Posts Tagged ‘land rights defender’

Profile of Alfred Brownell, Liberian human rights defender for more than 20 years

May 20, 2019

Under the title “This Liberian lawyer has withstood presidents, multinationals and militias” Front Page Africa on Line published on 3 May 2019 an extensive profile of Alfred Brownell.

Twenty-two years ago Alfred Brownell could see a problem. The government of his country, Liberia, was awarding contracts for the exploitation of natural resources without consulting local communities; forest and mineral resources were being taken away with no questions asked. “It was at a time when a very notorious company called OTC and many other companies were cutting down the forest for timber and no benefit was going back to the people,” Brownell says.

Then a law student in the capital, Monrovia, Brownell challenged President Charles Taylor and his government on the operations of OTC – the Oriental Timber Company. The company was later found to be involved in arms smuggling, Taylor is in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity – and Alfred Brownell has just been awarded the African Goldman Environmental Prize for 2019 at a ceremony in San Francisco. see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/13/winners-of-the-2019-goldman-environmental-prize/]. Brownell’s organisation, Green Advocates, has become a household name in Liberia as a champion of customary rights to land and natural resources for indigenous communities. He is helping thousands of people around the country to fight multinational companies and regain their rights.

Sowing seeds

In 2003 when the war to oust Taylor was raging in Monrovia, Brownell had just graduated with a degree in Environmental Law from Tulane Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana, the previous year. Green Advocates was still an idea and Brownell had no money – only a vision.. The Fund for Global Human Rights gave Green Advocates its first seed money in 2003 of $10,000 after Brownell returned to Liberia following the ouster of Taylor and Green Advocates began operations from a tiny office in Monrovia. “We did not have a bank account; we were not a formal organisation,” recalls Brownell.

“The Fund for Global Human Rights had a lot of confidence in me. They awarded me the grant even without a formal structure in place.” John Kabia works for The Fund for Global Human Rights as programme officer for thematic initiatives. He has worked closely with Green Advocates over the years and says that the lack of a track record meant that the Fund was taking a risk, but it was a risk worth taking. “We feel at the Fund that our very reason for being is taking those smart risks, because that is the only way you can identify and support new and emerging actors and new ideas,” he says.

He says it is convenient for international donor organisations to support groups they already know. The threshold for approving support is set very high, making it difficult for small and emerging groups like Green Advocates to gain recognition and support to advance their work. However, seed funding can provide an organisation the necessary credibility and opportunities it needs to attract support from other funders and partners. “Often times if people are given the opportunity and investment to turn their ideas into reality, you’d be amazed by what they can do. I think the example is Alfred and Green Advocates,” he says. “Seeing how Alfred and the communities have mobilised and successfully pushed for major policy and legal reform is impressive. I think that type of smart risk-taking is what many other donors and development partners should be taking on.”

But for such risks to be sustainable, Kabia noted that it is critical for seed funding not to be a one-off, short-term support. “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “Long-term and capacity-building support needs to accompany an initial seed grant in order for promising organisations to thrive and reach their full potential.”

Big concessions, big government

Back in 2003, Liberia was just emerging from conflict and Brownell knew that the country lacked expertise on land and natural resources governance.

“It was sad to see a country with a natural-resource-endowed economy [where] its lawyers were not learning anything about natural resources or environmental laws,” says Brownell. “I said we have to use the law to help our people.”

“When I graduated, we worked to set up Green Advocates to provide support to the poor, marginalised, vulnerable, who had no voice. To focus our effort on creating policies to protect people through advocacy and campaigning for regulations.”

In 2005, Brownell partnered with over a dozen other local organisations and took on the transitional government of Liberia headed by the late Charles Gyude Bryant. It was the first post-war challenge to the government of Liberia by rights groups. The government had awarded contracts to a Chinese company for the shipment of iron ore from the port of Buchanan against the wishes of the citizens. A subpoena was issued by the Supreme Court of Liberia to stop it, but the government defied the court and shipped the ore anyway.

After successfully challenging a government contract to ship iron ore from the port of Buchanan against the wishes of local people, Brownell and Green Advocates began to expand their work. Both the government and the companies that profited from concessions to exploit Liberia’s natural resources began to see them as a threat. Green Advocates was involved in massive public sensitisation about land rights across the country, and started taking on companies as huge as the US tyre and rubber multinational Firestone, the Malaysian palm oil giant Sime Darby and Golden Agri-Resources, the world’s largest oil palm conglomerate – not to mention the government of Liberia itself.

