Posts Tagged ‘environmental defenders’

Book review of “The Water Defenders” tells the story of environmental defenders in El Salvador

June 1, 2021

In Toward Freedom of 31 May 2021 Charlotte Dennett reviews the book “The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed“. It is a very uplifting story that teaches a lot about how to continue a sometimes hopeless-looking case

The Water Defenders

At a time when all caring people are seeking a new way forward out of a year of unimaginable death, destruction and rampant inequality, along comes a book that gives us hope that a better world may be possible. The book, recently published, is based on a struggle in a small section of a small country—El Salvador—beginning in 2002, when a group of “white men in suits” entered the province of Cabañas and tried to convince poor farmers that gold mining would be good for them. Their resistance, done at great peril and resulting in the assassinations of some of their leaders, ended up years later in a landmark case against corporate greed, garnering support from around the world. The basis of their success lies in the most fundamental of human needs: Water, for which left-right antagonisms fall apart once the deadly consequences of mining’s misuse of it—including causing cyanide poisoning—become patently clear.

Authors Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have brought us this amazing David versus Goliath story in their new book, The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved A Country from Corporate Greed. Their first-hand accounts of working with front-line communities, both in El Salvador and in the United States. provide lessons along the way about how to fight an immensely powerful entity and win, whether the enemy be Big Gold, Big Oil or Big Pharma (to name a few). As they write in their introduction, “You may find yourselves surprised to find the relevance of the strategies of the water defenders in El Salvador, whether your focus is on a Walmart in Washington DC; a fracking company trying to expand in Texas or Pennsylvania, or petrochemical companies outside New Orleans.” By the end of the book, they added relevant struggles in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, as well as in South Africa, South Korea, and India.

In an interview with John Cavanagh, I asked if he and Robin had an inkling of the huge ramifications of their story right from the beginning, and his answer was decidedly no. In fact, when they first got involved, back in 2009, they never expected to win. They knew what they were up against and had no illusions. As they wrote about the ensuing years of twist-and-turn battles lost and won, the authors described a combination of events that made the water defenders’ decades-long struggle unusual… Yet now, with lessons learned, replicable.

Their involvement with the water defenders began in October 2009. That month, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive organization “dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society,” invited a group of Salvadorian water defenders to accept IPS’s annual Letelier Human Rights Award for their struggle against Pacific Rim (PacRim), a huge Canadian gold-mining company that sought permits in El Salvador. [See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/06351cb8-8cc0-4bdd-ac3a-2f7ee5a0b553]That year’s award was particularly poignant because one of the awardees, Marcelo Rivera, had been assassinated the month before. Five people still came to Washington, with Marcelo’s brother, Miguel, traveling in his place. Leading the delegation was a small-statured, seemingly nervous Vidalina Morales. But when she stepped up to the podium at the National Press Club and began her acceptance speech, her voice filled the room with a sense of urgency. She described the dangers of gold mining—for drinking water, for fishing and for agriculture. By the time she got to explaining the use of toxic cyanide in separating the gold from the rock, she had the audience—including the authors—mesmerized.

Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador
Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador / credit: John Cavanagh

Another factor made this occasion different. Cavanagh, who is the director of IPS, explained that usually the awardees arrive in Washington to accept their awards and return home. But on this occasion, “They asked for our help. El Salvador had just been sued by PacRim in an international tribunal that argued that El Salvador had to allow it to mine gold or pay over $300 million in costs and ‘foregone profits.’ They also asked if we could help them with research on companies involved in gold mining.”

John had previously engaged with IPS in fighting against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and had become familiar with the tribunal and the rules set by the World Bank involved in regulating a global economy. Robin Broad, for her part, had written her doctoral dissertation and first book on the World Bank, and she had worked on the bank at her job with the U.S. Treasury Department in the mid-1980s. But she was less familiar with the workings of the tribunal the World Bank had set up in 1964, “The International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).” Its mission was to hear cases brought by foreign investors demanding compensation for lost profits from countries that tried to limit or regulate their activities. The couple figured they could be helpful.

“That’s how we were drawn in,” John explained, while emphasizing the extraordinary role local Salvadorans played in educating local communities about the dangers of landfills and then the dangers of gold mining. It was their groundbreaking work, often under dangerous conditions, that had earned them the Letelier award.

What happened next is a remarkable story of a growing North-South alliance that eventually went global, succeeding in two monumental victories: 1) a decision by ICSID in October 2016 that rejected PacRim’s claims for damages, while ordering the corporation to pay El Salvador $8 million in costs, and 2) the world’s first-ever comprehensive metals mining ban, brought by the El Salvador legislature in March 2019.

