Posts Tagged ‘environmental defenders’

Aarhus Convention gets new mechanism to protect environmental defenders

October 26, 2021

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was adopted on 25 June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus. The Aarhus Convention establishes a number of rights of the public (individuals and their associations) with regard to the environment. The Parties to the Convention are required to make the necessary provisions so that public authorities (at national, regional or local level) will contribute to these rights to become effective. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/10/11/new-right-to-healthy-environment-ngos-urge-action/

Now (on Thursday 21 October 2021) the 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders.

It takes the form of Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention. As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted. The agreement delegates setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/28/cop25-climate-defenders-also-needed-to-be-shielded/

I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova. “It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/13/global-witness-2020-the-worst-year-on-record-for-environmental-human-rights-defenders/  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

New Right to Healthy Environment: NGOs urge action

October 11, 2021

On 11 October 2021 ReliefWeb published the open letter signed by 166 civil society organizations and individuals calling upon world leaders to put human rights at the centre of environmental policy (for signatories see link below).

“Respecting and protecting human rights and protecting the environment are inextricably linked. Yet while Heads of State from 88 countries have called to end siloed thinking in the Leaders Pledge for Nature, environmental policy-making still too often excludes or sidelines human rights.

Today we, the undersigned — a broad range of indigenous peoples’ organisations, civil society groups — including human rights, land and environmental defender organisations — academics and [UN] experts from the Global South and North — call on the world’s leaders to bring together human rights, environmental and climate in policy-making in order to secure a just, equitable and ecologically healthy world for all.

The reciprocal relationship between nature and people has existed since time immemorial, but it is now unbalanced. There are countless examples in all parts of the world of how forests, savannas, fresh water sources, oceans, and even the air itself, are being privatised, polluted and destroyed by industries such as agriculture, timber, pulp and paper, mining and oil and gas extraction. These and many other industries not only wreak destruction on Mother Earth, but they also have direct and devastating impacts on human rights. Indigenous peoples and local communities living in close proximity to the production, extraction and processing of raw materials suffer dispossession of their lands, impoverishment, deterioration of their health, and destructive impacts on their culture, among many other abuses. In turn, human rights, land and environmental defenders who seek to prevent these violations suffer threats, criminalisation and violent attacks, and increasingly, killings.

The costs of both environmental destruction and measures to address this often fall disproportionately on those already in precarious positions — such as indigenous peoples, afro-descendants, local communities, women, children and youths, and poorly-paid workers, particularly in the Global South but also in the Global North — while the profits of the largest and most environmentally-damaging industries, and the wealth of their owners and financers, continues to grow. It is unforgivable that polluting industries profit at the expense of the health and human rights of marginalised communities. And, ultimately, this environmental destruction has indirect human rights impacts on us all.

Just this month the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognising the Right to a Healthy Environment. Yet while there is evidence that the protection of human rights can lead to better environmental outcomes, calls for recognition of the holistic and indivisible nature of human rights and the environment often go unheeded in global, regional and national environmental and climate policy forums.

This must change. As a global community we face multiple, intersecting crises: increasing human rights abuses and environmental harms by companies, land grabs, the loss of food and water sovereignty, increasing poverty and inequality, increased attacks and killings of defenders, climate change-induced disasters and migration, the diminishing health of the oceans and critical biodiversity loss. Resolving these crises demands a holistic approach to environmental policy that embeds human rights and tackles systemic problems, including historically rooted social injustice, ecological destruction, state capture by corporations, corruption and impunity, as well as and social and economic inequality.

We urge world leaders to ensure that all policymaking related to the environment — including the climate and biodiversity crises, ownership and use of land, water and resources, ecosystem degradation, corporate accountability and trade, among others — address human rights and the environment in an integrated manner. This would help to catalyse the transformative action that is urgently required.

Respect for, protection, promotion and fulfilment of human rights, and the protection of those who defend them, must be an essential and non-negotiable part of measures adopted in upcoming negotiations at the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, COP15, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP26. Human rights must also be central to regional and national level climate and environmental policies, such as proposed deforestation legislation in the UK, the EU and the USA, which must be further strengthened.

