activism human rights

Land defenders, killings, and steps towards justice

In the UK and I expect in plenty of other places, environmentalism is often seen is the province of white middle class people. That may be true of the green sector and its organisations, but it’s not true of the broader global movement. The wider story of people standing up for nature and land is much more diverse, and often more urgent. For many living at the margins, protecting rivers and forests is a matter of their own survival, and it often puts them in harm’s way.

The environmental justice organisation Global Witness reports on activism and human rights, with an annual summary of activists killed. The 2021 report lists 200 people killed in the course of environmental protest. These are the known cases. There may be others, and reporting is patchy in Africa in particular. This report just looks into those killed. Many more are imprisoned, tortured, threatened and intimidated.

Global Witness has also published a review of its findings over ten years. Called Decade of Defiance, it tracks the most dangerous places for activists and maps the locations and sectors involved.

Latin America dominates the map with three quarters of those killed over the last decade, most of them in the Amazon. Where a specific industry can be connected to the case, mining and extraction is the most common, followed by agribusiness, logging, hydropower and then poaching.

In 2021, more land defenders were killed in Mexico than anywhere else. 40% were indigenous people, and many were small-scale farmers. There has been a sharp rise in murders and disappearances in Mexico over the last four or five years, due to large-scale extraction projects backed by multinational companies.

The silencing of whistleblowers and opponents is linked to corruption, from local authorities trying to push through a plan, and from the police and judiciary systems that fail to investigate. For example, ten farmers were killed by the Brazilian police in 2017, an incident known as the Pau D’Arco massacre. 16 police officers are under investigation, but no charges have been brought and all 16 remain free and in their jobs. The investigation relied on the testimony of a survivor and witness called Fernando Araújo. Last year his lawyer was imprisoned, and the following day Araújo was shot dead at his farm. Violence like this has risen under the Bolsonaro regime, led by a man who does not hide his disdain for indigenous people and small scale farmers.

Another underlying factor is land rights. Land defenders are often legally ‘landless’, though they may have occupied a territory for generations. Colonial ideas of land ownership are imposed onto traditional ways of life, and conflict results. The ‘rights’ of companies to clear a forest or pollute a river have legal standing, while those of indigenous people do not. If violence occurs, any consequences remain local and the corporations that benefit are not held accountable.

Global Witness have a handful of recommendations, including legal accountability for corporations, which would lead to much greater transparency and due diligence. They suggest formalising land rights and protecting the right to protest. Most importantly, there need to be stronger legal obligations to consult stakeholders so that protest isn’t necessary in the first place. The best solutions are around civic space and democratic institutions, so that all voices are heard before projects even begin. It is only when these civic processes fail that people are pushed into protest, and the risk of conflict flares.

Functionting democratic and legal processes will reduce land defender killings in Latin America, and the region is addressing the problem through the Escazú Agreement. Signed by 25 countries in South America and the Carribean, it’s the world’s first legally binding treaty to mention the rights of environmental defenders, including a duty to prevent attacks and investigate when they occur. It is in force, but a number of notable signatories are yet to ratify it, including Brazil. Colombia, where 322 land defenders have been killed in the last decade, ratified it just yesterday.

For a positive example of what we can hope for in Latin America, we can look to a recent story from South Africa, where an alliance of coastal communities halted exploratory drilling by Shell last year. The high court ruled that the community’s constitutional right to be consulted had not been honoured, and that the project could not go ahead without their consent. The case shows how the interests of local people can be protected by law, and that when judicial systems work for all citizens and not just the wealthy, it is possible to say no to even the biggest global corporations.

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