FOREIGN EXCHANGE / L.A. Times
Yuri Melini was shot seven times by an assailant nine months ago. The outspoken champion of environmental causes has made many enemies, and gained recognition too.
By Ken Ellingwood
Reporting from Guatemala City — His stride is an awkward hop, the scars on his abdomen and legs an ugly road map of hurt. Seven bullets tore into Yuri Melini — that much is known.
Harder to figure out is who did it. Melini has a lot of enemies.
Drug traffickers. Midnight loggers. Mining giants. Corrupt military men. Politicians. The 47-year-old Melini has taken on all of them as lead agitator of a Guatemalan environmental advocacy group, the Center for Legal, Environmental and Social Action, or CALAS.
Melini doesn’t seem surprised that police have yet to come up with a solid lead into September’s shooting by a lone gunman. Or that telephone threats and sightings of shadowy men haven’t stopped.
He opts for the bright side. “I’m alive,” Melini says.
If you think it’s not easy being green, try doing it in a place as violent as Guatemala, where environmentalism is often viewed as a radical pursuit and the rule of law remains a distant goal. Speaking out can bring a hit man to your door.
For the last nine years, Melini has spoken out a lot. Using a mix of grass-roots activism, lawsuits and old-fashioned lobbying, his organization tackles issues from illegal logging in protected forests and the impact of a growing mining industry to the supply and cleanliness of water.
Guatemala has plenty of other grave social problems, poverty and inequality among them. But Melini, who gave up his training as a physician to focus on conservation causes, says his environmental work ties into a wider effort to improve life for the powerless, including the country’s large indigenous population.
“There are enough laws — the problem is they are not being applied,” Melini says, as government-supplied bodyguards wait outside his office in Guatemala City, the capital. “It is a matter of awareness and will: raising the awareness of the people and the will of the politicians.”
Big triumphs have been few for CALAS, with a staff of 21 lawyers, engineers, agronomists, sociologists and other experts.
But a major victory came last June, when the group won a Supreme Court of Justice ruling that struck down parts of the nation’s mining law as too lax. CALAS had argued in its legal challenge that the law didn’t adequately safeguard people living near mining operations.
Melini has done battle with oil firms and gone to court to challenge a decision to allow logging in a mountain forest designated for protection.
In addition, he has complained loudly about damage caused by drug traffickers in a vast wilderness in the northern province of Peten, where smugglers fell trees to build secret airstrips and roads. This year, CALAS is to open its first offices in the region, home to some of its toughest fights and most dangerous adversaries.
Such crusades don’t always charm. Melini acknowledges that even some environmentalists consider him too strident. He relies on foreign sources for funding, with most coming from a special environmental program of the Dutch government.
But admirers say Melini is breaking new ground by carrying environmental fights to the courtroom — a tactic that is common in the United States but not in Guatemala or much of the surrounding region. Melini says he wants to create a legal-aid network devoted to environmental issues and to lobby for creating special environment courts.
“Environmental litigation across Central America is still not very common,” said Erika Rosenthal, an attorney for the Oakland-based group Earthjustice. “That kind of advocacy . . . is sorely needed.”
Last month, Melini was honored by the Irish-based human rights group Front Line for his efforts on illegal logging and mining issues. The group cited his attempts to bring attention to attacks on environmental activists. (He counted 128 during two years.)
Melini was ambushed outside his mother’s house Sept. 4 by a gunman who fired from close range. The activist said he lay curled on the ground, awaiting the coup de grace, but the attacker left.
Nine months later, Melini gets around with a walker and faces more surgery. He’s had residency offers from several countries, including Switzerland and the Netherlands, but refused. He figures fleeing Guatemala would serve those behind the attack on him, whoever they are.
“I am like a tree,” Melini says. “They chopped me down, and I’m bouncing back again.”