The time to act is now: we call on you to unite human rights, climate and the environment once and for all. In doing so, you can help us and our future generations to thrive by living in harmony with nature. And in doing so, you can affirm that both nature and people have intrinsic worth and that governments are serious in living up to their duty both to protect Mother Earth and to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.”

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/13/global-witness-2020-the-worst-year-on-record-for-environmental-human-rights-defenders/

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/open-letter-civil-society-world-leaders-put-human-rights-centre-environmental-policy

https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO2110/S00102/civil-society-calls-on-world-leaders-to-put-human-rights-at-the-centre-of-environmental-policy.htm

2021 Laureates of the Right Livelihood Award

October 4, 2021

The 2021 Laureates of the Right Livelihood Award were announced in Stockholm on Wednesday, 29 September at Kulturhuset, Stockholm. For more in this award and its laureates, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/97238E26-A05A-4A7C-8A98-0D267FDDAD59

Marthe Wandou, Cameroon

“For building a model of community-based child protection in the face of terrorist insurgency and gender-based violence in the Lake Chad region of Cameroon.”

Read more

Vladimir Slivyak, Russia

“For his defence of the environment and for helping to ignite grassroots opposition to the coal and nuclear industries in Russia.”

Read more

Freda Huson of the Wet’suwet’en people, Canada

“For her fearless dedication to reclaiming her people’s culture and defending their land against disastrous pipeline projects.”

Read more

Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, India

“For their innovative legal work empowering communities to protect their resources in the pursuit of environmental democracy in India.”

Read more

For last year’s winners, see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/01/four-well-known-human-rights-defenders-are-the-2020-right-livelihood-laureates/

https://rightlivelihood.org/2021-announcement/

Global Witness: 2020 the worst year on record for environmental human rights defenders

September 13, 2021

Since 2012, Global Witness has been gathering data on killings of land and environmental defenders. In that time, a grim picture has come into focus – with the evidence suggesting that as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against those protecting their land and our planet also increases. It has become clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also driving violence against land and environmental defenders.

In 2020, we recorded 227 lethal attacks – an average of more than four people a week – making it once again the most dangerous year on record for people defending their homes, land and livelihoods, and ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate. [CF: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/29/global-witness-2019-worst-year-ever-for-land-rights-and-environmental-defenders/]

As ever, these lethal attacks are taking place in the context of a wider range of threats against defenders including intimidation, surveillance, sexual violence, and criminalisation. Our figures are almost certainly an underestimate, with many attacks against defenders going unreported. You can find more information on our verification criteria and methodology in the full report. Downloads

In 2020, over half of attacks took place in just three countries: Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines.

For the second year in a row, Colombia saw the highest number of killings in 2020, with 65 land and environmental defenders murdered. These took place in the context of widespread attacks on human rights defenders and community leaders across the country, despite the hopes of the 2016 peace agreement. Indigenous peoples were particularly impacted, and the COVID pandemic only served to worsen the situation. Official lockdowns led to defenders being targeted in their homes, and government protection measures were cut.

In Mexico, we documented 30 lethal attacks against land and environmental defenders in 2020, a 67% increase from 2019. Logging was linked to almost a third of these attacks, and half of all the attacks in the country were directed against Indigenous communities. Impunity for crimes against defenders remains shockingly high – up to 95% of murders do not result in prosecution.

In the Philippines, the deteriorating human rights situation has received increasing international condemnation. Opposition to damaging industries is often met with violent crackdowns from the police and military. In our data, over half of the lethal attacks were directly linked to defenders’ opposition to mining, logging, and dam projects.

President Duterte’s years in office have been marked by a dramatic increase in violence against defenders. From his election in 2016 until the end of 2020, 166 land and environment defenders have been killed – a shocking increase for a country which was already a dangerous place to stand up for the environment.

Forest defenders under threat

In instances where defenders were attacked for protecting particular ecosystems, 70% were working to defend the world’s forests from deforestation and industrial development. In Brazil and Peru, nearly three quarters of recorded attacks took place in the Amazon region of each country.

Almost 30% of the attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation (logging, mining and large-scale agribusiness), and hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure. Of these, logging was the sector linked to the most murders, accounting for 23 cases. Mexico saw a large rise in logging- and deforestation-related killings, with 9 in 2020.

