Who will defend the defenders of the environment?

At least 164 people were killed last year defending the environment

15th August 2019

At least 164 people were killed — three people every week — in 2018, defending indigenous or ancestral lands and the environment, and many more were attacked, jailed or otherwise persecuted according to human rights organisation, Global Witness.

The report, released the day after news broke that heavily armed gold miners had invaded an indigenous village in the Amazon following the murder of a tribal leader, shines a light on human rights abuses being meted out against environmental defenders across the world, who are often among the poorest and most vulnerable members of societies.

The report also reveals the links between much of this violence with global industry. Mining was directly linked to the highest number of deaths but hydropower, logging projects and the agribusiness industry have all also driven violence and persecution against environmental defenders.

The scale and severity of violence detailed by Global Witness is staggering, and the report states that the figures given are almost certainly a considerable underestimate, given the difficulties in reporting and confirming this kind of violence. Also, according to the report, we should remember that for as many murders as have been recorded, countless more environmental defenders will likely have been assaulted or intimidated in an effort to discourage them.

The most violent single incident occurred in India in May, when long-running community protests over the expansion of a copper smelting plant in the state of Tamil Nadu were aggressively quashed by police, who opened fire on crowds. Dozens were injured and of the 13 killed, 12 were hit by bullets in the head or chest, and six of those were shot from behind, according to Reuters.

The smelting plant in question is owned by an Indian subsidiary of London-based Vedanta Resources, which delisted from the London stock-exchange following the massacre. The plant was shut down in the immediate aftermath, but is due to be reopened soon.

In March 2018, the Philippines government declared me a terrorist

As the most deadly place in the world for environmental defenders, action should be urgently taken by the international community to put pressure on the Philippine government of strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte, to clamp down on this kind of violence.

Of the 30 killed in the Philippines in 2018, nine sugarcane farmers were killed by a group of gunmen in a dispute over land on Negros Island. It was reported that the farmers, including four women and two children, were shot while resting in their hammocks. In the days immediately after this slaughter, the lawyer who represented the victims’ families, Benjamin Ramos, was killed by hitmen.

Addressing the nation in response to the killings, President Duterte attempted to cast those killed as violent protestors and gave police and advised soldiers to “…shoot them. If they resist violently, shoot them. If they die, I do not care.”

Protestors demonstrating against the Sterlite copper plant in May 2018

“In March 2018, the Philippines government declared me a terrorist,” explains Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. “This was in retaliation for me speaking out against indigenous rights violations in my home country. For months, I lived under threat, and could not safely return home. Although I have since been removed from the list, government officials continue to hurl false accusations at me.

“This is a phenomenon seen around the world: land and environmental defenders are declared terrorists, locked up or hit with paralysing legal attacks, for defending their rights, or simply for living on lands that are coveted by others.”

While judicial systems routinely allow the killers of defenders to walk free, they are also being used to brand the activists themselves as terrorists

Murders and violence are just the most visible and egregious symptoms of the wider issue, which is the persecution of environmental defenders, particularly to the benefit of industry.

Increasingly, governments are creating or amending legislation to allow the criminalisation of environmental defenders, not only putting them at risk of arrest and imprisonment, but also vigilanteism, as defenders are often wrongly portrayed in the media as rebels. Countries like Vietnam, Egypt and Bangladesh introduced new laws with this aim last year, and in Venezuela, a military official accused lawyer Lisa Henrito of treason on national television, for her work defending the rights of indigenous people against the mining industry.

Alice Harrison is a senior campaigner at Global Witness, she said: “It is a brutal irony that while judicial systems routinely allow the killers of defenders to walk free, they are also being used to brand the activists themselves as terrorists, spies or dangerous criminals. Both tactics send a clear message to other activists: the stakes for defending their rights are punishingly high for them, their families and their communities.”

While it’s true that the vast majority of violence against environmental defenders occurs in the developing world, the growing worldwide trend of criminalisation is being seen in Europe and the US, too.

Indigenous activist Red Fawn Fallis was sentenced to 57 months in prison last year for her involvement in protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It later transpired that Fallis’s boyfriend, who’d been involved in the incident which led to her arrest, was an FBI agent who had infiltrated the protest group. In Canada, the courts are increasingly using their power to clamp down on indigenous protestors too, with the British Columbia supreme court ordering the Unist’ot’en tribe to disband their blockade and allow an energy company to begin construction of a pipeline on their land.

Britain has its own issues with criminalisation, as evidenced by the sentencing of anti-fracking activists to more than a year in prison following protests in Lancashire. A court of appeal overturned the sentencing decision the following month, but the initial sentence, guilty verdict and a number of other incidents in recent years have caused serious concerns that the UK’s legal system is increasingly being used by energy companies to shut down legitimate protest.

It has never been more important to stand with those who are trying to defend their land and our planet

“Vicious attacks against land and environmental defenders are still happening, despite growing momentum behind environmental movements the world over,” says Harrison.

“As we hurtle towards climate breakdown, it has never been more important to stand with those who are trying to defend their land and our planet against the reckless destruction being meted out by the rich and powerful.”

15th August 2019