From: John Rice, Associated Press
Published August 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Sierra Club Honors Three Members of a Mexican Forest Group

MEXICO CITY — A major U.S. environmental group on Tuesday honored three Mexican forest defenders for risking their lives and liberty to battle rampant logging in the mountains of Guerrero state.


The Sierra Club, which claims 750,000 members, announced the award for Felipe Arreaga, who is imprisoned; his wife Celsa Valdovinos, who has been fighting for Arreaga's freedom, and Albertano Penalosa, who was injured in a recent ambush that killed two of his sons.


Club officials also announced at a news conference that they would join with Greenpeace to warn would-be visitors about violations of human rights and rampant deforestation in Guerrero, which depends heavily on the key tourist centers of Acapulco and Ixtapa.


The Chico Mendes Award had been granted only six other times since it was inaugurated in 1989 to honor a slain defender of Brazil's forests.


"It's only given to very special people for very special reasons," said Alejandro Queral, the Sierra Club's international policy adviser. "It's given to people who put their lives at risk."


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The last Chico Mendes Award, in 2000, went to Rodolfo Montiel, also a member of Arreaga's Organization of Peasant Ecologists who had been imprisoned on allegedly falsified charges.


The Peasant Ecologists were founded in 1998 to battle rampant logging that was stripping away resources and damaging water supplies in the mountains east of the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo resort area.


They soon clashed with powerful timber interests in Guerrero, which is notorious for remote, impoverished villages and for violent local political bosses.


Montiel and colleague Teodoro Cabrera were freed by President Vicente Fox in 2001 after major international environmental and human rights groups denounced their convictions on drug and weapons charges as fraudulent.


Arreaga was arrested last year on what defenders say was falsified evidence for a 1998 slaying of a local politician's son. Penalosa and Montiel also were charged in the case.


Amnesty International's Americas Program director Susan Lee told Tuesday's news conference that a detailed investigation convinced the group the men were innocent and Amnesty International has declared Arreaga a prisoner of conscience.


Valdovinos held back tears as she accepted the award Tuesday while complaining that "we haven't seen the support of our government."


Penalosa's wife Reyna Mojica lost the battle with her emotions and wept as she described the ambush that killed two of her sons while injuring her husband and another son in May. She said the organization would keep fighting to protect forests: "From there comes the water, the air that we breathe."


The awards for Arreaga and Penalosa were to be presented Wednesday in Zihuatanejo, where Arreaga is being held.


Mario Patron, who represents Arreaga, complained that so far he had seen little change in official actions despite the April 1 inauguration of a left-leaning governor whose election ended 76 years of rule in the state by the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party.


"We're not calling for a boycott" of Guerrero's tourist sites, Queral said. But he noted that many Sierra Club members travel and he said the idea was to pressure the state government into acting.


A state spokesman, Manuel Nava, said by phone that new Gov. Zeferino Torreblanca had ordered new investigations into the cases.


"I wish we could change the whole situation in the three months we've had," Nava said. But he added, "I believe the results won't be far off."


Amnesty International's secretary general Irene Khan, on a visit to Mexico, said she had asked Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal to intervene in the cases of Arreaga and Penalosa. "The secretary guaranteed me he would give consideration to these cases," she said.


Source: Associated Press


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