An unequal impact

Much like the impacts of the climate crisis itself, the impacts of violence against land and environmental defenders are not felt evenly across the world. The Global South is suffering the most immediate consequences of global warming on all fronts, and in 2020 all but one of the 227 recorded killings of defenders took place in the countries of the Global South.

The disproportionate number of attacks against Indigenous peoples continued, with over a third of all fatal attacks targeting Indigenous people – even though Indigenous communities make up only 5% of the world’s population. Indigenous peoples were also the target of 5 out of the 7 mass killings recorded in 2020.

As has been the case in previous years, in 2020 almost 9 in 10 of the victims of lethal attacks were men. At the same time, women who act and speak out also face gender-specific forms of violence, including sexual violence. Women often have a twin challenge: the public struggle to protect their land, and the less-visible struggle to defend their right to speak within their communities and families.

[Defenders are] at risk because they find themselves living on or near something that some corporation is demanding. That demand – the demand for the highest possible profit, the quickest possible timeline, the cheapest possible operation – seems to translate eventually into the understanding, somewhere, that the troublemaker must go. – Bill McKibben

Business is responsible

Many companies engage in an extractive economic model that overwhelmingly prioritises profit over human rights and the environment. This unaccountable corporate power is the underlying force that has not only driven the climate crisis to the brink, but which has continued to perpetuate the killing of defenders.

In too many countries, rich in natural resources and climate critical biodiversity, corporations are operating with almost complete impunity. Because the balance of power is stacked in the favour of corporations, it’s rare that anyone is arrested or brought to court for killing defenders. When they are it’s usually the trigger-men – the ones holding the guns, not those who might be otherwise implicated, directly or indirectly, in the crime.

Governments must stop the violence

Governments have been all too willing to turn a blind eye and fail in providing their core mandate of upholding and protecting human rights. They are failing to protect land and environmental defenders, in many cases directly perpetrating violence against them, and in others complicit with business.

Even worse, states around the world – from the US to Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines – used the COVID pandemic to strengthen draconian measures to control citizens and close civic space.

There is a clear link between the availability of civic space and attacks against defenders – the most open and tolerant societies see very few attacks, whereas in restricted societies, attacks are much more frequent.

The majority of killings took place in states with limited civic freedoms

Data on civic freedoms via CIVICUS Monitor Open Narrowed Obstructed Repressed Closed 0 50 100 150 killings Killings in closed civic spaces are likely to be underreported about:blank

Recommendations

As the climate crisis intensifies, so too does its impact on people, including on land and environmental defenders. Meaningful climate action requires protecting defenders, and vice versa. Without significant change this situation is only likely to get worse – as more land is grabbed, and more forests are felled in the interest of short-term profits, both the climate crisis and attacks against defenders will continue to worsen.

Governments can turn the tide on the climate crisis and protect human rights by protecting civil society, and through passing legislation to hold corporations accountable for their actions and profits. Lawmakers have relied too much on corporate self-reporting and voluntary corporate mechanisms. As a result, companies continue to cause, contribute to, and benefit from human rights abuses and environmental harms, particularly across borders.

The United Nations, through its member states, must formally recognise the human right to a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment, ensure that commitments to meet the Paris Agreement integrate human rights protections, and implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

Statesmust ensure national policies protect land and environmental defenders and scrap legislation used to criminalise them, require companies to conduct human rights and environment due diligence in their global operations, and investigate and prosecute all actors involved in violence and other threats against defenders.

The European Commission is currently preparing to publish binding due diligence legislation, including an initiative on Sustainable Corporate Governance. They must ensure this initiative requires all companies doing business in the EU, including financial institutions, to identify and address human rights and environmental harms along their value chains. This legislation must include robust liability regimes and penalties to hold companies accountable for failing to do so.

Finally, companies and investors must publish and implement effective due diligence systems to identify and prevent human rights and environmental harms throughout their supply chains and operations, adopt and implement a zero-tolerance stance on reprisals and attacks on land and environmental defenders, and provide effective remedy when adverse human rights and environmental impacts and harms occur.