The Challenge

Up until 2016, Cavanagh explained, “we never thought we would win.” But that did not stop the momentum of coalition building, which had begun as early as 2005 by local village defenders, human rights advocates, farmers, lawyers, Catholic organizations and Oxfam America. They united to call themselves the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining, or La Mesa Frente a la Mineria Metálica—La Mesa for short. Their ultimate goal, beyond building resistance at the local level, “seemed like a pipe dream,” the authors wrote. That goal? “Getting the Salvadoran Congress to pass a new national law banning metal mining.”

Over the years, spurred on by their quest to find out who was responsible for Marcelo’s murder, the water defenders and their international allies yielded a treasure trove of insights on how to fight the Men in Suits, regardless of the outcome. Here are just a few lessons learned from their struggles described in the book:

  • Listen to the horror stories coming from refugees, in this case, those fleeing Honduras. Marcelo; his brother, Miguel; and Vidalina made several trips to Honduras to learn more about the gold mines there. (Honduras had become a haven for Big Gold after the 2009 coup). They returned with “shocking stories of rivers poisoned by cyanide, of dying fish and skin disease, of displaced communities, denuded forests, and corruption and conflict catalyzed by mining company payoffs.” Those trips, the authors write, made a huge impression on the water defenders and “crystallized their thinking… They were vigilant researchers, thirsty to know more.”
  • Seek out unexpected allies. One was Luis Parada, a Salvadoran government lawyer with a military background. As it turned out, he was a disciple of Sun Tsu, a Chinese military strategist from 2,500 years ago, who had written The Art of War. Among the lessons Parada (and Sun Tsu) imparted: “Know thy adversaries”—be one step ahead of them, and also know your possible allies. “Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” Luis also offered valuable practical advice, including the fact that the Sheraton Hotel in the capital, with its bar and pool, “offered some of the best intelligence in El Salvador.” Another unexpected ally was the ultra-conservative Archbishop Saenz Lacalle, a member of the right wing Opus Dei. “All it had taken was the word cyanide,” the authors explain, to cause him to oppose mining. His replacement in 2008, Archbishop Escobar, followed suit. He was “hardly an activist cleric,” but he “had long-held unexpected and firm views on mining,” and in his inaugural messages called on the government to reject mining operations in El Salvador. Getting the Catholic Church behind the water defenders was crucial. The martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, “whose photo is omnipresent throughout the country,” was no doubt a factor for widespread community support behind the water defenders, as was the encyclical put out by Pope Francis urging priests to take to the streets to defend the environment. Yet another surprise endorsement came from a member of one of El Salvador’s richest families and a leader of the right-wing ARENA party, which dominated the legislature. It turned out that John Wright Sol had a passion for the environment. Also noteworthy: His family’s vast sugar plantations consumed a lot of water. As he studied the impact of mining on water, he reached out to fellow members of ARENA. “I didn’t want to turn this into mining companies are the devil,” he advised. Instead, he chose to emphasize that “every citizen in the country must have access to clear water.”
  • Be wary of corporate PR campaigns. PacRim put out a report emphasizing that a whopping 36,000 jobs would be created from its mining operations, a vastly inflated claim. In radio interviews, PacRim aimed separate messages to the ARENA party and to the left-wing FMLN party, in which it claimed revenues would fund social agendas. Trips abroad arranged by PacRim often resulted in swaying politicians, whether on the left or right, to support their corporate agenda.
  • No matter how big, corporations can make mistakes. OceanaGold, a Canadian-Australian mining company which took over PacRim in 2014, had put on a brave face after the ICSID ruled against PacRim, acting as though it had won, and refusing to cough up the $8 million the company owed El Salvador. Yet it made a fatal error by choosing its mining operations in The Philippines as an example of its environmentally pristine practices. Robin Broad knew otherwise, and along with other international allies had cultivated a professional relationship with the governor of the Philippine province where OceanaGold had its mine. Governor Carlos Padilla arrived in El Salvador on the eve of the crucial legislative vote on the mining bill and presented a “before and after” slideshow to the Environmental Committee. He pictured a lush landscape before the mining, contrasted with images of waste-filled “tailings ponds,” dead trees, dried-up springs and rivers, dead fish on river banks, and, as he explained, “No access to water for drinking or for irrigation.” He ended with an appeal to future generations. “Grandpa,” he imagined them asking. “Why did you allow mining?” 

His presentation was “sort of a clincher,” Cavanagh told me. “It raised the level of indignation.” The legislative vote followed soon afterwards, on March 29, 2019. The results were stunning, with 69 votes tallied against OceanaGold, zero nays and zero abstentions. Shouts of Sí, Se Puede!—“Yes we can!”—erupted from the floor, as members of La Mesa waved banners that read, “No a la Minería, Sí a la Vida”—No to Mining. Yes to Life!

Children performing on the 10th anniversary of Marcelo Rivera’s assassination
Children performing on the 10th anniversary of El Salvadorean water defender Marcelo Rivera’s assassination / credit: John Cavanagh

Today, the water defenders remain cautiously optimistic, though constantly on guard. In the past, mining corporations have been able to convince even leftist governments that mining is good for the economy. Cavanagh speculates mayors of small towns, pressured to provide jobs, may have been behind the assassination of Marcelo Rivera and other water defenders.

