs destroyed, rivers polluted, dammed and diverted, fish populations depleted, and other wildlife species facing extinction.

Earlier this month, a UN assessment of the world’s biodiversity compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries over three years, reported that “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

This is true in Chile as it is in virtually every country. Complacency is not an answer, and I hope the Chilean government will recognize that people like Alberto Curamil should be listened to and supported, not threatened and jailed.

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