Alice Harrison of Global Witness argues that companies, consumers, investors and governments must all take steps to ensure that our growing demand for food and resources does not cause human rights abuses and irrevocable environmental harm
Every year, Global Witness records the number of land and environmental defenders killed across the globe. These are the men and women who dare to stand up to the companies who grab their land or wreak havoc with the environment in order to make products we consume every day – from the food on our plates, to the minerals in our phones, to the furniture in our homes. As agribusiness booms, tropical forests are logged, and mining all continue to deliver huge revenue to major global corporations, we are seeing increasingly brutal attacks against these brave individuals.
This week, we release our report on last year’s trends, and it continues to make for grim reading. Our research found that, on average, more than three activists were killed every week in 2018 defending their land from invasion by industries like mining, logging and agribusiness. In total, that is at least 164 people murdered around the world. The real figure is likely to be much higher, because cases are often not recorded and very rarely investigated. Reliable evidence is hard to find or verify.
The country with the highest number of attacks recorded in 2018 was the Philippines, where 30 people were tragically killed, half of them in conflicts over agribusiness. A fivefold jump in killings in Guatemala, where 16 people were murdered last year compared with three in 2017, meant it was the most dangerous country per capita for defenders.
Once again mining was the deadliest sector, with 43 defenders killed protesting against the destructive impacts of mineral extraction on people’s land, livelihoods and the environment. The largest massacre we recorded last year saw 13 people shot dead in southern India for protesting against a copper mine. At the same time, we also documented a jump in killings related to conflict over water resources, which rose from four in 2017 to 17 in 2018.
The report also highlights how killings are the most violent manifestation of myriad abuses. Non-lethal violence and intimidation is rife, and similarly often undocumented. Alongside physical attacks, death threats, and smear campaigns, governments and businesses are using courts and legal systems to silence those who threaten their power and profits. In a brutally savage irony, killers of land and environmental defenders generally escape punishment while the activists themselves are branded as criminals.
Those risking their lives to stand up for environmental rights carry an important message that our patterns of consumption need to radically change
That is why this year, for the first time, Global Witness has documented the use and abuse of laws and policies designed to criminalise and intimidate defenders, their families and the communities they represent. These tactics can be used to tarnish reputations, choke off funding and lock activists into costly legal battles that stop them from carrying out their work. Cracking down on one individual or organisation also creates a powerful chilling effect for would-be defenders. These subtler threats don’t make the headlines like killings do, which is why they are so useful to those who want to crush dissent.
Those risking their lives to stand up for land and environmental rights carry an important message that our patterns of consumption and production need to radically change. Companies, the consumers who buy from them, the investors who bankroll them, and the governments that regulate them must all take steps to ensure that our growing demand for food and resources does not drive land grabbing and irrevocable environmental harm.
Offering suggestions for how to stop the criminalisation of defenders is hard, because methods and contexts vary greatly. At base, though, efforts need to be made at every level in the state apparatus to ensure that private interests can’t unduly influence the governance of populations or the rule of law. This requires increasing the transparency and independent oversight of political funding and decision-making, as a means of stamping out corruption.
Bucking this trend will require strengthening judiciaries to ensure they are immune from undue influence by companies and wealthy individuals. It will also hinge on protecting civil liberties and freedom of speech so that those same companies and individuals can’t use the legal system creatively to silence opposition through pre-emptive injunctions and legal threats. Defenders who fall foul of draconian laws aimed at silencing them should also be given financial and legal support by governments and donors so that they can protect themselves against legal challenges and continue their vital work.
And importantly, companies have a responsibility to confront criminalisation rather than be complicit in it: because peace, stability and democracy are important factors in any healthy business environment. Industry can and should raise concerns with governments regarding proposed or existing legislation criminalising protest. Companies can also use their leverage along their supply chains, including by blacklisting suppliers that try to criminalise defenders.
In short, bringing an end to the injustice and impunity that haunts the lives of defenders around the world will require using countries’ laws and courts in a way that protects activists, and punishes their aggressors. This will require serious, independent, and transparent investigations being conducted to identify the masterminds of crimes against defenders, prosecute them, and ensure adequate reparations to victims. This is what real justice looks like, yet sadly it is all too often elusive.
Alice Harrison is senior campaigner at Global Witness.