But to date, Marcelo’s killers have never been identified. On an equally sobering note, he and Board remind us in the book that “over 1,700 environmental defenders had been killed across 50 countries between 2002 and 2018.”

I asked John for an update since finishing his book in mid-2020. Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s “new Trump-like president,” he wrote, “hasn’t raised mining, and it doesn’t look like he is personally interested. He knows the public opinion polls that showed that the overwhelming majority of Salvadorans are opposed to mining.”

However, he added, “We remain worried. El Salvador, like all developing countries, is suffering economically after the pandemic, and other countries have increased mining to get more revenues. So, La Mesa remains vigilant against any actions that could indicate that the government wants to mine.”

We can only hope that water defenders around the world will strengthen their alliances. Fortunately, they now have a handbook that will help them in their journey of resistance.

Charlotte Dennett is the co-author with Gerard Colby of Thy Will be Done. The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil. Her new book is The Crash of Flight 3804: A Lost Spy, A Daughter’s Quest, and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.

The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. Boston: Beacon Press; 2nd edition. March 23, 2021.

For a bit more critical review see: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/el-salvador-s-water-defenders-and-fight-against-toxic-mining

Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic wins 2021 Oscar Romero award of Dayton

March 24, 2021

On Tuesday 23 March, 2021 the University of Dayton announced that Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic, leader of the Council of Ki’che’ Peoples,is the winner of its Oscar Romero award.

Environmental and climate justice will be at the heart of a series of University of Dayton events to honour the legacy of Saint Oscar Romero. The series will culminate with the University bestowing its human rights award named in his honour to Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic, leader of the Council of Ki’che’ Peoples which helps preserve indigenous lands against corporate exploitation in Guatemala.

As a result of her frontline advocacy work, Lolita has faced persecution and has lived in exile since 2017,” said Shelley Inglis, executive director of the University of Dayton Human Rights Center. “Her story brings awareness to the role of indigenous women in the fight for environmental justice despite the high levels of gender-based and other violence against them.

“Pope Francis has called for urgent action to combat climate change and protect our integral ecology. Yet, environmental and climate justice defenders remain under attack, with governments, corporations and financiers failing to protect their vital and peaceful efforts. The majority of the human rights activists killed last year were working on environmental, land or indigenous peoples’ rights, predominantly in Latin America.”  

The University will honour Chávez Ixcaquic April 20 during an event that will include Mauricio López Oropeza reflecting on Romero’s legacy. López Oropeza is a former executive secretary of the Red Eclesial Pan-Amazónica, which connects bishops conferences and church communities in the Amazon region.
All events in the series start at 3:30 p.m. ET, are free and open to the public, and will be held virtually. Register for and find more information about events here.

For more information on the award and its laureates, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/E4828B37-A192-B1B1-6F4A-1A2D93C4F4B4

https://udayton.edu/news/articles/2021/03/romero_award_series.php

Profile of Muay: A Laotian Woman Human Rights Defender

March 18, 2021

On 17 a blog post in hrcessex by Sarah Mui profiles Muay: “A Fierce Woman Human Rights Defender”

Houayheung (“Muay”) Xayabouly is not only a mother, small business owner and the primary breadwinner of her family, but shehas also been breaking down stereotypical gender roles by being a fierce human rights defender and environmental activist in Laos.She is viewed as a public figure among her community because of her work to shed light onto the countless human rights violations that she and fellow Lao people have endured at the hands of the national government. In 2019, the Lao government decided to make an example out of Muay and unjustly sentenced her to five years in prison, for which she was stripped of all fair trial guarantees. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I urge all who read this to remember her name, learn her fight and spread awareness to demand that all charges be dropped and Muay be set free.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundatio

In 2017, Muay began raising awareness on social media over the excessive tolls that she along with other people in her community were being charged when crossing a bridge on the border of Laos and Thailand. The cost of the toll was equivalent to several meals, but Lao people relied on it to travel to and from work each day, including Muay herself. It turned out that the Lao government had given the private international company, Duangdee, the concession to charge the toll when it constructed the bridge in the first place. This concession left her community in an impossible situation where they were perpetually indebted to this private company who took advantage of the bridge’s necessity. Muay’s video about the toll deeply resonated with the Lao people, who agreed that the government benefited from the financial relationship with Duangdee. This made Muay realize the importance of using her voice to speak up for Lao people, and it was then that she made the decision to dedicate her life to fighting for them.   

The Lao government did nothing in response to their people’s outcry over the excessive tolls, but rather chose to focus attention on finding ways to intimidate Muay. Soon after the video went viral, the police were sent to her location to warn her to not criticize it.

