What I am Learning about Climate Justice from Activists in Burma, Guatemala and Mexico

Robert Bank
6 min readSep 19, 2016
Grisela Mendez Gonzalez addresses members of the International Mission of Civil Observation in San Jose in the entryway to her family’s home, where her father Bernardo Mendez was murdered in January, 2012 by hired hitmen working under the orders of the town’s municipal president Alberto Mauro Sanchez. Photo by Evan Abramson.

Grisela Mendez Gonzalez is mourning the tragic loss of her father, Bernardo Mendez, and I’m learning from her grief. The cause of his death? It all started with a silver mine.

When a Canadian mining company arrived in their mountainous village in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, it quickly began guzzling the water local people depended on for farming. Soon after, residents began observing climbing levels of pollution in the air they breathed, the soil they tilled and the water they drank.

Alarmed, Bernardo joined other locals in asking hard questions. His first concern: how could this company divert the community’s scarce water to a mine without even asking local residents? Next: What would the pollution do to his family — and his community?

Farming is the sole source of income for many of the area’s indigenous Zapotec families, and the silver mine has threatened their livelihoods. Moreover, Bernardo’s health concerns seem well-founded. Residents have since reported a sharp rise in illness and death, including many miscarriages, which they believe were caused by pollution from the mine.

But Grisela says it wasn’t pollution that killed her father, but violence fomented by supporters of the mining company. She believes representatives of the mine fired the more than 70 bullet shells found near Bernardo, who had been shot more than a dozen times while protesting the construction of a water pipe townspeople believed was diverting the local water supply to the mine.

Tragically, Bernardo is just one of more than 100 environmental activists around the world who are killed every year for daring to defend their communities’ land and water from lucrative corporate- or government-backed projects.

Just months after Bernardo’s death, AJWS grantee Colectivo Oaxaqueño and its founding members — UNOSJO, Ser Mixe and Flor y Canto, organizations also supported by AJWS — brought a delegation of lawmakers, journalists and activists to Oaxaca. Together, they explored how mining corporations have hurt indigenous communities — damaging their health, ruining their farmland and creating conflicts over who can access the region’s dwindling sources of clean water. Since that time, two towns in the region have won official bans against mining, but there is still a long way to go.

This community’s struggle — and those waged by thousands of other communities around the world — is the quintessential struggle of our time. Will the scales of justice tip in favor of our planet and the people who depend on it for their very survival? Or will the powerful forces that seek to plunder it for profit triumph, leaving the earth and all of its inhabitants struggling to live in the polluted waters and fumes that are left?

If the prophet Moses were alive today, he would exhort us by updating his famous command, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” to “Climate justice shall you pursue.” And he would call on the people of the world to heed his warning — before it is too late to act.

As I travel the world for AJWS, I am fortunate to learn from local people and activist leaders about our broken world and what we must do to repair it.

Through stories of communities like the farmers of Oaxaca and people like Bernardo and Grisela, I am learning how careless, exploitative development is wreaking physical harm on our planet and its inhabitants, who are losing their land and water — and lives. And I am learning how climate change is taking a disproportionate toll on hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. That’s why we are joining with them to seek justice for their communities.

In recent years, I’ve met women farmers in India whose land is parched by devastating droughts, Cambodians whose villages have been buried under floods caused by mega dams, and Guatemalans whose towns were inundated by mudslides. I’ve met people in Burma whose forests have been destroyed by illegal logging and Haitians whose land has been poisoned by mining. And as I travel and learn, three key factors keep surfacing:

  • Vulnerability: Our planet’s most vulnerable people — especially indigenous people, rural communities, and women who till small plots of land — are among those most severely threatened by exploitative development and climate change.
  • Exploitation: The global rush by corporations and governments to develop the remaining pristine land on our planet leads to gross exploitation of the people who live on that land. Profit-seekers are often emboldened by the fact that many of those in the way are poor — and thus appear to have little power to stop them.
  • Lack of Consent and Compensation: Land inhabited by indigenous and poor communities is mined, dammed and deforested, often without the consent of local people. Developers destroy farms, villages and rivers and displace communities without fair compensation.

Fortunately, I’ve also been blessed to learn from some of the best organizations and leaders in the world who are leading this fight for land rights and climate justice. Among them, AJWS supports 180 social change organizations in 13 countries, including:

In Guatemala… Frente Petenero Contra las Represas (FPCR) supports communities working to stop the construction of dams that will flood their land and cut them off from vital sources of food, drinking water and livelihoods. And Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA) works in 16 departments of Guatemala to help small farmers, many of them Mayan, defend and prosper on their land.

Rosenda Macario Zapeta and her husband Ricardo Sicaján Choguay tend to coffee plants on their farm in Agua Escondida, Sololá. With support from CCDA, they have learned to grow new crops to sustain their family. Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

In Burma… Women from local villages in Kachin state in northern Burma work to save their ancestral villages from the destruction guaranteed by a gigantic dam being planned by China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), a Chinese company. To generate electricity for China, the proposed Myitsone Dam would would flood 47 Kachin villages. AJWS supports the organization Mungchying Rawt Ja (MRJ) (“Civil Development”), which is mobilizing local women through community meetings (like the one pictured here) to build a grassroots movement to protect their land and natural resource rights.

Women from the Kachin state in Burma attend a meeting with Mungchying Rawt Ja (MRJ) to defend their communities from the construction of a dam. Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

Earlier this year, we heard that our long-time grantee Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Honduran environmental activist, was gunned down and killed in her home, simply because she organized her community to protest a multi-million project to build dozens of hydroelectric dams that will destroy the local eco-system and put their survival at risk. At devastating moments like this, the many obstacles to pursuing climate justice feel overwhelming.

But knowing that many more courageous climate justice champions supported by AJWS are ready to take up the work of Berta — and Bernardo, and so many others — gives me hope for the future. We are obligated by our values and our history to join with these communities to repair our broken world and to seek justice for the vulnerable and the poor.

By working alongside these brave groups, we will build the kind of world we want to live in: one that respects our planet and ensures safety, security and prosperity for the most vulnerable among us.

As I travel and learn, I hear these words again and again: “Climate justice, shall you pursue.”



Robert Bank

President and CEO of American Jewish World Service. Working at the intersection of Jewish values and global concerns. Traveling the world and playing the piano