One of the biggest cases involved Firestone, Liberia’s largest and oldest rubber concession-holder. For 75 years it had dumped all its waste into the Farmington River in the community of Owens Grove. That blatantly violated Liberian laws prohibiting the discharge of waste into the water system. Green Advocates filed complaints that led Firestone to create a waste treatment facility after almost a century of operations. The organisation also partnered with other rights groups in a US lawsuit that accused Firestone of using child labour. After six years of litigation Firestone won that case, but significantly the judge ruled that companies can be sued in the US for human rights abuses outside the country. In addition, Firestone was forced to introduce reforms that addressed the root causes of child labour in its plantation. This included reducing the quotas for workers, to prevent them having to bring their children to work, and building more schools within its concession area.

Doing it for the people

By this time Brownell was at odds with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had become president in 2006. As Africa’s first elected female head of state she had won admirers around the world; in 2011 she shared the Nobel Peace Prize. But her international eulogists turned a blind eye to some dubious actions at home: by 2010 her government had awarded massive amounts of land to agriculture companies through a ‘backdoor’ scheme, despite agreeing to landmark land reform.

“You’re talking about 300,000 hectares of forest land without consulting the people” says Brownell. “There was no mapping or surveying to know where the land was, who grew what on the land or what the cultural impact was on the people.”

Brownell says that Green Advocates’ first grant from the Fund for Global Human Rights, and the organisation’s ongoing support over 16 years, has given other funders confidence to provide revenue that has supported other projects. For instance, Green Advocates has also gone on to establish the Alliance for Rural Democracy and the Natural Resources Women Platform, and was key to the formation of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resource Rights and Governance Platform, which now covers eight west African countries.

The fight gets real

As Brownell was fighting to help communities understand their rights to the land and push companies to reform and make policies that would benefit the local population in the concession areas, he also faced a battle of his own. A battle for personal safety.

Brownell and his staff came near death on several occasions while on their many trips in rural areas. On one occasion, in Tarjuwon, Sinoe County, people had complained that Golden Veroleum Liberia had decided to construct an oil mill on a site that was used for annual religious worship. They resisted and Green Advocates was called in to help. Brownell and his colleagues went to Sinoe to see what was happening. On their way to the area, the team came under attack from militia that Brownell believes were working for the company.

The men, dressed in company security uniforms, had set up a roadblock. They were ex-combatants armed with machetes and sticks, according to Brownell. Brownell and his colleagues resigned themselves to death – until the intervention of the town chief.

“I had given up and was just praying to God. I had no idea how we were going to get out of there because we were completely surrounded by these men,” he says.

“We knew that the attack against us in Tarjuwon was not just the company. We think the government was also very complicit in those attacks to try to eliminate us,” he says. Brownell says the Liberian government has been behind several attacks, and felt his organisation was standing in the way of its development objectives. The government did not take kindly to Green Advocates trying to enlighten people on their right to the land and natural resources.

Francis Colee is head of programmes at Green Advocates and has worked on several court cases on land rights issues brought against the Liberian government. He says the government sometimes brands the organisation as anti-development, but its focus is to ensure good investment that protects the rights of people and not alter their livelihood.

“We have argued that it is good that we have investment, but we have also argued that we need to ensure a delicate balance between the protection of human rights, the environment and the investment,” says Colee.

“In most cases, what we have seen is that the project-targeted communities end up becoming worse off than they were before the coming of the investment.”

In 2016, the government accused Brownell of refusing to help give testimony in the trial of the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven, the former head of the Oriental Timber Corporation – Brownell’s first case. The Green Advocates office in Monrovia was raided and ransacked by plain-clothes police officers. Some of the staff were arrested. The police even went to his home and arrested his uncle when Brownell himself could not be found.

“It was a ploy to get me. They use the criminal justice system to threaten people,” he says.

“They made Liberia very unsafe for me when they started threatening me and so I was forced to flee with my family to come [to the US]. President Sirleaf has directly threatened me, in my face, ‘I will charge you with sedition’.”

In a strongly worded letter to the president of Liberia, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemned the attacks on Brownell, and through the support of the Fund for Global Human Rights and other groups he fled the country with his wife and children. He now serves as an associate research professor at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. Green Advocates’ work in Liberia continues, even with Brownell in the US, through support from a team of dedicated local activists and Green Advocates staff.

