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It's a dangerous world for land and environmental defenders

Photo of Berta Cáceres via UN Environment/Wikimedia Commons

On March 2, 2016, Berta Cáceres, the head of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was shot six times and killed. In the same attack, Gustavo Castro Soto, the coordinator of the Mexican branch of Friends of the Earth, was shot twice but survived the assault by pretending to be dead.

They were working together against the proposed Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River that would impact the territory of the Lenca Indigenous people.

Sadly, the number of land and environmental defenders (including Indigenous peoples, community activists, lawyers, journalists, park rangers, and staff at non-governmental organizations) being killed each year is growing around the world.

They are being murdered for defending the land, forests and rivers, and their homes and communities from extractive industries.

In 2014, London-based Global Witness documented the cases of 116 land and environmental defenders who were murdered. In 2015, that number rose to 185 people. In 2016, that number rose again to 200 killings. Last year, 207 defenders in 22 countries were murdered.

These are the killings that can be documented; it is feared that the actual numbers of deaths are probably much higher.

The Dublin-based organization Front Line Defenders says that last year 312 human rights defenders were killed in 27 countries, with 67 per cent (209) of those killed for defending land, environmental and Indigenous peoples' rights.

That group adds, "80 per cent of the killings took place in just four countries -- Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines."

The tactics used against defenders also include death threats, arrests, disappearances, intimidation and smear campaigns, threats against their children, cyber attacks, sexual assaults, lawsuits, illegal surveillance, the use of force at peaceful protests, and travel bans.

The Guardian reported earlier this year: "The EU-funded Environmental Justice Atlas has identified more than 2,335 cases of tension over water, territory, pollution or extractive industries, and researchers say the number and intensity are growing."

In 2017, Global Witness says 46 deaths of activists were associated with their opposition to large-scale agriculture projects (including soy, palm oil, sugarcane and beef), 40 deaths were linked to the oil and mining industries, 23 deaths were tied to poaching, 23 deaths were linked to logging projects, and four to water and dams.

Furthermore, 30 of these killings were linked to the army, 23 to the police, 13 to paramilitary forces, 12 to poachers, 10 to armed militias, nine to landowners, and another 45 to criminal gangs, private security and hitmen.

Last month, The Guardian reported that a criminal court in Honduras had ruled that the murder of Cáceres "was ordered by executives of the Agua Zarca dam company Desa because of delays and financial losses linked to protests led by Cáceres."

Seven men were convicted of the murder and Desa's former president now faces a separate trial for masterminding the killing.

Looking at a few specific countries, 24 activists were killed in Colombia, 15 in Mexico, five in Honduras, three in Guatemala, and two in Kenya.

Notably, 25 per cent of those murdered were Indigenous, a massive overrepresentation given Indigenous peoples make up just five per cent of the world's population. This can be further linked to governments around the world ignoring their right to free, prior and informed consent under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Furthermore, even reporting on environmental abuses appears to be increasingly dangerous.

In December 2017, the International Federation of Journalists commented that "unprecedented numbers of journalists were jailed, forced to flee, that self-censorship was widespread and that impunity for the killings, harassment, attacks and threats against independent journalism was running at epidemic levels."

In Mexico, 13 journalists were murdered in 2017 (the highest number in the world) and globally, more than 250 reporters were in prison.

And the space for dissent is narrowing.

In November 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor report "People Power Under Attack" found that civil society is under serious attack in 111 countries (almost six in 10 countries worldwide), highlighting that, "Repression of peaceful civic activism continues to be a widespread crisis for civil society in most parts of the world, with just four per cent of the world's population living in countries with open space for civil society (civic space)."

It is essential that the work of human rights and environmental defenders be safeguarded around the world, particularly as repression intensifies with the rise of right-wing authoritarian populist movements hostile to Indigenous rights and environmental protections.

John Knox, the first United Nations Independent Expert, then Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, has stated, "If we can't protect them, then how can we protect the environment we all depend on?"

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Photo: UN Environment/Wikimedia Commons

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