Environmental defenders: The activists risking their lives to protect the planet

Following the recent deaths of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Amazon, Charlie Jaay investigates the dangers that activists raising the alarm against environmental atrocities across the world face and learns of attempts to silence them.

Dom Phillips, a British Journalist and author of the unfinished book, How can we save the Amazon?, and Bruno Pereira, an Indigenous expert who devoted his life to helping protect Brazil’s Indigenous people and their land, were murdered recently in the Amazon’s Javari Valley, home to the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world.

President Bolsonaro has reduced financing for FUNAI, the organisation tasked with defending Indigenous people and their lands, while promoting the development of the Amazon. As a result, illegal mining, logging, hunting, and fishing have increased in the area, and Pereira had received death threats for opposing these activities.

A few weeks after Phillips and Pereira were killed, an Indigenous man named Virgilio Trujillo Arana was assassinated in broad daylight while defending his community and the Venezuelan Amazon from criminal gangs and illegal mining. He requested protection a year earlier, after receiving death threats, but received none. Between 2013 and 2021, more than 30 Indigenous and environmental leaders were killed in Venezuela alone.

Francisca Stuardo, from International NGO Global Witness says: ‘Over the years, we’ve recorded increases in attacks against Land and Environmental Defenders – fuelled by a combination of lack of corporate accountability, the worsening climate crisis, shrinking civic space, institutional corruption, lack of political will and high impunity levels.’

Fighting against threats to community land and natural resources resulted in at least 1540 deaths between 2012 and 2020. Global Witness’ most recent annual report of these deadly attacks from 2020, shows 227 deaths – or an average of four per week – but the organisation says the numbers are “just the tip of the iceberg,” since many murders continue to go unrecorded. Countless more people are silenced through death threats, harassment, dismissal from employment, surveillance, criminalization, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances.

Credit – Global Witness, Last Line of Defence 2021

Perpetrators of deadly attacks are rarely brought to justice, as is the case with 63 year old Fikile Ntshangase, shot dead in her living room more than 20 months ago, by three unknown men. The Deputy Chairperson of Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), she campaigned against Tendele’s Somkhele coal mine extension in South Africa.

Since the huge mine opened, in 2007, her village has suffered from pollution. Rainwater cannot be collected anymore because the gutters are clogged with coal ash. Livestock have fallen ill, land is contaminated, respiratory problems exist, and blasting results in homes shaking, cracking, and even collapsing.

Sheila Berry, Director of Global Environmental Trust (GET) and Coordinator of Save Our Wilderness says: ‘MCEJO members are mostly rural farmers whose ancestors are buried in the ground the mine wants to rip apart. The land is also our livelihood.

‘The mine failed to consult us properly, as rightful owners of the land. Instead, it has bought the traditional leadership, who try to intimidate and oppress us and force us to agree to the expansion of Tendele mine, which MCEJO members do not want. It has been a long and difficult struggle.’

‘When the traditional leaders sent people to our homes recently to tell us about a public meeting, we were threatened if we did not support the mine at the meeting. Many of the homesteads are headed by women who felt scared. At night, gunmen drive around firing shots at houses belonging to MCEJO leaders. The police do nothing to stop them. We also hear about hit lists and hit men who are promised money to shoot us. These are attempts to silence us but they are failing. People came to the meeting and made it clear we do not want the mine. It brings no benefits to the residents, only destruction, ill-health, division and poverty,’ Berry explains.

‘Mama Fikile’s death scared us but made us more determined to continue our struggle for what is right, lawful and just,’ she adds.

In May, the court ruled in favour of GET and MCEJO, so Tendele can no longer expand into Ntshangase’s village without proper consultations with the rightful landowners.

The Philippines is the most dangerous country in Asia for environmental defenders, according to Global Witness, with 29 murdered in 2020. The country has an abysmal human rights record, and opposition to damaging industries is often met with violent crackdowns from police and military. Activists are also often ‘red-tagged’- labelled as members of the Communist New People’s Army, a charge which equates to terrorism and can carry the death sentence. At the end of 2020, nine Indigenous leaders were killed, campaigning against the destruction of their ancestral lands by two nearby dam projects- they had been red-tagged.

Community protest against Tendele Mine 2016

Gloria Capitan, an active member in the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, was assassinated six years ago, on the day former president Rodrigo Duterte took office, by two unidentified gunmen. She campaigned fiercely against air pollution, coal-fired power plants, and the open coal stockpile that was located barely 200 metres from her home and caused skin conditions and respiratory problems.

