Standing up for the Earth is a dangerous pursuit. A devastating tally released Monday counts 164 environmentalists killed for their efforts in 2018. And that number is probably an underestimation.
The annual report from international NGO Global Witness tracked the murders and “enforced disappearances” of activists around the world working to protect ecosystems, preserve natural resources being depleted by mining, agriculture and other huge and destructive industries, and defend the rights of indigenous people to their native lands.
In addition to gathering data on murders, attacks on and intimidation of what it calls land and environmental defenders, the 2019 Global Witness report highlighted the insidious ways large corporations and governments — including our own — are complicit in the rampant violence and harassment.
Three Dead Every Week
The report found that 164 environmental activists around the world were murdered in 2018, and “countless more were silenced through violent attacks, arrests, death threats or lawsuits.” The number — which averages out to three deaths per week — was a drop from the previous year’s count of 207, but Global Witness senior campaigner Alice Harrison doesn’t take much comfort in that.
Harrison told HuffPost, “Deaths were down last year, but violence and widespread criminalization of people defending their land and our environment were still rife around the world.”
“The drop in killings masks another gruesome reality,” said Harrison. “Our partners in Brazil and many other countries have noted a spike in other forms of non-lethal attacks against defenders — often attacks so brutal they’re just shy of murder.”
Brazil has topped the list for the number of killings since Global Witness, which focuses on natural resource conflicts and human rights, released its first report in 2012, but fell this year. Its 20-person death count put it at No. 4, behind the Philippines (where there were 30) and Colombia (24). Third on the list was India, with 23 deaths, 13 of which came from a single incident, when police shot into crowds of people protesting a copper mine in the state of Tamil Nadu. Dozens more were injured.
The report identified mining as the industry associated with the most activist deaths: 43 activists around the world were killed for their resistance to the damaging effects of mineral extraction on the environment, as well as native people’s lands and livelihoods.
“The Philippines has consistently ranked as one of the deadliest countries in the world for people protecting their land or the environment. ... Under the current regime of President Rodrigo Duterte the situation certainly isn’t improving,” according to the report, which notes that his administration has announced plans to allocate 1.6 million hectares of land for plantations in an area that is a “hotspot for murders of land and environmental defenders.”
Even if Brazil has seen a small reduction in environmentalists killed, activists there are still extremely vulnerable. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, is rolling back enforcement of crucial policies protecting the Amazon rainforest from illegal logging, mining and clearing for agriculture. More than 1,330 square miles of the Amazon forest in Brazil has been lost since Bolsonaro took office in January, The New York Times reports. Besides the ecological threat of handing large swaths of the Amazon over to corporations (tree cover there plays an important role in mitigating greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere), it represents a real mortal threat to people trying to protect that land.
How The Government Turns Activists Into “Terrorists”
In addition to having measurable ecological impacts, Bolsonaro’s antagonism toward environmental preservation is just one example of how governments are creating an increasingly unsafe climate for climate activists. Last year, he referred to the actions of the activist group MST, which campaigns on behalf of rural workers and families for land use reform, as terrorism. In December, two MST members were shot dead.
Similar rhetoric and its fallout is being seen around the world.
“In March 2018, the Philippines government declared me a terrorist,” wrote Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, in Global Witness’ report. “This was in retaliation for me speaking out against indigenous rights violations in my home country.”
One of 600 people the government petitioned to label as terrorists, Tauli-Corpuz told Reuters at the time she worried for her safety and the safety of others on the list.
“This is a phenomenon being seen around the world,” she continued in the report. “Land and environmental protectors, a significant number of whom are indigenous peoples, are declared terrorists, thugs, or criminals for defending their rights, or simply for living on lands coveted by others. … What begins with smear campaigns labeling defenders ‘anti-development’ leads to legal prosecution and arrests, and then often violence.”
Joel Raymundo, who is part of the Guatemalan Peaceful Resistance of Ixquisis movement against the building of hydroelectric dams in indigenous lands, told Global Witness, “We are afraid of going to the police to report the threats we are receiving because we know that there are arrest warrants against us and the police can capture us if they want.”