Land rights at last

Despite the challenges, Green Advocates has helped ensure Liberia passed sweeping land reform legislation in 2018. Local communities now have the exclusive right to possess and use land for different purposes, and to lease it.

But there is still a long way to go in terms of actual impact on land rights despite these reforms, says Simpson Snoh, who represents the Alliance for Rural Democracy, a Liberian non-governmental body working closely with Green Advocates. Green Advocates is in the process of taking the message to the people, and helping to translate laws into action.

“After years of securing rights for its community partners,” says Brownell, “Green Advocates is currently exploring options for translating these rights into economic opportunities to address not just the bread-and-butter issues these communities face, but a business and development model that can co-exist with nature.”

Snoh says that with funding, local organisations can move quickly to help communities that are facing serious human rights abuses from multinational companies and governments. This is because community-based groups best understand the needs of the communities more and what the issues are.

Brownell echoes Snoh’s sentiments. He believes that international funders should be able to bet their money on local organisations like Green Advocates, just as The Fund for Global Human Rights did when the organisation was still just an idea. He feels Green Advocates has been able to enlighten the people on their basic human right – the right to own land.

“The government’s perception that there was free land or open spaces where they could give concessions to companies was a complete false assumption. All these years the government had lied,” he says.

“The future of Liberia is never ever going to be with massive foreign investment through transnational corporations coming to Liberia. Liberia’s future comes from its own people.”

This article is part of an editorial partnership with the Fund for Global Human Rights.

This Liberian lawyer has withstood presidents, multinationals and militias

 

Profile of Putla: a 75-year-old indigenous rights defender in Cambodia

May 16, 2019

….if you drive two and a half hours West of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, you reach a community consisting of five small villages with a total population of around 1,350 people. They are the last members of the indigenous Souy people, who until recently, lived peacefully on their ancestral land. This is where the indigenous rights defender Putla has lived most of her life – except when she was forced to move away by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

Today, she is a 75-year-old woman whose skin has been tainted by the sun and from a hard life. She is a tiny woman, not more than 150 centimeters tall, and often dresses in the Souy people’s traditional black cloth. Putla is a woman who looks fragile at first sight – but this impression only lasts until she starts to speak, or until you look into her eyes. She has a strong and crisp voice, and her eyes reflect the hardships that she has endured in her life. She is a very warm woman who often finishes her tirades with heartfelt laughter. Read the rest of this entry »

Report “Indigenous World 2019” launched on 24 April in NY

April 24, 2019

On 24 April 2019, at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, IWGIA released The Indigenous World 2019, an extensive yearbook presenting a comprehensive, global overview of the developments indigenous peoples experience. The book documents an increasing trend towards the harassment and criminalization of indigenous peoples and communities. It also highlights the rising tensions between states and indigenous peoples, shrinking civil society space, loss of land rights and lack of access to justice for indigenous peoples to enjoy their rights.

“Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population, yet they represent 15% of the world’s poorest, and in 2017, half of the approximately 400 environmental and human rights defenders killed. The numbers for 2018 are as-yet-unknown, but this troubling trend hasn’t seemed to stop,” Julie Koch, IWGIA Executive Director, says. “We need to do more to protect, learn from and support indigenous peoples and their traditional, sustainable practices as key actors in ensuring a safer and more equitable world.”

In 2018, there has been an increase in the documentation and reporting of illegal surveillance, arbitrary arrests, travel bans preventing free movement, threats, dispossession and killings of indigenous peoples. We have witnessed instruments meant to protect indigenous peoples being turned against them, through the use of legislation and the justice system, to penalize and criminalize indigenous peoples’ assertion of their rights. [see e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/08/08/9-august-international-day-of-the-worlds-indigenous-peoples-un-experts-see-increasing-murder/]

The intensification and exploitation of natural resources is leading to a global crisis for indigenous peoples’ rights,” Koch says. Many indigenous peoples live in the Earth’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots and are often called the “guardians of the forest”. Several studies have shown that tree cover loss is significantly reduced on indigenous land compared to non-indigenous controlled land.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/07/15/documenting-the-killings-of-environmental-defenders-guardian-and-global-witness/

