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Growing alarm over rising deaths of environment and land activists

September 15th, 2020
topic:Climate action
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Philippines, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Iran
tags:Coronavirus, COVID-19, environmental activism, indigenous people, natural resources

As climate change takes a toll on global economies, competition for limited land from corporates in mining and extractive industries become vicious and the world experiences unprecedented wanton destruction of forests and other natural resources, ordinary citizens among them activists, journalists and community leaders are standing up to these atrocities against nature and have paid the ultimate price.

With greed, commercial interests and corruption superseding human interests and welfare, those who have stood up to defend the precious resources that are crucial for human existence continue to face death threats, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearance. A growing body of research posits that the threat to environmental and land defenders has reached worrying proportions, with 2019 having been the worst year. 

A recently released report by independent watchdog Global Witness dubbed “Defending Tomorrow: The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders”, shows that last year alone, 212 environmental and land activists were murdered for speaking against plunder and mismanagement of natural resources. 

Latin America remains the most dangerous place for environment defenders. Colombia tops the list, having recorded 64 murders last year, more than double the number in 2018, while in Philippines the number stood at 43. In Brazil, out of the 24 cases that were reported, close to 90 percent of them occurred in the Amazon region. 

Mining, oil, gas and agribusiness sectors have come under sharp focus for being the biggest contributors of the murders with multinationals, governments and corporates keen on advancing their interests and eliminating anyone who stands in their way. Interestingly the three industries have also been responsible for exacerbating the changes in weather and driving the world into the brink of an environmental disaster that scientists and researchers say may be irreversible. 

“The worrying pattern of threatening and killing defenders of natural resources across the globe is a sad pointer to how capitalistic the world has become and the dangers the world faces for being silent about it. The value of human life has been disregarded, as self-serving interests define the modern world. We are staring at a very bleak future if we do not do something about it,” said Mark Michumi an environment lawyer based in Arusha, Tanzania. 

The alarming number of deaths in the Amazon area has also shone a spotlight on the threat indigenous communities — who have for generations been custodians of natural resources — continue to face. With unscrupulous business practices like mining and excavation edging them out of their homes, they have sought justice in cases that have dragged on for years, filed petitions that continue to gather dusts in government institutions and now live under the dark cloud of threats and macabre killings. 

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has been on a violent campaign to convert large swathes of land in Northern Mindanao into industrial plantations. The indigenous leader of the Manobo tribe that lives in the area, Datu Kaylo Bontolan, has been opposed to the plan that involves commercial mining and large scale logging of the zone and has been documenting the suffering and violence being meted on his people. He was killed in an aerial bombardment carried out by the military. 

Two investigative journalists who were arbitrating a long standing land dispute between residents and a palm oil company in Batu District of Indonesia were found brutally murdered in what authorities said was a case of stabbing. 

In Iran six conservationists involved in protecting the Asiatic cheetah were charged and convicted of spying with the government accusing them of working with USA which it deems an enemy state. 

 “If we want to end climate breakdown, then it is in the footsteps of land and environmental defenders we must follow. We must listen to their demands and amplify them. Inspired by their bravery and leadership, we must push those in power – businesses, financiers and governments – to tackle the root causes of the problem, support and protect defenders and create regulations that ensure projects and operations are carried out with proper due diligence, transparency and free prior and informed consent,” the Global Witness report said. 

The situation has escalated since Coronavirus struck, with campaigners accusing governments of laxity in protecting indigenous people and environmental activists and taking advantage of the pandemic to intimidate vulnerable communities and murder their leaders.

Early this year, two Colombian indigenous leaders, Omar and Ernesto Guasiruma, were murdered while in isolation in their home in an attack, which also seriously injured their relatives. They had earlier met the area mayor who tested positive for COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have intensified the problems land and environmental defenders face. Governments around the world — from the US to Brazil and Colombia to the Philippines — have used the crisis to strengthen draconian measures to control citizens and roll back hard-fought environmental regulations”, the Global Witness report further noted. 

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Philippines Brazil Colombia Indonesia Iran
A growing body of research posits that the threat to environmental and land defenders has reached worrying proportions with 2019 having been the worst year.
212 environmental and land activists were murdered for speaking against plunder and mismanagement of natural resources.
Latin America remains the most dangerous place for environment defenders.