In the U.S. and the U.K., government antipathy toward environmentalists is typically accompanied by cozy relationships with energy and agricultural industry leaders. Labeling them as terrorists justifies the criminalization of activist activity.
Global Witness highlighted “draconian” jail sentences issued in September against anti-fracking protesters in the U.K., which were later overturned by an appeals court for being “manifestly excessive.” This month, a former U.K. counterterrorism official called the climate change movement Rebellion Extinction an example of extremism and warned their tactics of civil disobedience would lead to “the breakdown of democracy and the state.”
Stateside, attitudes in the White House are dramatically less green and more threatening to environmental activists than in administrations past.
“President Donald Trump’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda has changed the political and legislative landscape in the U.S. in ways that bode incredibly badly for land grabbing, environmental destruction and climate change,” said Harrison. She also noted, “Since the Dakota Pipeline protests took off, we’ve seen a resurgence of references to ‘eco-terrorism,’” which stokes fear, retaliation and legal repression.
Lawmakers in Washington state and North Carolina have proposed labeling protesters “economic terrorists.” In 2017, 84 members of Congress suggested that the Department of Justice should be able to prosecute pipeline saboteurs as domestic terrorists according to definitions in the federal criminal code.
“If bias like this infiltrates countries’ legal systems,” the Global Witness report reads, “land and environmental defenders might be unfairly dragged through the courts, struggle to get a fair trial, and be punished for crimes that shouldn’t really be crimes at all.”
Anthony Swift, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada project, said the U.S. federal government has a “two-pronged approach” to quashing resistance movements.
On the one hand, he said, the Trump administration is attempting to get projects like the Keystone XL pipeline project out of the environmental review process, which is often the public’s only opportunity to have a voice in how and whether such development projects should be done, thereby “preventing the public from having an official means of lodging their concerns.” Meanwhile, “we’re seeing the oil industry working at the state level to dramatically increase criminal penalties for protesting these projects and the impact they’ll have on communities,” which effectively stifles the First Amendment right to protest.
“It is striking,” he added, “and it’s coming at a time when it is clear that the public has never had more to lose with these projects. We’ve seen that with not just what you would expect, like pipeline spills and accidents, but we’re also seeing that Americans are facing daily the consequences of a warming climate.”
Blood On Corporate Hands
Corporations often play a large part in silencing dissent by bringing aggressive civil lawsuits against protesters. In November 2018, a subsidiary of TransCanada (the company behind Keystone XL) filed a lawsuit against members of the Canadian Unist’ot’en tribe for creating a blockade to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their land. The British Columbia supreme court ordered the tribe to allow the company to access the site.
Global Witness is putting the onus on companies to ensure that their, and their subsidiaries’, land use practices respect the rights of the people living in production areas. The nonprofit conducted an investigation that uncovered that a large plot of indigenous land in the Philippines was illegally subleased by a powerful local business man to Dole Philippines for growing bananas. The land grab involved demolishing around 200 homes, according to the report. “Members of the community have also faced death threats and been shot at by armed security guards for refusing to leave their land, yet no one has been brought to justice,” said Harrison.
“Global Witness is calling on Dole to freeze operations on the land it leases until an agreement with affected indigenous communities has been properly and fairly negotiated,” the report states. “And Dole’s foreign investors should conduct rigorous checks along their supply chains to ensure that their operations aren’t linked to attacks against defenders and abuses of land rights.”
HuffPost requested comment from Dole, which has a corporate responsibility website touting its efforts to provide services to communities in its production areas and ensure environmentally sustainable practices are observed. (Dole had not responded at press time.)
While the Global Witness Report is hopeful about the growing global awareness of “the connections between our food, manufacturing, and environmental systems,” and the mainstreaming of climate activism, it is highly critical of the lack of progressive support or outright pushback from governments and industry.
“So far,” the report reads, “governments have largely failed to listen or react, while big businesses are generally holding to the model that created the problem in the first place.”
“Growing awareness of environmental issues must now be translated into concrete actions to protect the planet and the people who defend it,” Harrison said.
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