Tensions are rising between states and indigenous peoples

What ‘Jokowi 2.0’ means for human rights in Indonesia

April 21, 2019

In anticipation of the final result of the Indonesian presidential election on 22 May, which seems to have been won by sitting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (now with a senior Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his vice president), Asmin Fransiska, Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, and Lailatul Fitriyah give in EconoTimes of 21 April 2019 their views on what that means for human rights:

Asmin Fransiska, Lecturer in Human Rights Law, Universitas Katolik Indonesia Atma Jaya

In 2014, Jokowi won the presidential election by promising to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. For four and a half years the Jokowi government failed to keep this promise. Jokowi should use his second victory to keep his promises.Indonesia’s 2017 Universal Periodic Review by the UN , shows that the government must address a number of human rights issues, for example, violence carried out by security forces, especially in remote areas, such as Papua, and cases of torture, and violence against women, children and minority groups.

…..As a first step, Jokowi and his new vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, must evaluate the Attorney General’s performance who for four years failed to bring human rights criminals to justice as recommended by the National Human Rights Commission….

Jokowi needs to balance the priorities of infrastructure development with environmental protection and corruption eradication. These two things are a prerequisite for development that values human rights. Indicators of human rights-friendly development include environmental preservation, protection of indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities, and high public participation in the development process from the beginning to the end.

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Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, PhD Candidate in Politics, University of Melbourne, Lecturer in Sociology, Universitas Negeri Jakarta

In my opinion not much will change in terms of civil liberties protection in Jokowi’s second term if the constellation of power supporting the Jokowi government remains the same. …..The existence of retired generals allegedly involved in human rights violations as well as those connected with mining companies in Jokowi’s circle of power will hinder efforts to resolve not only past atrocities but also agrarian conflicts. The number of land conflict victims from agriculture, mining and infrastructure development activities will likely increase. State repression and civilian violence against discussions, film screenings and meetings that criticise the business relationships of people around Jokowi as well as those advocating for the interests of marginalised groups will continue.

Meanwhile, civil society efforts to prevent the military from intervening in civilian matters will continue to face challenges. The case of Robertus Robet, an activist and academic who was recently arrested during a rally for singing a song that criticised the military, for example, is likely to be left unresolved but will serve as a warning. The use of identity politics will still be dominant given that the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and Gerindra seemed to gain significant votes and will remain in opposition. Moreover, they also have strong candidates, such as current Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, Sandiaga Uno or other PKS officials for the 2024 presidential election. The two parties will likely continue using religious identity narratives that will reproduce and sharpen polarisation in society to consolidate their power. As before, Jokowi’s camp will also respond to the attacks using similar narratives, with minority groups taking the brunt.

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Lailatul Fitriyah, PhD Candidate in Theology, University of Notre Dame

……..In other words, in the context of human rights, voters choose Jokowi on the principle of ‘the best of the worst’. Jokowi was elected because he did not have any record of human rights abuse, that’s all. Another aspect of Jokowi 2.0 era, which human rights activists will closely monitor, is his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin. Ma’ruf Amin’s popularity does not come from his commitment to inclusiveness, but his traditional support base as the senior cleric of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation. In the long term, Ma’ruf Amin must serve not only his Muslim base, but also other segments of Indonesian society, especially those from marginal groups.

Ma’ruf should change his perspective. In his role as an Islamic scholar, he has alienated minority groups, including, Syi’ah, Ahmadiyah and LGBTIQ. As Vice President, Ma’ruf must act as a public official with the obligation to protect the rights of all Indonesian people, irrespective of race, ethnicity, sexuality or religion/non-religion. For Jokowi’s second term, the sacrificing of minority rights to gain popular votes will no longer be acceptable. Jokowi should protect minority groups who, although they had lived within the structure of systemic violence under his first term, have shown they still trusted him for a second term in office.

See also my recent: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/16/82-year-old-father-magnis-in-indonesia-tough-words-for-a-good-purpose/

https://www.econotimes.com/Jokowi-wins-Indonesias-election-polls-indicate–what-does-that-mean-for-human-rights-1527148

Important legal victory for land rights defenders in UK Court

April 11, 2019

Vedanta building in India
Image copyright VEDANTA

On 10 April 2019, BBC and others reported on a landmark judgement in the UK that could have big implications for others cases in which human rights defenders seek compensation from multinationals. Nearly 2,000 Zambian villagers have won the right to sue mining giant Vedanta over alleged pollution, the UK Supreme Court has ruled. The landmark judgement means other communities in developing countries could seek similar redress in the UK.