According to Leon Dulce, National Coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), nothing has changed under Ferdinand Marcos JR, the country’s new president.

‘The Marcos presidency commences with a 1,733% spike in the number of environmental defenders under attack. From a single post-election case in May, we monitored at least six incidents affecting 119 defenders in June leading up to Mr. Marcos’ first months as president.’

Daisy Macapanpan, 69, one of those detained, is fighting against a multi-billion hydropower project that threatens the distinctive biodiversity of the Sierra Madre mountain range. 40 members of the Special Action Force dragged her from her home.

The world’s forests support Indigenous communities and the richest areas of biodiversity on earth. They are essential in fighting climate change, each year absorbing a third of the carbon dioxide released worldwide from burning fossil fuels. Trees also clean our air and improve its quality, vitally important as nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, which is associated with 7 million premature deaths annually. Leaves also trap air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide and ammonia.

However, at the last count, almost three quarters of murdered land and environmental defenders were fighting against deforestation and industrial development in forests.

Forests are vital for the majority of Cambodia’s population, but the country lost almost 65 percent of its tree cover between 2011 and 2020, much of it primary forest. The two protected regions of Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka, home to many endangered species and the Indigenous Kuy people, are also affected by industrial scale illegal logging, which is facilitated by widespread state corruption.

There are consistent reports of Ministry of Environment and police providing loggers with protection, and access to protected areas, in exchange for money. At the same time, environmental authorities have increased their repression of forest defenders and banned independent patrols of protected areas by environmentalists, since early 2020, leading to allegations of increased deforestation.

aerial photography of rays on field at daytime

Leng Ouch, 2016 Goldman prize winner and Founder of Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, fights against illegal logging and advocates for land rights. He has exposed criminal collusion between powerful timber companies and government officials, and a multi-million dollar timber smuggling network.

Although fellow forest defender, Chut Wutty, was murdered by a military police officer in 2012, Leng has no personal or family protection. He also receives no financial support from outside donors, and local NGOs are afraid of being shut down, so do not criticise the government. He also mentions a lack of cooperation with many of the major international conservation organisations, who provide inaccurate information on the state of the Cambodian environment. Leng has previously been the target of death threats and has gone into hiding several times in the past.

‘I got arrested and detained twice, during the investigation of illegal logging by Think Biotech in Prey Lang in 2020 and 2021, and stopped many times by rangers and armed forces inside the jungle,’ he explains.

Describing the climate of impunity existing in Cambodia, Richard Rogers, International Human Rights Lawyer and Founding Partner of Global Diligence, says: ‘Corruption is a true kleptocracy. The ruling elite have maintained control for decades, using fear, violence and corruption. They have persecuted opposition figures, murdered activists, and stolen successive elections.’

‘The land of poor Cambodians is illegally grabbed and sold to the highest bidder. The ancient forests are felled, and the great Mekong left polluted and barren. The subservient judiciary ensures there is no remedy for abuse; the obedient security forces help evict inhabitants who stand in the way. Land defenders, environmentalists, and trade unionists are gunned down in cold blood.’

‘Ultimately, Cambodia’s natural resources are destroyed for a quick and filthy profit. And whilst a tiny minority become obscenely wealthy, the vast majority face an uncertain future.’

Corruption is one of the main causes of lethal attacks on individuals who speak out against the exploitation of our world., so government and corporate accountability is vital to hold perpetrators to account and prevent further human rights and environmental abuses.

A rapid response mechanism was recently established, to safeguard people defending the environment, with Mr. Michel Forst being appointed as the world’s first Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders. His job is to safeguard and stand up for environmental activists who might endure punishment, persecution, or harassment for attempting to exercise their rights under the Aarhus Convention.

‘I am extremely worried and appalled by the growing number of attacks and murders of environmental defenders, but also by the continuous resistance of States to act in front of egregious human rights violations,’ Forst says.

‘It is the responsibility of States and the international community to empower and protect these defenders. We should listen to those raising the alarm against environmental disasters, climate change and irresponsible resource exploitation, not repress them.’

‘Recently, the world has taken concrete steps to protect our planet, now it is time to protect the heroes who, day by day, are at the forefront of the fight for our future.

I urge the international community to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to the violence against environmental human rights defenders,’ he adds.

Photos provided by Charlie Jaay and Ales Krivec


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