Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, released the following statement regarding attempts to silence the voice of the environmental defender and Maule Itata Coastkeeper Rodrigo De La O Guerrero:
Rodrigo De La O Guerrero and his organization Maule Itata Coastkeeper are licensed members of Waterkeeper Alliance, an international organization that strengthens and grows a global network of grassroots leaders protecting everyone’s right to clean water. Waterkeeper Alliance is made up of over 350 Waterkeeper groups, protecting rivers, lakes, and coastal waterways on six continents.
Rodrigo De La O Guerrero is an international leader, an elected member of the Waterkeeper Council, and a valued voice in the governance of Waterkeeper Alliance.
A founding principle of Waterkeeper Alliance and an essential component of impactful environmental protection worldwide is that citizen voices are critical for meaningful debate and rigorous decision-making on environmental issues. Without citizen input on behalf of impacted communities, environmental decisions often are influenced by powerful interests that can put unhealthy pressure on governments. If citizens’ rights to free expression are not guaranteed and protected, communities’ abilities to protect their local environment and water resources will be ineffective.
Waterkeeper Alliance categorically condemns the legal action in which the company, Inmobiliaria Costa Calán SpA, identified with RUT No. 77.014.891-K, seeks to subvert the Chilean judicial apparatus to file against Rodrigo De La O Guerrero with a demand for damages. Based on Waterkeeper Alliance’s experience, this tactic of employing a “SLAPP suit” against a citizen advocate looking to defend their community is a clear attempt to intimidate De La O Guerrero (and others), to restrict his fundamental right to free expression, and to undermine his professional activity as an environmental activist on behalf of the public interest. The Chilean courts should dismiss this case.
The claim brought by Inmobiliaria Costa Calán SpA is based on the false assumption that Mr. De La O Guerrero, by defending the environment, exceeded his right to free expression, thereby damaging the reputation of the company. This is ridiculous on its face. Criticism of any company’s potential impacts to the environment is not an insult or an assault on a company’s name. Indeed, without thoughtful disagreement, how are we to conduct civil discourse and solve complicated matters in the public’s best interest?
In his capacity as an environmental defender, the interests of Rodrigo De La O Guerrero are to ensure that effective citizen participation can be exercised. This instance is of utmost importance because Inmobiliaria Costa Calán SpA’s proposed real estate project is located in a coastal sector of high ecological significance for which the process of creating the Sanctuary at Los Arcos de Calán is nearly complete.
Seeking information and asking questions are not denigration. Environmental defenders, as well as any community member in general, have the legitimate right to raise their voices, to question any project, work, or activity that may impact the territory and natural heritage of all citizens, without subjecting themselves to intimidation, silencing, or detention, or through means such as this case: a civil lawsuit for compensation for “damages.”
It is a serious assault on democracy in the 21st century to see actions that could restrict an environmental defender’s free expression. We believe this to be a clear attempt to intimidate, silence, and inflict fear in Mr. Rodrigo De La O Guerrero by misusing the justice system.
Finally, Waterkeeper Alliance urges community and environmental organizations working in the area to monitor the judicial process being instituted against Rodrigo De La O Guerrero. It is imperative to support him and stand in solidarity at this critical moment that puts everyone’s right to freedom of expression at risk. While this legal case is brought against a specific individual, it is clear that the risk to civil society is more significant. If adverse restrictions and intimidation on one individual are allowed to stand, future matters of individual expression, the community right to citizen participation in environmental matters and the defense of the territory, and indeed democracy itself, are at risk.