Rachel Cox of Global Witness warns that those who stand on the frontline of environmental defence must be protected, as new figures reveal 2019 was the most dangerous year on record for indigenous and community activists
As global temperatures reach new highs and fires burn through climate-critical forests, businesses know that time is ticking on tackling the climate challenge.
There have been many leaders in the climate movement highlighting to consumers and businesses alike how to be more sustainable, check their supply chains and practice proper due diligence when operating in our natural environment. These leaders have not only transformed the way businesses operate but are also starting to shift patterns of financing across the globe – seen particularly by the outcry from investors and supermarkets when it comes to protecting the Amazon.
Yet those who have stood on the frontline of environmental defence for decades, even centuries, continue to face a lack of protection and support, despite leading the way in halting climate breakdown, preserving land, and championing the most basic of human rights.
Attacks and killings of these land and environmental defenders continues to escalate – with Global Witness’s new figures for 2019 once again showing more defenders killed than ever before in a single year, the grim tally reaching 212. Countless more are silenced by violent attacks, arrests, death threats, sexual violence or lawsuits.
Our report is based on research into the killings and enforced disappearances of land and environmental defenders between 1 January 2019 and 31 December 2019, and also shows the broader range of non-lethal threats and criminalisation that they face.
It found that, on average, four defenders have been killed every week since December 2015 – the month the Paris climate agreement was signed, when the world supposedly came together amid hopes of a new era of climate progress.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have intensified the problems land and environmental defenders face
Our statistics reveal that a significant number of murdered land and environmental defenders belong to indigenous communities, whose land and water management skills are crucial to combat the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Research is increasingly showing that indigenous-managed lands have lower deforestation rates and better conservation outcomes than protection zones that exclude indigenous peoples.
And at a time when we most need to listen these voices, governments around the world have been taking a wave of measures to close down the space for peaceful protest. They are deploying tactics ranging from smear campaigns to spurious criminal charges to silence those that are standing up for the climate and humanity’s survival.
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.
Shockingly, over half of all reported killings last year occurred in just two countries: Colombia and the Philippines.
Reports show that the murder of community and social leaders across the country have risen dramatically in Colombia in recent years – and, with 64 activists killed, those protecting their land and the environment were most at risk. The Philippines, a country consistently identified as one of the worst places in Asia for attacks, saw a rise from 30 killings in 2018 to 43 last year.
Mining was still the most culpable industry – connected with the murders of 50 defenders in 2019. Communities opposing carbon intensive oil, gas and coal projects faced continued threats. Attacks, murders and massacres were used to clear the path for commodities like palm oil and sugar. In 2019, Global Witness documented 34 killings linked to large-scale agriculture – an increase of over 60% since 2018.
Inspired by their bravery and leadership, businesses, financiers and governments must work together to tackle the root causes of the problem
Our data on killings will never accurately capture the true scale of the problem. In some countries, the situation facing defenders is hard to gauge; restrictions on a free press and the absence of documented abuses by governments and NGOs can lead to underreporting. Land disputes and environmental damage, two of the prominent underlying causes behind communities’ activism, can also be very hard to monitor in parts of the world affected by conflict.
Despite facing violence, threats and criminalisation, in 2019 communities across the world defended their rights, environment and our global climate. From safeguarding forests against mining exploration to securing the rights to their ancestral lands, their resilience, strength and determination continues to protect our planet.
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, businesses, financiers and governments must work together 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.
In the long term, it is crucial that we consider how responsible business can operate in a way that puts local communities and defenders at the centre of decision-making, rather than at risk. Global Witness recently published guidance for how companies and investors can do this.
With 2019 the most dangerous year on record, it is obvious that both governments and companies have failed in their responsibilities. To address this:
Governments need to urgently address insecure land rights, protect defenders’ rights to safety, and investigate and bring to justice those responsible for attacks against them.
Companies must respect defender rights, develop and implement zero-tolerance policies on threats against defenders and ensure full cooperation with any investigations into attacks.
Investors should screen portfolios for defender-related risks, establish early warning systems to detect and prevent potential conflicts, and include contractual provisions in all project contracts requiring compliance with the company’s defender policy.
It could not be clearer that the time for structural and lasting change has come. As the world looks to recover from a global pandemic, how we rebuild our world to be greener, more humane and more resilient has become the burning question. Land and environmental defenders have a vital role in answering it.
Rachel Cox is a campaigner at Global Witness where she investigates and advocates for the rights and protection of land and environmental activists, and exposes the harms caused by governments and business linked to land and natural resources abuse. Follow her @Rachel_Cox01