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Human rights defenders are fighting for climate justice

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It should not be a crime to defend the environment. In fact, it's an ecological imperative, but increasingly human rights defenders who do this work are criminalized and killed.

The term "human rights defenders" can include those defending Indigenous rights and the right to free, prior and informed consent to development; those working to defend rivers and drinking water from the impacts of hydro-electric dams and mines; those protecting migrants from abuse by the state, security services and organized crime; those opposed to deforestation and the loss of communal or farming land to transnational agribusiness; those who link violence against Indigenous women to industrial violence against the land; and those working to end the impunity of the military in relation to their violence on behalf of state and corporate interests.

As the Dublin-based organization Front Line Defenders recently reported, "In 2018, 321 defenders in 27 countries were targeted and killed for their work. 77% of the total number of activists killed, were defending land, environmental or Indigenous peoples' rights, often in the context of extractive industries and state-aligned mega-projects."


One of the biggest drivers of this violence is the dispossession of communal land and territories from Indigenous peoples and the clearing of forests for agribusiness to grow soy, palm oil, sugarcane and to graze cattle for export beef production.

A World Resources Institute blog notes, "In total, the tropics experienced 15.8 million hectares (39.0 million acres) of tree cover loss in 2017, an area the size of Bangladesh. That's the equivalent of losing 40 football fields of trees every minute for an entire year."

Looking at just one country, Global Forest Watch has reported, "In 2017, Guatemala lost 79.7kha (thousand hectares) of tree cover, equivalent to 6.16Mt [megatonnes or million tons] of CO₂ of emissions."

The New York Times has reported, "By absorbing carbon dioxide and trapping carbon, forests play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Hydroelectric dams

Hydro-electric dams contribute to global warming. As The Guardian reported on the results of a recent study, "Researchers have found that rotting vegetation in the water means that the dams emit about a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year."

Bridget Demery, the lead author of this Washington State University study on dams, adds, "We estimate that dams emit around 25 per cent more methane by unit of surface than previously estimated."


The industrial mining of gold, silver and other metals worsen climate breakdown because of the clearing of the land (deforestation) to set up the mine and related roadways as well as the large amount of diesel fuel used to dig and transport rock in the mining process.

Coal mining also includes deforestation and the use of diesel fuels, but also the burning of coal releases large amounts of carbon dioxide.

The military

The London-based group Global Witness says that the deaths of 30 human rights defenders in 2017 can be linked to the military.

Militaries are also major emitters of carbon pollution. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists has highlighted that the U.S. military uses more than 100 million barrels of oil each year to power ships, vehicles, aircraft, and ground operations.


The UN Refugee Agency notes that "an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards -- such as floods, storms, wildfires, extreme temperature -- each year since 2008."

It adds, "There is high agreement among scientists that climate change, in combination with other drivers, is projected to increase displacement of people in the future."

And National Geographic has noted, "Guatemala is consistently listed among the world's 10 most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change."

In 2017, Médecins Sans Frontières‎ (MSF) stated that "68.3 per cent of the migrant and refugee populations entering Mexico reported being victims of violence during their transit toward the United States [and] nearly one-third of the women surveyed had been sexually abused during their journey."

MSF adds, "Patients reported that the perpetrators of violence included members of gangs and other criminal organizations, as well as members of the Mexican security forces responsible for their protection."

Overall, as The Guardian has reported, "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."

It is essential that the work of human rights defenders be safeguarded, particularly as the repression against them intensifies with the global rise of right-wing authoritarianism hostile to Indigenous rights and environmental protections.

Further reading:
Impunity for human rights violations must be challenged from Guatemala to the Wet'suwet'en territories
Peaceful Resistance of La Laguna challenges deforestation in Guatemala
Migrant justice groups on U.S.-Mexico border face harassment and threats
Guatemalan community feminists seek end to violence against the land and women
Honduran activists oppose Cuyagual dam despite dangers

Image: Matt Zimmerman/Wikimedia Commons

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