Environmentalists Are Literally Dying to Protect Land and Resources


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Photo: Mara/Flickr

One of our top 10 environmental news stories of 2011 was the troubling violence that environmental activists face in many parts of the world, particularly in Brazil, where three high-profile activists were slain last May. While researching that story, I'd found reports of nine murdered environmentalists last year around the world. I had only just scratched the surface.

A story last week in German newspaper Der Spiegel about the ongoing violence says that there were 29 deaths in Brazil alone. Much worse, a report from the NGO Global Witness shows a very troubling trend, with 106 activists killed worldwide in 2011—a death toll that is nearly double the number killed in 2009.

Brazil has begun offering some protection for small farmers and others who have spoken against the logging and cattle industries as they continue to push into the Amazon. But bounty hunters, reportedly hired by a logging industry mafia, continue to threaten them. Der Spiegel interviewed 45-year-old Nilcilene Miguel de Lima, who is part of a government-backed effort to increase sustainable farming and has a $10,080 bounty on her head because she filed a complaint over illegal logging activities.

Meanwhile, the United Nations' Rio+20 Summit just wrapped up in Rio. The Brazilian government says it is winning the fight against deforestation and has set a roadmap to become more sustainable. Insiders say it's propoganda and claim the mafia still calls the shots in the Amazon.

The human rights dimension of the environmental movement is often lost in the flurry of political battles and science debates. The Global Witness report (there's a link to the report here) says: “Governments are responsible for land and forest governance. Yet this briefing shows that many people around the world, especially poor rural communities, are routinely denied their rights and often killed when they voice concerns about their land and livelihoods.”

In the past decade, Global Witness has collected evidence of 711 individuals that have been killed over resource disputes. That averages out to more than one murder a week. As resources become more scarce and population grows, the group is concerned that this number will only grow, as it has in recent years.

More difficult to quanitfy is the intimidation and threats that not only activitists but also NGO workers and journalists face as they attempt to bring light to struggles over land access and resources.

Aside from Brazil, the Global Witness report says the highest murder rates are seen in Peru, Colombia and the Philippines. It expressed concern that violence is under-reported in Burma, Central Asian countries, China and West Papua due to the absence of human rights monitoring in those areas.

The group says a robust, international system for reporting and tracking this type of violence is needed, and governments should spend more of their resources investigating the crimes and punishing the perpetrators. It also calls for more oversight of private security firms, which have been accused of human rights violations.

Going forward, it says, companies in the resource extraction business are likely to invest more in countries with “weak rule of law and land tenure rights.” This will perpetuate the problem, leading to “more violent conflict over investment projects and disputes over land ownership, with potentially tragic consequences.”

—Mary Catherine O'Connor