Zambian villagers have been fighting for the right to seek compensation in British courts for several years. Vedanta had argued that the case should be heard in Zambia. The UK Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the case must proceed in the UK, due to “the problem of access to justice” in Zambia. The case relates to allegations by villagers living near the huge Nchanga Copper mine, owned by Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), a subsidiary of UK-based Vedanta. Vedanta said: “The judgment of the UK Supreme Court is a procedural one and relates only to the jurisdiction of the English court to hear these claims. It is not a judgment on the merits of the claims.

Martyn Day, senior partner at law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the Zambian villagers, said: “I hope this judgment will send a strong message to other large multinationals that their CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility]. policies should not just be seen as a polish for their reputation but as important commitments that they must put into action.

[In 2015, Zambian villagers accused Vedanta of poisoning their water sources and destroying farmland. Leaked documents seen by the BBC appeared to show that KCM had been spilling sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals into the water sources. …In India’s Tamil Nadu state, a Vedanta-owned copper smelting plant was closed by authorities in May 2018.]

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/03/23/human-rights-council-recognises-vital-role-of-environmental-human-rights-defenders/

‘Belgrade Call” presses governments to protect rural human rights defenders

April 9, 2019

On 9 April 2019 the International coalition: ‘Belgrade Call to Action’ urges governments to address rural repression”

The “Belgrade Call to Action” presses governments and members states of the United Nations to act upon the deteriorating conditions for civil society and the growing human rights violations targeting human rights defenders in the context of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda. The Civil Society Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE), CIVICUS, Action for Sustainable Development, Civic Initiatives and the Balkan Civil Society Development Network initiated the launching of the action agenda on 8 April 2019, while civil society organizations worldwide are gathered in Belgrade, Serbia for the 2019 International Civil Society Week.

The People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) finds the Belgrade Call to Action timely and relevant especially to land rights defenders including farmers and Indigenous Peoples groups who brave repression for their opposition to state-sponsored and corporate-backed development ‘aggression’ projects.

According to Sylvia Mallari, global co-chairperson of PCFS, the Belgrade Call to Action lays down practical measures for UN member states and international organizations to address the shrinking space of and foster an enabling environment for civil society organizations and human rights defenders, which would significantly advance the Agenda 2030 and its SDGs.

We hope that the Belgrade Call to Action will push the governments of these countries to undertake appropriate measures that will put an end to the phenomenon of peasant killings and promote genuine agrarian reform to uplift farmers from their dire conditions,” Mallari stressed.

………

We hope that through the Belgrade Call to Action, rural repression will end and land conflicts will be addressed. We appeal to the member states of the UN and the international community to support and adhere to the Belgrade Call to Action,” Mallari said.

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO1904/S00064/belgrade-call-to-action-to-govts-on-rural-repression.htm

Human Rights Council recognises vital role of environmental human rights defenders

March 23, 2019

The ISHR reports that on 21 March 2019 the UN Human Rights Council has adopted a strong consensus resolution recognising the critical role of environmental human rights defenders in protecting vital ecosystems, addressing climate change, attaining the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and ensuring that no-one is left behind. [See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/09/front-line-defenders-says-record-number-of-activists-killed-in-2018/].

The resolution meets many of the civil society demands ISHR expressed in a joint letter along with more than 180 groups (see reference below). By formally acknowledging the important role of environmental human rights defenders, the Council highlights the legitimacy of their work, helps counter stigmatisation and can contribute to expanding their operating space. Though the resolution falls short in some key areas, its adoption by consensus is a positive step towards better protection of environmental human rights defenders. It must now be followed by implementation at the national level by all relevant stakeholders, including States, UN agencies, businesses and development finance institutions….

The resolution was led and presented by Norway, on behalf of 60 States from all regions. In particular, many Latin American States strongly supported the resolution, which is significant given the dangerous situation for defenders in many of those countries. The consensus on the protection of environmental human rights defenders is a welcome sign of unity by the international community in recognising their vital contribution to a biodiverse and healthy environment, to peace and security, and to human rights.