People sometimes ask me what I’m going to do, whether I’m going to stay here and keep my mother’s fight alive. I’m too proud of her to let it die. I know the dangers – we all know the dangers. But I’ve decided to stay. I’m going to join the fight. – Malungelo Xhakaza, daughter of murdered South African activist Fikile Ntshangase

Defenders are our last line of defence against climate breakdown. We can take heart from the fact that, even after decades of violence, people continue to stand up for their land and for our planet. In every story of defiance against corporate theft and land grabbing, against deadly pollution and against environmental disaster, is hope that we can turn the tide on this crisis and learn to live in harmony with the natural world. Until we do, the violence will continue.

Those murdered included South African Fikile Ntshangase, 65, who was involved in a legal dispute over the extension of an opencast mine operated by Tendele Coal near Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province. She was shot dead in her own living room. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/fikile-ntshangase/

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-58508001

Download the full report : Last line of defence (low resolution) (2.3 MB), pdf

Download the full report : Last line of defence (high resolution) (18.1 MB), pdf

Goldman Prize laureates express concern about colleague Alberto Curamil in Chile

July 3, 2021
Alberto Curamil. (Vicente Franco/Water For Life)

In the Washington Post of 1 July 2021, Craig Williams and Alfred Brownell (winners of the Goldman Prize in 2006 and 2019 respectively) wrote: He has worked to protect the Earth. Now we must protect him.”

As environmental activists and human rights defenders, we are alarmed by a spike in violent attacks on and killings of land rights activists across the globe and, most recently, in Latin America. The latest in this disturbing trend is a violent assault on Alberto Curamil, a leader of the Indigenous Mapuche people in southern Chile and an activist working to protect his people’s land, water and other resources. As we write, we fear Alberto could become the latest casualty in a global war against Earth’s front-line protectors. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/4f845ff0-86d2-4b12-97af-1590f6ba8602]

On April 29, Alberto was attending a protest along with his son andnephew, both teenagers. They were there to show support for Elena Paine, another Mapuche leader, and her community a day after her house and crops in Koyam Montre were burned to the ground. Alberto, Paine and members of the Machupe community believe that the threat may have come from far-right-wing groups in the area.

As Alberto and his teenage relatives were driving away from the protest, the back window of their truck was shattered by a tear-gas canister. When they got out of the vehicle, police shot Alberto at point-blank range three times with buckshot, which lodged in his back, side, arm and the back of his leg. Then, police beat the teens with batons while yelling “Pinche Mapuche” (“Lousy Mapuche”). The three were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct at a public event and breach of sanitary provisions. Alberto was taken to a hospital three hours after being brought into custody, bleeding and in excruciating pain. The teens were bruised, battered and traumatized.

This was not the first time Alberto had been a target of the Chilean government. In 2018, he was arrested and jailed for 15 months on false charges of armed robbery based entirely on hearsay evidence. He was acquitted of all charges and released in December 2019. Due to his imprisonment, he had been unable to receive the Goldman Prize — known as the “green Nobel” — at ceremonies in April and May 2019 in D.C. and San Francisco. He was previously arrested after being violently beaten by police in 2014.

Our alarm has led us, along with several dozen of our fellow Goldman Prize winners from across the globe, to demand assurances from Chilean President Sebastián Piñera that Alberto’s safety will be given the highest priority. We are also seeking support through appeals to the U.S. Congress, the European Union and the United Nations.

We believe time is of the essence, especially given the broader context of violence against those who stand up to protect the Earth. In 2016, the internationally celebrated Honduran Indigenous activist and Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres was murdered by operatives for the power company Desarrollos Energéticos (Desa) for her opposition to a hydroelectric project on the Rio Gualcarque. Seven men accused of plotting Cáceres’s murder were convicted and sentenced to between 30 and 50 years in prison. An eighth suspect, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, president and chief executive of Desa, is currently on trial, accused of masterminding the murder-conspiracy plot.

In its latest report, Global Witness recorded the highest number of environmental defenders killed in a single year — more than 212 people killed in 2019, a rate of four a week. More than two-thirds of the killings took place in Latin America. [see also: Global]

The killings of and assaults on Earth’s defenders worldwide have accelerated in some of the most fragile pristine landscapes and biodiverse countries, jeopardizing the fight against climate change and species extinction. In Mexico, police are investigating the suspicious killings of two employees at a butterfly reserve in 2020. That same month, six members of an Indigenous community were killed at a nature reserve in Nicaragua. And in South Africa, environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase was killed last year in an attack local activists fear was related to her opposition to disruptive local mining operations.

