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Standing up for your rights: the dangers of environmentalism

Standing up for the environment could cost you your life; targeting of environmental campaigners has risen dramatically in the last 10 years. Across the world, people are being killed for protesting, demonstrating and standing up for their human and the environment’s rights. A report by the charity Global Witness highlights the shocking figure that 908 activists in 35 countries have been killed between 2002 and 2013. The worrying news is that incidents such as these are increasing with 147 deaths in 2012 alone; this rate is now three times greater than at the start of the century.

March Against Monsanto Vancouver. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The level of violence is reprehensible, the situation is not being aided by governments’ lack of response, as the number of convictions resulting from these cases currently stands at 10, thought to be due to lack of record keeping and treating the incidents in isolation and not part of a greater trend. Another reason for the lack of convictions may be due to the fact that the responsibility for the killing rarely stops with the person who pulled the trigger, secretive networks have links to vested interests which may have ordered the hit who may be protected by their influence.

Oliver Courtney, senior campaigner at Global Witness, said: "There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis than a dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people defending rights to their environment and livelihoods from corporate and state abuse. Yet those responsible almost always get away with it, because governments are failing to protect their citizens and the international community is not paying enough attention to their plight."

Climate activists blockade British Airports Authority's headquarters for day of action. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

By far the biggest offender singled out by the Deadly Environment report is Brazil, with 448 of the deaths attributed to the increase of illegal loggers, farmers and miners encroaching into the Amazon rainforest in order to plunder its bountiful resources.  The high profile murder of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo in May 2011 is just one example of this, the couple were campaigning against a change in farming regulations which would allow more forest to be exploited.

People included in these figures are not just those attempting to preserve the environment, they include indigenous communities who’s land is sold from underneath them and subsistence farmers who do not want to sell up to big corporations are also being targeted, sometimes horrifyingly by government-backed security forces, such as the case of the peasant farmers ousted by government forces in the Bajo Aguan for agribusinesses to expand their palm oil plantations and trade them on the global Carbon market.

Villagers surrounding a tree to stop it from being felled in India. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

These figures are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, many incidents of this kind are never reported, there have been 17 disappearances of activists who are presumed dead. Data is also patchy in many African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central Africa Republic, the murders are often the culmination of a trend of violence, more incidents of intimidation, stigmatisation and criminalisation occur underneath, which also have impacts on environmental campaigning, it is hoped that data can be found on these events to provide a more thorough assessment in future.

Recommendations in the report call on governments giving aid the these countries to put pressure on the authorities to uphold the people’s human rights and prosecute those who have committed these atrocities. More awareness needs to be raised, the issue is sparsely reported in mainstream media and especially considering the death toll is roughly similar to the number of journalists killed in this period while carrying out their work at 913. More transparency must be sought on the deals put in place between governments and the companies buying the land and adequate sanctions put in place when the companies have been found to have colluded in these acts.

UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment John Knox commented. “Human rights only have meaning if people are able to exercise them. Environmental human rights defenders work to ensure that we live in an environment that enables us to enjoy our basic rights, including rights to life and health. The international community must do more to protect them from the violence and harassment they face as a result.”

The Global witness report also calls for change in the current global economic model that undermines planetary life support systems by liquidating finite resources to feed a wasteful and consumptive culture and any passionate individuals that want to stand up against the system are labelled as being “anti-development”. This is the frontline of a battle between the developed and the developing world where against the backdrop of a history of overuse and consumption, the developed world is asking developing countries to limit their potential growth for the sake of the planet; whether or not less well off countries take notice will determine the future of the global environment.

By Alex Caldwell

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