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Celsa Valdovinos
Woman Eco-Activist of Mountain Stock
By Diego Cevallos

The award-winning Mexican peasant Celsa Vadovinos assures Tierramérica that she will continue to defend the forests of Guerrero sierra, even though her life may be at stake.

TLAPA, Guerrero, Mexico, (Tierramérica).- Mexico's Celsa Valdovinos, a rural activist who won the Chico Mendes environmental prize in 2005, forged her life as an eco-leader in a context of poverty, illiteracy and violence in her home region.

Because of Valdovinos's efforts, some rural communities in the empoverished southwestern state of Guerrero have recovered forests, obtained water services and developed gardens -- but these advances were paid for with military harrassment, forced displacement, threats and the imprisonment of her husband, who, like her, is a local environmental leader.

The slow, sweet way that Valdovinos speaks -- she never went to school -- doesn't seem to correspond to her reputation as a staunch activist. And although she doesn't see herself as an important leader, environmental and humanitarian groups recognize her as a powerful engine behind the recovery of the forests, protection of water supplies and organization of rural women workers, who are often marginalized by their husbands.

"We know that we don't owe anything to anyone, that we don't have any reason to flee, but there are still people who are very angry (the loggers) and say bad things about us," Valdovinos told Tierramérica in an interview in the city of Tlapa, Guerrero, where she attended a rural workers' meeting.

"It saddens me that my husband and I continue to be in danger. They could kill us," she said.

At age 49, and with more than 20 dedicated to protecting the environment, Valdovinos is the president of the Organization of Women Ecologists of Sierra de Petatlán, a mountainous area of Guerrero where her husband, Felipe Arreaga, and other peasants have faced prison and persecution for their resistance against the destruction of the forests.

In those mountains, more than 5 out of 10 children suffer severe malnutrition, and 75 percent of the population is illiterate. In 1998, Valdovinos's husband, Arreaga, led mobilizations to halt indiscriminate logging.

After that campaign, he was accused of murdering the son of a logging boss and spent 10 months behind bars in 2005. His colleagues Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera spent two years (1999-2001) in prison on unsubstantiated charges of arms possession and cultivation of illegal drug crops.

The three activists -- members of the Organization of Rural Ecologists of Sierra de Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán -- were declared prisoners of conscience by national and international human rights groups.

Montiel and Cabrera now live in hiding, far from Guerrero, for fear of being targeted for assassination by logging interests. Arreaga and his wife haven't ruled out doing the same if they feel they are in imminent danger. "We have affected entrenched interests, that is why they attack and threaten us," Valdovinos says.

For their "global environmental heroism", the U.S.-based environmental group the Sierra Club awarded Montiel and Cabrera the 2001 Chico Mendes prize, named after the Brazilian Amazon rubber tapper, labor organizer and environmentalist gunned down in 1988.

The 2005 award went to Valdovinos, Arreaga and Alberto Peñalosa, one of their "compadres" and fellow eco-leader injured by gunshots fired by unknown assailants in May last year. In the attack, two of his children, ages nine and 20, were killed.

Arreaga was released from prison in September 2005 after the courts declared him innocent. Cabrera and Montiel had been released in 2001 at the request of Mexico's President Vicente Fox, following international pressure and denunciations that the charges against them were trumped up.

Logging activities have been aggressive in the Guerrero mountains. Eleven of the 17 indigenous municipalities in that state are very poor, and one is the poorest in the country, according to official figures. Also simmering there is a dangerous mix of a military presence, guerrilla groups, drug traffickers and logging mafias.

Satellite images show that in 1999-2000 these mountain areas lost some 86,000 hectares of the 226,203 hectares of forest cover, according to the international environment watchdog Greenpeace.

"I don't really know what I'll do now that Felipe is out of prison and we still fear an attack against us. The Organization of Women Ecologists is my life. If I leave it, I feel like I will die," said Valdovinos.

In the early 1980s, she says she began to understand "what this ecology thing is" when she began working with the Catholic Church.

"The priest told us, 'don't be fools'; that we were being left with a desert because the loggers were taking all the wood," said the activist.

"Then we saw that the water was disappearing. At first we installed a hose and ran water down from the river, and we used it on our plot. But later, after they had cut down the trees, there was almost no water left. That is a firsthand experience of what ecology is," she added.

Valdovinos began to organize youths and women for defending the environment and for clean-up efforts to remove the garbage that their neighbors dumped in the fields. Because of those activities, some in the community "called us old-lady meddlers. We had a lot of problems and they have disliked us ever since."

But she continued forward. In the late 1990s, when Arreaga led the mobilizations against logging, she took a break "because the military started to follow us, and they wouldn't leave us alone. The loggers were very angry."

Her husband fled to the isolated areas of the siearra, while she and her children (two daughters and a son) left behind their small house and moved to a town on Guerrero's Pacific coast.

"For eight months we didn't hear from Felipe, because he was in hiding. He hid for most of 1998. We knew he was sleeping in the hills, while we stayed in a small hut on the beach," she recalled.

In 1999, when the persecution ended, "in part because there was international pressure against the arrests of Montiel and Cabrera, we were reunited, but in El Zapotillal (a small town), and that is where we still live," Valdovinos said.

"When we arrived in El Zapotillal, we said we didn't want any more problems and we were going to leave our social change efforts. But no. We couldn't decide when, and we were once again caught up in ecology."

In her new town, Valdovinos organized her neighbors to create household gardens, founded the Organization of Women Ecologists of Sierra de Petatlán, obtained funding from the government and international organizations, and, with the community, pressured local officials to provide electrical and water services.

Thanks to the efforts of Valdovinos and her "compañeras", in El Zapotillal and the surrounding areas more than 170,000 trees were planted in 2003-2004, the flow of local rivers has been restored, and life has become that much easier. "We could say we are still poor, but not so much anymore," she said.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.

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