In 2018, Muay challenged the Lao government over the corrupt hiring practices of public sector and governmental positions in that they were being appointed on the condition of bribes instead of through proper hiring procedures. This was quite personal for Muay because her own brother had been deeply impacted by this practice. He had always aspired to become a police officer but was cheated out of money and the position of his dreams due to these dishonorable practices. Muay’s video discussing the topic received over 320,000 views as of July last year. 

Soon after Muay’s widely viewed video, she was fired from her job as a tour guide for “unknown” reasons other than the fact her employer had been mysteriously pressured to do so. 

Muay was not going to let the government deter her from helping Lao people. Later that year, she decided to create a school for Lao children to address the dire inequalities that they faced in accessing education. The current practice was for parents to pay a bribe to secure a spot for their children, otherwise they could not provide them an education. She started multiple fundraisers to accomplish this goal, including selling shirts that said, “I don’t want to buy government positions,” referencing the Lao government’s corrupt hiring practices in addition to holding a concert featuring a number of local performers. 

Again, instead of actually listening to the suffering of its people, the government chose to continue to try to intimidate Muay by shutting down the fundraising concert and prohibiting the selling of shirts. 

The year 2018 was also troubling because that summer a dam collapsed in Attapeu Province, which led to numerous deaths, disappearances and displacements of Lao people. The government purportedly underreported the impact of the collapse and restricted access to the scene by the media and independent aid organizations. Muay decided to take matters into her own hands and post her own videos of the disaster and its significant effect on the community. 

In response to the shocking video, Muay was called to the police station and was told to cease all criticism of the Lao government. 

Around the same time, Muay had learned that donations for the impacted families of the dam collapse were being sold by Lao police for their own monetary gain. She could not allow her community to suffer so she started collecting donations for them herself. She documented and shared this all on social media.

Within a few days, the Lao government issued a press statement advising the public against reading “unofficial news” about the collapse. 

In the autumn of 2019, the Lao people who lived close to the dam were again harmed after a tropical storm caused major flooding, leaving over 100,000 displaced from their homes. Again, disturbed by the Lao government’s indifference towards its people, Muay posted another video calling the government out for its slow response and its lack of preventative measures which could have mitigated the storm’s impact.  

Around the same time, the Lao government sent police to arrest Muay without a warrant while she was dining at a restaurant. She tried to post a video about what had happened, but she was forced to delete it. She was then placed in pre-trial detention long before her hearing and was denied an impartial lawyer and the ability to challenge her detention. She was subject to repeated long interrogations where she was coerced to confess to “spreading propaganda against the Lao government.” She was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison, for which she visitation has been limited and closely monitored. She has not been able to see her young daughter but a handful of times and international NGOs have been completely barred.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundation

The Lao Government is Using Muay as an Example to Silence Dissent 

Muay is a strong and dedicated woman human rights defender and environmental activist who has fought endlessly for her community. Instead of taking accountability and listening to the suffering of its people, the Lao government has instead chosen to turn a blind eye to its human rights obligations and punish Muay for her significant contributions to her country. Until now, Muay’s story has only been made available by a few NGOs working hard to shed light onto her fervent advocacy and now wrongful detention. To spread the word about her fight, please share this blog, follow #FreeMuay and visit this link to demand that Muay be set free!

About the Author: Sarah Mui is an American human rights lawyer currently in the LLM for International Human Rights Law program at the University of Essex. She is also a research assistant with the Manushya Foundation located in Bangkok. Sarah hopes to work in the field women’s rights upon graduation. 

https://hrcessex.wordpress.com/2021/03/17/muay-a-fierce-woman-human-rights-defender/

Kristin Kallesen: another human rights defender victim of a SLAPP

March 16, 2021

I have blogged about Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits before [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/01/28/ngos-demand-that-rules-against-strategic-lawsuits-against-public-participation-slapp-are-upgraded/] and am grateful for alert reader Eddie Laurijsen (former ICFTU and ILO official) to have drawn my attention to this piece by Sheree Bega on 1 March 2021 in the Mail & Guardian:

Century Property Developments and Riversands Developments are suing Kristin Kallesen and her nonprofit, Greater Equestrian Kyalami Conservancy (Gecko), for the income they have allegedly lost because of objections raised by her and Gecko against development approvals in and adjoining the conservancy.

A Johannesburg environmentalist and the conservancy she runs have been slapped with a R197-million lawsuit by two property developers after raising what they allege are “obstructive, delaying and frustrating” objections to their projects in Riversands and Helderfontein.

Century Property Developments and Riversands Developments are suing Kristin Kallesen and her nonprofit, Greater Kyalami Conservancy (Gekco), for the income they have allegedly lost because of objections raised by her and Gekco against development approvals in and adjoining the conservancy.

Kallesen said she and Gekco could not comment at this stage and are seeking legal advice from the Centre for Environmental Rights.

Helen Duigan, of Action for Responsible Management of Our Rivers, said Kallesen’s objections were made in terms of her rights as an interested and affected party. 