In Chile, Indigenous communities’ push for human rights go hand in hand with their struggle for land and water rights, as government-backed companies try to run them off their land with threats, harassment and violence.

Attacks on environmental defenders in Latin America and worldwide are not only an affront to human rights, but also a cause for deep alarm at a time when the world must fight climate change and bring about a sustainable future. We are demanding that the Chilean government take immediate steps to stop these aggressive and often deadly attacks on the Mapuche community. There should also be a thorough, independent investigation into the destruction of Paine’s home.

We must act against this brutality, or we threaten the fight for a planet in crisis.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/01/alberto-curamil-chile-environmental-defender-safety/

The winners of the 2021 “Green Nobel” Goldman Environmental Prize

June 25, 2021

The Goldman Environmental Prize, the “green Nobel Prize”, is awarded annually to activists fighting for the well-being of the planet. They’re often called “heroes”. But, foremost, they’re people. Common folk just like us. They don’t have superpowers or wear capes. And that’s what makes them so special. They’re the activists that are celebrated yearly by the Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the “green Nobel Prize” [for more on this award and its laureates, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/928A7FD2-4E3D-400E-BCE9-488658DA3BAF]

Goldman environmental prize

The winners of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize

Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, Malawi, Africa

Concerned about the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution in the southeast African state of Malawi, Gloria Majiga-Kamoto decided to fight against this industry by campaigning to stop the production of thin plastics, a type of single-use polymer. Thanks to her campaign a national ban was adopted in 2019. This is the first time a person from Malawi wins the Goldman Prize.

Goldman environmental prize
Gloria Majiga-Kamoto showing plastic under a bridge over the Mudi River © Goldman Environmental Prize

Thai Van Nguyen, Vietnam, Asia

Thai Van Nguyen is the founder of the NGO Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, responsible for saving 1,540 pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade between 2014 and 2020. Nguyen also instituted the first Vietnamese anti-poaching unit. Since 2018, it has destroyed 9,701 animal traps, torn down 775 illegal camps, confiscated 78 guns and brought to the arrest of 558 poachers, leading to a significant reduction in illegal activities in Pu Mat National Park.

Goldman environmental prize Thai Van Nguyen
Thai Van Nguyen with a three-month-old pangolin in a rehabilitation centre © Goldman Environmental Prize

Maida Bilal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe

Together with the women in her village, Maida Bilal mounted a 503-days-long protest to stop the construction of two new dams on the Kruščica River in December 2018. The Balkans are home to Europe’s last wild rivers, but demand for hydroelectric power is threatening these precious ecosystems. This marks the first time that a person from Bosnia and Herzegovina receives the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Goldman environmental prize Maida Bilal
Maida Bilal and her supporters on the bridge where they stopped construction of the dams from going ahead © Goldman Environmental Prize

Kimiko Hirata, Japan, islands and island nations

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan began relying on coal-based rather than nuclear energy. Kimiko Hirata’s decade-long campaign has stopped 13 new coal power plants from being built throughout the country. These would have released over 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 over their lifetimes. Therefore, Hirata’s efforts have avoided emissions equivalent to those of 7.5 million cars a year, for forty years.

Goldman environmental prize Kimiko Hirata
Kimiko Hirata in Tokyo, the capital of Japan © Goldman Environmental Prize

Sharon Lavigne, Unites States, North America

In September 2019, Sharon Lavigne, a special education teacher and climate justice advocate, succeeded in stopping the construction of an enormous plastic production plant in Mississippi, in the state of Louisiana. Lavigne mounted an opposition campaign, raised awareness in her community and organised peaceful protests to protect the right of her fellow citizens, especially African-Americans. The plant would have led to the release of huge amounts of toxic waste in an area where pollution is already destroying many lives.

