Don Felipe is dead. An internationally-known forest defender and organic farming promoter, 60-year-old Felipe Arreaga Sanchez was killed September 16, Mexican Independence Day, while driving his ATV in Petatlán, Guerrero. The longtime campesino activist was struck by a mini-bus and died a few hours later in a hospital in nearby Zihuatanejo. Although Petatlán is the site of a military base, the town lacks civilian medical facilities capable of handling serious injuries. The driver of the mini-bus fled the scene of the crash, and many circumstances of the incident are unclear.

Felipe Arreaga Sanchez, leading environmentalist from
the Sierra Madre in Guerrero. Photo:

Oddly, Arreaga was killed September 16, almost exactly four years to the date of his release from prison, September 15, 2005, amid threats. Because Arreaga had lived with threats hanging over his head for years, there was some speculation that the crash was intentional. But family members and friends simply blame a reckless driver, who was perhaps drunk or hung-over from the previous evening’s festivities.

"We feel like our hands, our wings have been cut off," said Arreaga’s widow, Celsa Valdovinos. Married in 1972, Arreaga and Valdovionos raised six children and numerous grandchildren.

"He was my living hero," added environmental educator Yadira Rios, a co-founder of the New World environmentalist organization of Petatlán. "He lived by example and followed his beliefs to their ultimate consequences."

Arreaga first rose to national and international prominence during the 1990s as one of the leaders of the Campesino Environmentalist Organization of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlán (OCESP), a group of small farmers in Guerrero that waged protests against logging being done in the Sierra Madre Mountains for the Boise Cascade Corporation.

The campesino environmentalists were persecuted by logging interests and authorities, with some members hunted down, arrested, tortured, or killed. Jailed by the Mexican Army, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera became a cause célèbre of the international environmental movement before Mexican President Vicente Fox released the pair in 2001. Ethel Kennedy and Mikhail Gorbachev were among thousands of people worldwide who lent their support to Montiel and Cabrera. A son of the Guerrero Mountains like Arreaga, Montiel was awarded both the Goldman and Sierra Club Chico Mendes environmental prizes.

After world attention on Guerrero’s forests faded, Arreaga was jailed on flimsy murder charges before a renewed international human rights campaign helped to win his acquittal in 2005. While still in jail, Arreaga was also awarded the Chico Mendes prize. In 2006, Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources also recognized Arreaga’s efforts.

Describing Arreaga as an "exceptional" family man who persisted in his struggles despite personal encounters with violence and repression, Rios said the mountain-born environmentalist was a "man who not only talked but acted according to his beliefs."

Daughters Evelia and Maria Elena remembered Arreaga as a "loving" and "affectionate" father who taught his tight-knit family the importance of honoring nature, living upright, and even praying for those who yell. A Catholic lay preacher, Arreaga believed that people were on Earth to care for God’s Paradise and not ruin it, Maria Elena said, adding that it pained her father to imagine children growing up in a world where the animals Arreaga knew as a youth were becoming extinct.

In life Arreaga delivered a heart-felt eco-message not only to his own family, but to remote communities in Guerrero’s Sierra and later to international audiences as far away as Germany.

"All his work was important," Valdovinos said. "He worked to educate people to not burn or damage the forest."

Felipe Arreaga and the Environmental Prophets of Guerrero

Years before climate change was a major international issue, Felipe Arreaga and other members of the OCESP warned of far-reaching changes to the environment. From their mountain homes, the farmers watched the rains become scarcer and water sources fewer as trees were cleared for cattle pasture, poppy fields, and commercial timber. Ecology became Arreaga’s passion; a man with little formal education, he nevertheless possessed a self-taught understanding of complex environmental relationships. Even when facing prosecution for a murder he swore he did not commit, Arreaga wanted to talk more about ecology than the worldwide support for his own personal predicament.

"It brings about a moment of pleasure and happiness to know that there are people committed to the environment," Arreaga said in a 2005 jailhouse interview. "I say don’t do it for me, but for the environment, for those that will come and for those that have been here before."

Later, while speaking at a 2007 public forum on climate change in Petatlán, Arreaga was visibly saddened that the town’s mayor was not in attendance. All people have a stake in protecting environmental resources, he said. "The environmental struggle is not just for a few," Arreaga declared in his concise, direct manner of speaking, "but for everyone who drinks water … everyone."

In his last years, Arreaga was an adviser to the Women’s Environmentalist Organization of Petatlán, a group headed up by his wife Celsa. Almost inseparable, the couple traversed the high lands of the Sierra and the lowlands of Costa Grande spreading the word on ecology, planting red oaks and fruit trees, and dabbling in recycling. Along the way, young people were taught the importance of environmental stewardship. With few resources and away from the media spotlight, Arreaga and Valdovinos began raising the consciousness of rural communities.