This threat against Kirstin and Gekco should be opposed vehemently,” said Duigan. “Gekco has been a bulwark against unremitting pressure from development, pushing the urban boundary further and further into natural areas that include essential wetlands and threatened species such as grass owls.

Developers too often use, “for their own profit”, ecosystem services that residents have conserved for many years at their own cost, she said. “In their advertising, developers glorify the open space, the lovely views, the fresh air — which the development tends to destroy.”

In legal papers, the developers say that Kallesen and Gekco have “abused” the statutory objection and public participation procedures because “frivolous and baseless” objections were filed against all the township applications by both defendants, none of which were upheld by the City of Johannesburg.

This, the developers allege, was to “procure delays”, prevent the developers from developing the properties and cause financial harm.

“The defendants, similarly, for the same reason, abused the statutory appeal procedures provided for in the prevailing town planning legislation and have lodged several entirely unsubstantiated and mala fide appeals against the decisions of the municipality, by virtue of which such townships have been approved. 

“Not a single one of such appeals lodged by or on behalf of the defendants have been upheld by the municipal appeal tribunal.”

The financial harm, the developers allege, includes the extension of the holding cost period in respect of such properties before these could be developed in terms of the approved township applications; the continuous escalation of construction costs to be incurred for the development of such properties; the extended period to which the developers were obliged to pay assessment rates charged by the municipality and interest on such amounts as well as the loss of rental income from the delayed occupation of developed structures.”

For Duigan, the lawsuit is a stark reminder of the Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit brought in 2005 against five members of the Rhenosterspruit Conservancy, now proclaimed as the Crocodile River Reserve, by Robbie Wray, the developer of Blair Atholl Estate.

“We were sued for R210-million — my share was R45-million. The case was concluded in December 2010 with the developer given short shrift, with costs at the maximum level against him.”

This was the first major SLAPP suit in South Africa, garnering astounding publicity, particularly after the verdict, she said. “It clearly struck a nerve nationally and we were bombarded by calls and letters from people who had been threatened by developers, warning them that they would be dealt with in the same way as the Rhenosterspruit Five. This made people realise that they could oppose intimidation tactics from developers.”

In early February, the high court in Cape Town held that a series of defamation lawsuits totalling R14.25-million brought by the Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities Ltd, and its local subsidiary, Mineral Sands Resources, against three environmental lawyers, two activists and a social worker who criticised its operations is an abuse of legal process.

https://mg.co.za/environment/2021-03-01-property-developers-slap-joburg-environmentalist-and-conservancy-with-r197m-lawsuit/

UN Spotlight on Killing of South African Environmental Defender Mama Fikile

March 16, 2021

.On 15 March 2021 Katharina Rall, Senior Researcher, Environment and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch, wrote about Mama Fikile’s murder, It is almost five months since an environmental activist, Mama Fikile Ntshangase, was gunned down in her home in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province, after raising concerns about a coal mine in the area. No arrests have been made. Mama Fikile had received threats to her life but carried on with what she perceived to be the only way to protect her community’s health and livelihood.

On March 3, the UN expert on human rights defenders used Mama Fikele’s story to begin a new report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that highlights the risks many environmental defenders operate under, and the widespread attempts to silence their voices.

South African environmental justice groups have urged the government to carry out a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into Mama Fikile Ntshangase’s killing and ensure that those found responsible are held to account. But her family is still waiting for justice.

Beyond the individual tragedy and injustice, there is another reason the UN expert, Mary Lawlor, highlights the South African case in her global report. Killings of activists create an environment of fear and can have a chilling effect on the people around them. Or, as the UN expert frames it, “[t]here is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders.

As a community rights defender opposing coal mining in Fuleni, a small rural village not far from the place where Mama Fikile was killed, Billy Mnqondo once heard gunshots at the gate of his house and was warned by community members that he and his family will be in trouble if he continues to oppose mining. When, in 2018, Human Rights Watch visited Somkhele, Fuleni, and other communities affected by mining, some activists confirmed they were afraid to speak out about the impact of mining in their community, especially after Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, another prominent environmental rights defender, was killed in Xolobeni in 2016.

Violence and intimidation against those who raise their voices to defend their right to a healthy environment is endemic in South Africa.  Human Rights Watch, in its 2019 report, published jointly with groundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights, and Earthjustice,  documented how activists in mining-affected communities across the country have experienced threats, physical attacks, or property damage that they believe is retaliation for their activism. Most of these cases are not widely known and have not made headlines like the killings of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe and Mama Fikile. Yet, investigations into these killings or other attacks are moving very slowly, if at all. 

Other, less brutal ways to silence the voices of environmental rights defenders are nuisance lawsuits, known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs) – baseless cases brought forward by companies to intimidate and burden activists with the onerous costs of mounting a legal defense.

