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Chilean environmental activist who opposed dam projects found dead

·2-min read

Environmental activists in Chile have called for justice after a 42-year-old land defender was found dead with her hands and feet bound.

The body of Javiera Rojas was found buried under a pile of clothes in an abandoned house on Sunday in Calama in the northern region of Antofagasta.

Rojas was well known in northern Chile for her participation in protests against the Prime Thermoelectric project. She was also involved in the successful campaign to cancel the construction of the Tranca dam in 2016, which threatened to harm local wildlife and rob communities of water access.

“She was a joy; an emblematic activist who was dedicated to the process of resistance,” said Francisca Fernández, who befriended Rojas through the environmental organization Movement for Water and Territories (Mat).

She described Rojas as a “spirited” activist who had participated in protests and blockades.

During the pandemic, Rojas moved from Coquimbo to Calama, about 1,300km northwards, to be with family.

Fernández, who exchanged messages with Rojas over social media three weeks ago, understood that she was not involved in environmental activism in the area.

Two men, including Rojas’s partner, have been placed under preventive arrest while a 200-day investigation is carried out.

Politicians have called on prosecutors to investigate the circumstances of her death. “Whether the result of femicide or because of her activism, it is very serious,” tweeted the Antofagasta deputy Catalina Pérez.

On Wednesday, during a session of the assembly that is drawing up a new constitution for Chile, delegate Bárbara Sepúlveda addressed Rojas’s killing and promised to create a charter with greater environmental protections: “To her killers: one message– you can silence one voice but you’ll never silence all of us.”

The progressive presidential candidate Gabriel Boric expressed the “urgency to protect environmental defenders” in a tweet demanding justice for Rojas, before tagging the Escazú Agreement – a legal agreement between Latin American and Caribbean states to protect environmental defenders.

Chile was an early advocate of the pact but pulled its support last year, with the current Piñera administration criticizing its “vagueness”.

Latin America is the deadliest region in the world for land defenders. Oppression in Chile is concentrated on indigenous people demanding land rights in the south of Chile, who have been persecuted and killed, but threats extend to activists across the country.

In June, water defender Verónica del Carmen Vilches received death threats in the central region of Petorca after accusing farming companies of water theft.

Fernandez said that members of Mat are routinely subjected to threats, adding that female activists are especially vulnerable to physical attacks. “We must consider that [Rojas’s] position as a social-environmental fighter made her even more exposed to violence,” she said.

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