Although Arreaga suffered from physical ailments, he helped battle forest fires this year, Valdovinos said, and moved ahead with his organic compost business. About a week before his death, Arreaga harvested 20 big sacks of compost for sale, family members said. Now it’s up to Evelia to feed the worms and cultivate the life-giving fertilizer.

But there were setbacks, such as the plague that struck young trees planted by the women’s group in 2003, according to Valdovinos. Narco- and political violence in the Sierra hampered the ability of Valdovinos and her husband to get around as much as they wished, Valdovinos lamented. Sometimes Felipe felt tired and that his days were numbered, his partner remembered. "I think I put my grain of sand on the earth," Valdovinos recalled her late husband saying.

With the OCESP in decline, it will be up to the women’s organization to carry on the work initiated by Arreaga and the other men more than a decade ago. The project will continue, Valdovinos vowed.

Human Rights, Felipe Arreaga, and the Future of Mexico

Arreaga’s November 2004 arrest on charges of murdering a logging contractor’s son was the first big test in human rights and justice for the new administration of Governor Zeferino Torreblanca, who was elected on a reformist platform with the support of the center-left PRD party and Guerrero’s leading social movements of the time. But civil society groups like the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center were quickly disillusioned by the new Torreblanca administration’s failure to drop charges against Arreaga or investigate the reasons behind the environmentalist’s arrest in the first place by a state police agency with a long track record of fabricating charges against social activists and worse.

While Arreaga was still in jail, his supporters lobbied Armando Chavarria, then serving as Torreblanca’s state interior secretary. Ironically, Chavarria would later fall victim to violence. Later resigning from the Torreblanca administration, Chavarria assumed the position of president of the Guerrero State Legislature. Widely considered a probable candidate for governor in 2011, Chavarria was assassinated in the state capital of Chilpancingo in August 2009. Despite a clamor from Chavarria’s PRD party and others, no one has been arrested for a murder that once again has unhinged the political scene.

In a strange way, the major developments surrounding Felipe Arreaga’s personal life often seemed to foretell societal trends and crises. The environmentalist and his supporters were puzzled by the timing of the 2004 arrest, several years after the Boise Cascade episode.

Arreaga’s detention occurred amid Torreblanca’s run for governor, a campaign that exhibited the characteristics of a mass movement. After decades of rule by the PRI party, Guerrero was full of rising expectations for political transition, reform, and change. Yet in hindsight, Arreaga’s arrest instead marked the beginning of a new era of frustrated aspirations, political corruption, violence, and repression.

Even though the opposition was in power after the spring of 2005, new bouts of repression were unleashed against farmers protesting the planned ecocidal La Parota dam, indigenous groups in La Montaña, and isolated communities of Petatlán.

Narco-violence has long stained Guerrero, but the slaughter increased qualitatively after late 2004. Like President Felipe Calderon’s federal administration, Governor Zeferino Torreblanca’s term will perhaps be remembered by historians as the time when all the rules flew out the window. Decapitations, mass executions, grenade attacks, and a shootout last summer in Acapulco that residents compared to a Beirut fireworks display, all stuff the journalistic archives of the past few years.

Petatlán and the Costa Grande are two of the areas worst hit by the carnage, which is evolving in unpredictable ways. In addition to the narco-war underway, a low-level, armed uprising led by the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) is percolating in Guerrero.

Arreaga was very disdainful of the current government and political parties, but he insisted on a peaceful path to revolutionary change which, in his worldview, centered on organizing human society in a way that was respectful to the land, natural resources, and animal life.

Arreaga’s vision of a healed countryside and a vibrant rural economy was an uncommon one for a younger generation whose visible role models frequently consist of drug dealers, gunslingers, prostitutes, and migrants driven off the land to risk death in the Arizona desert for a chance at a dishwasher’s job in El Norte.

The death of Felipe Arreaga Sanchez silenced an important voice demanding profound but peaceful change in a land scarred by violence, repression, and social decomposition.

The man who adored Mother Earth was buried in his beloved Sierra Madre on Thursday, September 17, 2009. As Mexican reporter Francisca Meza wrote, "The cloudy sky seemed to indicate that even nature was saddened by his passing."

For Yadira Rios, Arreaga’s unexpected death was analogous to the fall of a big tree. In the forest, she said, the big trees eventually die to allow the new ones room to develop, grow strong, and look over the world just like their predecessors. "This is the hope I have."