South African courts are beginning to take a stance against these tactics. In February, the High Court in Cape Town issued a ruling that strengthens the constitutional right to freedom of expression. The court held that a defamation suit brought by an Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC), and its local subsidiary against three attorneys, two activists, and a social worker in relation to their statements about its operations is an abuse of legal process. The defamation trial may still proceed, but activists can now defend themselves by arguing that the Court should assess the SLAPP nature of the case.

Following this ruling it will be harder for corporations to use South Africa’s legal system against citizens and activists to silence and intimidate them when they raise human rights concerns or seek accountability for past abuses. The government should now do its part to follow the recommendations of the UN expert by bringing those responsible for killings of environmental defenders to justice. Unless there are prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into the killings—and those responsible are brought to justice— human rights defenders will continue to live in an environment of fear.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/15/un-spotlight-killing-south-african-environmental-defender

Colombia accounts for half the number of all environmental defenders murdered in 2020

March 3, 2021

On 2 March 2021 Mongabay writes about the terrible situation that of the 331 murders of environmental defenders registered worldwide in 2020, Colombia had the most murders at 177.

Impunity still reigns when it comes to the murders of human rights defenders around the world, according to the Front Line Defenders organization, in its global analysis of 2020. The analysis examined 331 homicides of leaders who fight for the defense of the land, the environment, Indigenous peoples, women and the LGBTIQ community. Of these, 177 cases occurred in Colombia.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, defenders have been exposed not only to the day-to-day risks they face from their work and the virus, but also to pressure from governments to control information. Not all of these HRDs are recognized, but the Digest counts some 50 laureates from Colombia [see https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest]

Many of those killed, the report states, supported communities in their fight against COVID-19 , worked on food security issues, access to medical care and were critical of governments. For Front Line Defenders , the health crisis increased risks, especially for women defenders, leaders of the LGBTIQ community and vulnerable populations such as refugees, migrants and sex workers.

Fidel Heras Cruz traded the tranquility of a simple, quiet life for the front line of the fight against economic powers that threaten the environment. Photo: Courtesy COPUDEVER.

For Shirley Muñoz, who coordinates information systems for the Somos Defensores de Colombia, the pandemic made the state abandonment more evident. Colombia accounts for 53% of all rights defenders cases globally in 2020.

“In many territories, the control of the pandemic was exercised by illegal armed groups through fear and threats, and defenders had to be locked up in their homes, which made them more at risk,” Muñoz said in an interview with Mongabay Latam. A large number of the murders that we verified were committed in or near the defenders’ homes.”

Front Line Defenders believes that cases may continue to increase as verifications of allegations are made, and that upcoming figures from Somos Defensores de Colombia will bring the final number of deaths in 2020 higher.

According to Front Line Defenders, 69% of the murders that occurred last year occurred against leaders who worked in defense of the land, the environment and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Report authors point out that the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has emphasized that the loss of biodiversity could put world food security at risk and Indigenous communities play a fundamental role in the conservation of ecosystems. Since 2017, Front Line Defenders has registered 327 murders of defenders of the rights of Indigenous peoples in the world.

They tried to kidnap Irma Lemus (center) on her journey into exile. Photo: Radio Progreso.

In Colombia, violence has been particularly directed against those who participate in the implementation of the Peace Agreement with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), those who are part of the initiatives to replace drug crops, and those who oppose natural resources extraction projects.

In addition to homicides, Front Line Defenders also recorded the most common types of human rights violations, which in the case of Latin America are physical attacks (27%), detentions and arrests (19%), harassment (13%), legal actions against leaders (13%), and smear campaigns (7%) .

The report notes that many defenders who were detained were also exposed to an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Even though many countries allowed the release of prisoners due to the pandemic, according to the report, defenders were not among those released despite serving sentences for “non-violent crimes.”

In the case of Colombia, it is likely that the number of attacks on defenders reported in 2020 has dropped, but this does not mean – warns Muñoz – that the violence has. The reason is that during the pandemic it is presumed that there is a large under-registration since many organizations in charge of registering this type of human rights violations were not able to monitor the territories. So, Muñoz concludes, “there were attacks, but not all of them were recorded.”

Javier Francisco Parra was shot dead in the municipality of La Macarena, Meta, Colombia. Photo: Cormacarena.

Front Line Defenders stresses that direct human rights violations were compounded by restrictive legislation that was introduced in response to the pandemic. “Several other laws were passed designed to limit the ability of human rights defenders and civil society to function well and safely. […] Other governments, including Peru, Honduras, Mexico and Panama, allowed development, deforestation and mining projects to continue despite economic closures, ”the report indicates.

Human rights defenders not only have to protect themselves from physical attacks and murder, but also from digital attacks.

In 2020, a team of Front Line Defenders protection coordinators received 304 requests for support for the following reasons: 26% received threats via social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; 16% were hacked or had their social media accounts compromised; 11% reported telephone surveillance; another 11% reported physical monitoring and 9% said that devices with important information were confiscated or stolen from them.