We now look to States, business enterprises and development finance institutions to take rapid and decisive steps to address the global crisis facing environmental human rights defenders’, said Michael Ineichen, Programme Director at the International Service for Human Rights. ‘This means States need to create protection mechanisms which guarantee the security of defenders. States must also ensure that businesses put in place specific policies and processes allowing for the inclusion of human rights defenders and their concerns in due diligence processes’, Ineichen said.   

Key points of the resolution:

  • Expresses alarm at increasing violations against environmental defenders, including killings, gender-based violence, threats, harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, criminalisation, judicial harassment, forced eviction and displacement. It acknowledges that violations are also committed against defenders’ families, communities, associates and lawyers;
  • Recognises that the protection of human rights defenders can only be achieved through an approach which promotes and celebrates their work. It also calls for root causes of violations to be addressed by strengthening democratic institutions, combating impunity and reducing economic inequalities;
  • Pays particular attention to women human rights defenders, by stressing the intersectional nature of violations and abuses against them and against indigenous peoples, children, persons belonging to minorities, and rural and marginalised communities;
  • Urges States to adopt laws guaranteeing the protection of defenders, put in place holistic protection measures for and in consultation with defenders, and ensure investigation and accountability for threats and attacks against environmental human rights defenders; and
  • Calls on businesses to carry out human rights due diligence and to hold meaningful and inclusive consultations with defenders, potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders.

While the resolution was adopted by consensus, the unity came at the price of a lack of specificity in certain areas. For instance, the resolution does not clearly recognise all of the root causes of the insecurity facing environmental human rights defenders, as documented by UN experts, nor comprehensively name the perpetrators or the most dangerous industries. It also fails to clearly spell out the human rights obligations of development finance institutions, and to detail the corresponding necessary steps to consult, respect and protect the work of environmental human rights defenders. 

https://www.ishr.ch/news/hrc40-council-unanimously-recognises-vital-role-environmental-human-rights-defenders

https://www.ishr.ch/news/hrc40-states-should-defend-environmental-human-rights-defenders

The UN Environmental Rights Initiative interviews Donald Hernández Palma

February 26, 2019

On 26 February 2019 the UN Environmental Rights Initiative (launched in Geneva last year during the UN Human Rights Council). The aim is to ensure that human rights defenders can carry out their activism safely, defend their local environments and the planet. 

However, alarming statistics on killings have been reported over the past few years—especially regarding the targeting of indigenous groups. Latin America has seen the highest number of murders in recent years, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the global total in 2016. In Honduras, 128 defenders are estimated to have been murdered since 2010—the world’s worst rate. UN Environment reached out to Donald Hernández Palma, a Honduran lawyer and human rights defender, for his take on the situation facing environmental and human rights defenders. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2014/11/28/peace-brigades-international-officially-launches-its-country-chapter-in-ireland/ ]

Donald specializes in criminal and environmental law, with a particular focus on mining. He is a member of the Latin American Lawyers’ Network, which works against the negative impacts of transnational extractive companies in Latin America. Since 2010, Donald has worked for the Honduran Centre for the Promotion of Community Development as coordinator of its legal department. He is also the coordinator of the Human Rights and Environmental Department.

Could you tell us a little about yourself, where you come from and how you became part of the environmental advocacy movement?

I am the son of peasant parents who cultivated coffee. I grew up in a remote village in Honduras. I studied in a school that only went up to sixth grade and had to walk almost 20 kilometres a day to go to class. Later, I studied agronomy, a profession I practiced for more than 10 years, in direct contact with peasant families across Honduras. I have directly witnessed the serious subsistence difficulties faced by my countrymen far from government aid.

Since graduating in criminal law in 2007, have been working on environmental protection issues in rural communities. In 2010, I began my work at the Honduran Centre for the Promotion of Community Development, allowing me to work in the defence of human rights for the same populations I had known for many years before.

What situations help explain the kinds of challenges environmental human rights defenders face in Honduras?

Different forms of political and economic corruption in Honduras have compromised – and in some cases denied – local communities’ access to natural resources. Many people have resisted mining, hydro and logging projects, and because of this resistance, have found themselves criminalized and harassed—even killed. Honduras is today considered one of the most dangerous countries for those who defend their land and territories.

What kind of resources are being exploited in your country and how is it affecting land, water, air and biodiversity?

