On the frontline: A mosaic honouring environmental defenders

Every week, about 4 people are killed for standing up to those (predominantly industry of various stripes) who are encroaching on their traditional lands and resources, threatening the environment and their very survival. That adds up to hundreds of lives each year. More often than not, their killers go unpunished as land grabs and environmental exploitation advance, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

The non-profit Global Witness has been tracking these murders for several years, and the numbers are sobering, especially given the fact that their conservative methodology means that the number of environmental defenders killed worldwide annually is likely much much higher. The latest report available is from 2017 (the 2018 report will likely be out later this summer). In 2017 there were 201 killings worldwide, with the agribusiness and mining sectors responsible for the most murders (40 each). Latin America was the most dangerous place for defenders, particularly Brazil.

While the report tracks murders, it should be noted that there are many other forms of intimidation used by the perpetrators, including death threats, arrests, abductions, sexual assault, blackmail, illegal surveillance, and much more. The killings are just the (very gruesome) tip of the iceberg. All too often, the government and military are actively complicit in these killings and pressure tactics or, at the very least, the status quo in these countries—widespread impunity and corruption, lack of participation in decision-making, and lack of free and prior consent by the affected communities, etc.—enables the violence.

I’ve been waiting three years to make this mosaic. The issue planted itself firmly in my brain in 2016 with the assassination of Berta Cáceres, one of Honduras’ most prominent environmental activists and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and before her murder had been working with the Lenca people to stop the Agua Zarca dam, which would have affected the Gualcarque River, a sacred river for the Lenca people. The dam would have diverted 3 kilometres of river, displacing communities and jeopardizing their water resources and livelihoods. COPINH employed many tactics to stop the construction of the dam, most notably a blockade that lasted over a year. In the end, Cáceres, who had been receiving death threats for years, was shot and killed in her home. In November 2018, seven men were convicted of her murder. Among those convicted were two employees of the construction company, DESA (one of whom was, ironically enough, the company’s “community and environmental affairs manager”), a retired military officer turned DESA employee, and an active military officer. DESA’s then-CEO is being tried separately this year.

“For Berta (They Fear Us Because We Are Fearless)” (2019), 16″ x 16″ — shell casings, shale, smalti, stained glass

When I was conceptualizing this mosaic, it wasn’t with Berta, specifically, in mind. Though her murder was what first put the issue on my radar, with this mosaic I wanted to talk about environmental defenders as a whole. The bullets were a no-brainer, as was the spiky shale surrounding them. In trying to depict violence clashing with nature (and its defenders), I chose to use a beautiful piece of Youghiogheny glass that was leftover from my time in Ireland. Not only were the colours right, with the greens and blues, but its ties to a series of sacred spaces intimately tied to the notion of Place also seemed appropriate given the fierce defence of place that results in the death of so many defenders. I left it in big chunks, trying to get at the notion of undisturbed, unfragmented nature being threatened by the encroaching lines of shale.

Encroachment
A look at the chunks of Youghiogheny glass

There are a few things about this mosaic that give me chills every time I think about them. The title was chosen a few hours after the piece was complete, as a nod to Berta and what an important figure she was (and continues to be) in terms of environmental and human rights defenders. And it wasn’t until after the title was chosen that I realized all of the following:

  • First, I finished this piece on March 3, which is the anniversary of Berta’s murder. I had been working toward a March 3 finish date—and honestly, I thought I would finish several days later—because the next day was my 40th birthday and I liked the idea of starting a new decade with a clean work table.
  • Second, Berta and I both share a birthday (March 4), which R realized a few days after I had finished the piece.
  • And third, the face in the mosaic is 100% unintentional. As I was making it, R said she saw a face, but I never saw it until I brought the completed mosaic upstairs to show her, and then it just hit me in a classic lightbulb moment. And while it’s not an exact match to Berta’s profile, my god there are elements that line up.
Unintentional profile

Years ago I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” (which I loved), and she talked about this sort of magical side to creativity and inspiration. At the time I was like, “Sure, yah, I guess,” but couldn’t really relate. Well, I’m a believer now.

This mosaic is a bit different from the others in this series so far, in that it’s decidedly human. Not that the other issues I tackle don’t have a human element, but this one puts it front and centre. This was important for me, because I was concerned that focusing solely on the physical impacts on the planet and its systems would remove humans from the equation, distancing us from or absolving us of the destruction we have brought about. There will definitely be more mosaics focusing on the social dimension in this series. The large-scale exploitation and destruction at the root of the Anthropocene are perpetrated by humans and affect humans, and it will be up to us humans to turn things around.

This mosaic, for me, caused a fair bit of reflection and introspection. I mean, we’re talking about being so hungry for resources and profits and cheap goods (and more, more, more!) that we’ll stop at nothing, including taking the lives of hundreds of innocent people who simply stand up for their land, their culture, and their livelihood. Obviously, a cheap smartphone or a cheap hamburger isn’t worth killing people for. (Yet we do it.) Stopping to consider both the social and environmental costs of our choices is important. But for me, this mosaic also got me thinking about how much I’m willing to sacrifice to live a more environmentally sustainable life. Do my choices inconvenience me? Make me a little less comfortable? Cost more money? Yes to all (though they also enrich my life, which will be the subject of future mosaics), especially if I were to push even further, which I undoubtedly can. But that is nothing compared to Berta’s sacrifice and those of other defenders.

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