Sharon Lavigne, Goldman Environmental Prize
Sharon Lavigne in the Buena Vista cemetery, where graves of African-American slaves are found © Goldman Environmental Prize

Liz Chicaje Churay, Peru, South and Central America

Thanks to Liz Chicaje Churay and her supporters, in January 2018 the Peruvian government created Yaguas National Park, which protects 800,000 hectares of the Amazon rainforest. The park is key to conserving local biodiversity as well as safeguarding thousands of unique species, carbon-rich peatlands and protecting indigenous peoples.

Liz Chicaje Churay
Liz Chicaje Churay on the Ampiyacu River © Goldman Environmental Prize

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/13/winners-of-the-2019-goldman-environmental-prize/

https://www.lifegate.com/goldman-environmental-prize-2021-winners

Continued harassment of Mother Nature defenders in Cambodia

June 22, 2021

The Cambodian government should immediately drop baseless conspiracy and “insulting the king” charges against four environmental activists affiliated with the Mother Nature Cambodia environmental group and release the three in pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 16, 2021, the police arrested Sun Ratha, 26, Ly Chandaravuth, 22, and Seth Chhivlimeng, 25, in Phnom Penh, and Yim Leanghy, 32, in Kandal province, apparently for their documentation that raw sewage has entered the Tonle Sap River near the Royal Palace. On June 20, the court charged Ratha and Leanghy with “conspiracy” and lese majeste (“insulting the king”) under articles 453 and 437 bis of Cambodia’s penal code, and Chandaravuth with “conspiracy.” If convicted, they face between 5 and 10 years in prison, and fines of up to 10 million riels (US$2,500). The authorities also charged in absentia aSpanish national, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, who had been deported in 2015. Chhivlimeng was released without charge.

The Cambodian government has stepped up its campaign to silence activists peacefully advocating to protect the environment,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Foreign governments, the United Nations country team, and international donors should call on the Cambodian authorities to drop their absurd charges against the environmental activists and publicly condemn any further clampdown on peaceful activism.”

An Interior Ministry spokesperson alleged that the authorities had proof that “rebellious” Mother Nature Cambodia had used foreign funding to try to topple the government, but did not make any evidence public.

This case followed earlier harassment of five Mother Nature Cambodia activists. On May 5, the Phnom Penh court convicted three environmental activists – Long Kunthea, 22, Phuon Keoraksmey, 19, and Thun Ratha, 29 – of “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order,” articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code. The judge sentenced them to between 18 and 20 months in prison as well as a fine of 4 million riels ($1,000) for their peaceful activism protesting the authorities’ filling-in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tamok lake.

All three activists had been arrested in September 2020 and spent almost eight months in pretrial detention. Gonzalez-Davidson and Chea Kunthin, another activist, were also convicted in absentia and sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/09/cambodia-arbitrary-arrest-of-mother-nature-activists/]

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Cambodian authorities have stepped up their crackdown on youth and environmental activists engaged in peaceful activism and protest. The government has often used draconian new laws to arrest and prosecute activists in an apparent attempt to silence their voices and shut down their activism.

In March 2020 and early 2021, the authorities arrested environmental activists affiliated with the Prey Lang Community Network along with a prominent environmentalist and lawyer, Ouch Leng, to stop their efforts to document illegal logging and deforestation within the Prey Lang forest.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of nearly 70 current political prisoners, including members of the political opposition, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists who are awaiting trial or are serving prison sentences. Many other activists have fled Cambodia to seek refuge abroad.

Because of the higher risks of getting Covid-19 in prison, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly appealed to the Cambodian authorities to conditionally release pretrial detainees not held for violent offenses. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and civil society groups have often criticized the government’s routine use of pretrial detention.

“Cambodia’s highly politicized courts mean that the environmental activists charged have no chance of getting a fair trial,” Robertson said. “Only international pressure on the Cambodian government holds out the possibility of saving these activists from unjust prison sentences.”

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/23/cambodia-free-environmental-activists

https://www.jurist.org/news/2021/06/cambodia-court-charges-environmental-activists-with-conspiracy-insulting-king/

https://www.fidh.org/en/issues/human-rights-defenders/cambodia-arbitrary-detention-and-judicial-harassment-of-mother-nature

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/06/cambodia-assault-on-environmental-defenders-escalates-as-four-more-charged-imprisonment/ 

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/