More than a quarter of those most affected by this type of attack are human rights defenders (17%); rights of the land, the environment and Indigenous peoples (16%). Front Line Defenders claims it received dozens of reports of online gatherings – especially from LGBTIQ groups, feminists and black advocates – that were infiltrated by attackers taking advantage of security breaches

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/03/02/colombia-biden-violence-cauca-duque-peace-farc/

Mary Lawlor opinion: Time for action, the role of human rights defenders in crisis and in a just recovery

February 11, 2021

On 4 February 2021 the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre published an opinion piece by Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human rights Defenders:

Human rights defenders (HRDs) all over the world face continuous harassment, threats and intimidation, with some even getting killed in response to their work protecting and defending human rights. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, attacks against HRDs have continued with many facing greater risks as some governments misuse the situation to further curtail civil rights, deny participation in public decision-making, and deploy state forces to repress legitimate, peaceful protests and obstruct access to justice.

Many of these attacks are related to business activities. In 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented the killing of 357 HRDs, half of whom worked on land rights, protection of the environment, minority rights and indigenous people rights. These violations are often carried out in the context of extractive industries, energy production, agro-industrial development and other business activities. When human rights are under threat from business activities, HRDs stand up and put themselves at risk to protect these rights and their communities. For an overview of all such HRDs, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest

A landmark example is that of HRD Mungunkhun Dulmaa in Mongolia. In 2017, the Mongolian Government entered into a mining agreement with Steppe Gold, a Canadian gold mining company. The local community complained about the environmental impact of the agreement, the associated gold mine, and allocation of land to step-mines – lands which had been used by the community for generations. In 2018, members of the affected community staged a protest and were attacked by private security guards, hired by the company. When Ms. Dulmaa tried to video-record the assault as evidence she was detained, beaten and sexually harassed, and the video was deleted from her phone. A year later, when she attempted to report the incident to local police, Ms. Dulmaa received death threats via text, warning her to stop her work. Here, the lack of engagement by companies with potentially affected communities is blatant. In 2020, my predecessor and the UN Working Group on business and human rights sent a communication regarding Ms. Dulmaa’s case to both the Mongolian Government and the company, but neither responded. This signals a real lack of accountability. If we really want to ‘build back better’ and achieve a just recovery, human rights and HRDs need to become a priority for both states and business.

Five steps companies should take to address risks to HRDs in the context of just recovery:

  1. Implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) through adequate engagement with rightsholders. A recent report from Trinity College, Dublin on 50 large companies and 10 states showed that companies either don’t know or don’t care about the UNGPs. A key part of the implementation of UNGPs is engagement with potentially affected rightsholders and their representatives, including independent trade unions and other civil society organisations. So far, this is not happening: for example, in the Know the Chain benchmark, all companies scored zero on their efforts to support freedom of association. This must change if we want to ‘build back better’: from the earliest possible stage of each project and throughout their supply chains, companies need to engage with potentially affected communities, workers and HRDs representing and supporting them. This needs to include critical voices and companies must give due consideration to the possible objections of HRDs, even if these may render their work and projects more costly, less profitable or even less viable.
  2. Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from affected communities, especially indigenous ones, is non-negotiable. It is an essential part of the effective due diligence called for in the UNGPs and a platform to prevent conflict. HRDs, typically leaders in their communities, can help business develop the kind of precise, contextualised understanding of local situations they need if they intend to prevent and address the potential threats to human rights arising from their activities. In assessing risk, both companies and investors, and the social auditors they hire to help them do so, should give adequate weight to independent civil society and community-level information and evidence. This is fundamental when considering actions for just recovery.
  3. This engagement with HRDs and rightsholders must continue for the duration of any business project, because opinions can change over time. Therefore, companies need to constantly keep their door open to HRDs and their input.
  4. Companies should create public HRDs policies and processes. Business needs to commit to the recognition of communities, HRDs and trade unions as partners by systematically including them in human rights policies and due diligence. They need to commit to a zero-tolerance approach to violence in their supply chains, and enforceable agreements with unions, and consistently prevent, monitor and address risks HRDs face in them.
  5. Companies should also stand with HRDs when they are attacked and release public statements denouncing threats and attacks. Such steps should be taken in consultation with HRDs themselves to increase effective actions that prevent harm and most importantly build trust with HRDs and local communities.

It must be acknowledged some private businesses are already taking positive steps when it comes to protecting HRDs, but most of them do not. This is extremely disappointing and indicates a very strong need for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD). As the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, I strongly support the growing momentum worldwide for mandatory HREDD, and advocate for an early inclusion of rightsholders and HRDs in the legislative process. These laws need to ensure access to justice and the right to an effective remedy, include a business duty to conduct effective, meaningful and informed consultations, and introduce robust safeguards for HRDs and whistle-blowers. An uncritical return to business-as-usual in the post-pandemic period would only perpetuate the deep inequalities between companies, workers and local communities, whereas we have a precious opportunity to reimagine and rebuild an economy that serves and respects the rights of all its participants.

https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/

Too sad for words: 11-year-old boy receives death threat

January 28, 2021
<img src="https://static.independent.co.uk/2021/01/27/10/Screenshot%202021-01-27%20at%2010.18.59.png?width=982&height=726&auto=webp&quality=75&quot; alt="<p>Francisco Vera

Francisco Vera (Reporter’s screenshot)

Clea Skopeliti reports in the Independent of 27 January 2021 that an 11-year-old environmental and children’s rights activist in Colombia has received death threats after he urged the government to improve children’s access to remote education during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Francisco Vera was sent a death threat from an anonymous Twitter account in mid-January after posting a video calling on the government to better internet connection for pupils learning from home during the coronavirus crisis.  The child activist has since been awarded with a letter of congratulations from the UN for his work, personally delivered by a UN representative who also expressed solidarity with the 11-year-old for the intimidation he has faced.

Francisco’s mother, Ana María Manzanare was the first to noticed  the threatening messages. Ms Manzanare told Columbian newspaper El Tiempo: “I was the one who noticed that message because I checked all of Francisco’s networks. He had already received many ridicules, criticism and insults for his activism in defence of life and the environment, but he had never been threatened with death.”

Colombian President Ivan Duque condemned the threats of violence, and ordered the police to “find those bandits” who threatened Francisco. Police say the investigation is ongoing.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/child-activist-death-threats-climate-activism-b1793364.html

Almost 200 international organizations denounce attacks against peaceful resistance to Escobal mine in Guatemala

January 25, 2021

On 21 January, 2021 Ellen Moore in Earthworks reports that more than 190 organizations have denounced an armed attack against Guatemalan land defender Julio David González Arango, a leader in the peaceful resistance to Pan American Silver’s Escobal mine. Julio was shot and wounded on January 16 at his home. Since the attack, two other members of the peaceful resistance have received threatening messages saying they’ll be next. The letter calls on the Guatemalan Attorney General to immediately launch a thorough investigation into the attack and hold the material and intellectual authors of this crime responsible. Julio has led opposition to the Escobal mine for nearly a decade, facing numerous criminalization and defamation campaigns against him by supporters of the mine. Saturday’s terrifying attack is part of a long history of violence against opponents of the Escobal mine since the project was first imposed in 2011. A Constitutional Court order suspended the mine in 2017 pending consultation with the Xinka people. But the threats and defamation campaigns against community leaders never stopped. In early December, a complaint was filed with Guatemalan authorities denouncing threats against Julio. Community leaders report that following the filing of the complaint, threats against them actually increased, including threats directed at Xinka representatives who are participating in the consultation process. 

This is a dangerous time for land-defenders impacted by the Escobal mine, which Xinka leaders say is made worse by Pan American Silver’s ongoing community outreach. For more than two years, the Xinka have called on the company to respect the court ordered suspension and halt all mining activities, including community programs, which they say stoke tensions and undermine their ability to freely participate in the consultation process.

While the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) recently agreed to accept all 59 Xinka representatives in the consultation process, marking the first significant advancement in almost two years, serious obstacles remain. A recent report details a slew of attacks against judicial independence in Guatemala, including allegations of corruption within the Supreme Court. This is significant for the Escobal mine consultation given that the Supreme Court is the main arbiter in the process, responsible for ensuring that the Constitutional Court order is upheld and Xinka rights are respected. Without an independent and impartial Supreme Court, Xinka communities are left in an increasingly precarious and dangerous situation. 

For More Information: 

Felix Vasquez, environmental defender, killed in front of family in Honduras

December 29, 2020

Reuters on 28 December 2020 reported that masked men armed with guns and machetes killed Felix Vasquez, a Honduran environmental rights defender, in front of his family, police said, the latest in a string of such attacks in the Central American country. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/16/two-more-defenders-killed-in-honduras/]

Police authorities immediately decided to initiate a corresponding investigation… we hope to have an answer soon,” police official Kevin Hernandez told journalists.

Honduras is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for activists, with 14 land and environmental defenders killed last year, up from four people in 2018, according to data made available by advocacy group Global Witness. [see https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/29/global-witness-2019-worst-year-ever-for-land-rights-and-environmental-defenders/]

Vasquez, a member of the indigenous Lenca community which lives in the mountainous region near the border with El Salvador, had intended to run for Congress as a member of the opposition LIBRE party in 2021 elections.

Soon after a second land defender was killed: Adan Medina, 46, of the Tolupan indigenous community, was shot and killed by a group of men on Sunday after returning from work in the town of Candelaria, according to Noe Rodriguez, the president of a local indigenous federation. [https://www.reuters.com/article/us-honduras-killing/second-indigenous-activist-killed-in-honduras-in-past-week-idUSKBN29423E]

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-honduras-killing-idUSKBN2921QK