Currently, 302 mining concessions have been approved by the Honduran Government for open-pit mining. Projects are awarded to national and international businesses on thousands of hectares of land, affecting populations that are rarely consulted. Meanwhile, rivers are being appropriated in many regions of the country to generate electricity. Projects are also often granted without consultation to business families, as a payback for favors made for political campaigns.

Also, thousands of hectares of land are being used to plant African palm, transgenic corn and sugar cane for biofuels. This is displacing traditional agriculture, and also causing displacement of populations from their territories to urban centres within and outside the country. Laws have also been passed in Congress to privatize criollo seeds, removing the right of indigenous peoples and peasant peoples to trade their seeds as they have been doing for thousands of years.

What has been done to address these problems?

Organizations like ours do permanent research on the concessions of common goods. This information is very difficult to obtain because it is hidden from the people. There is a law on access to public information that is not respected. We give this information to the affected peoples, whom we also organize and train on human rights and indigenous law, among other issues. We also carry out public protests, present unconstitutionality appeals before the Supreme Court of Justice and carry out legal defence actions when the leaders are criminalized for defending their territory.

What kind of national laws have been enacted? Do international laws help you in any way?

We have a mining law that is highly harmful to the population, a plant breeders’ law that harms people’s rights over seeds, and energy laws that facilitate the implementation of electrical projects that avoid environmental impact prevention processes. In addition, the modification of the criminal code criminalizes public protest. It is precisely international law that allows us to exercise defensive actions in favor of indigenous peoples and peasants, since Honduras has been found not to comply with the international treaties that bind the Honduran state to respect human rights defenders.

Are you working with any NGO groups? 

I am the facilitator at The National Coalition of Environmental Networks and Organizations Honduras (CONROA), a joint space that brings together more than 30 organizations.

Has the newly-signed treaty by 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries, formally called the Regional Agreement on Principle 10, provided any protection on people’s rights in Honduras

Unfortunately, the Honduran state was one of the countries in the region that did not sign this important treaty.

Have you encountered any successes, and is attention increasing on this issue on the ground? 

Unfortunately, an advocate such as Bertha Cáceres, our comrade in this struggle, had to die so that the eyes of the world could return to the terrible situation due to the contempt of the state against those who defend common goods. The visits of the rapporteurs (Michel Fort) and the rapporteur of indigenous peoples have been very important in forcing the Honduran State to respect human rights defenders.

Human Rights Defenders in Latin America under constant attack

February 20, 2019

Some 50 human rights defenders from Latin America held a meeting at the Journalists Club in Mexico City to exchange strategies and analyse the challenges they face in the most lethal region for activists. Special rapporteurs on indigenous peoples, displaced persons and freedom of expression attended the meeting. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Some 50 human rights defenders from Latin America held a meeting at the Journalists Club in Mexico City. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

We’re in a very difficult situation. There is militarisation at a regional level, and gender-based violence. We are at risk, we cannot silence that,Aura Lolita Chávez, an indigenous woman from Guatemala. (Chávez was a finalist for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2017, and winner of the Ignacio Ellacuría Prize of the Basque Agency for Development Cooperation that same year). She has received death threats and attacks that forced her to seek refuge in Spain in 2017.

Latin America, the most lethal region for human rights defenders according to different reports, especially activists involved in defending land rights and the environment. Some 50 activists from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, the United States and Uruguay participated in the International Meeting of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in Mexico City from 15-18 February under the slogan “Defending does not mean forgetting.”

Guests at the meeting were United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz from the Philippines; UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Cecilia Jiménez-Damary from the Philippines; and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza from Uruguay.

The human rights defenders identified common threats such as interference by mining and oil companies in indigenous territories, government campaigns against activists, judicial persecution, gender-based violence, and polarised societies that often fail to recognise the defence of human rights.

Evelia Bahena, an activist from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, told IPS about “the suffering and destruction” at the hands of “companies that make profits at the cost of the lives of others.”

A number of reports have focused on the plight of human rights defenders in the region. In the report “At what cost? Irresponsible Business and the Murder of Land and Environment Defenders 2017”, published in July 2018, the international organisation Global Witness stated that of the total of 201 murders of human rights defenders in the world in 2017, 60 percent happened in Latin America. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/09/global-witness-report-2018-on-environmental-defenders-bad-but-2017-was-worse/]

Brazil recorded the highest number of homicides of activists of any country, 57. In Mexico, the number was 15, five times more than the year before, while Nicaragua recorded the highest murder rate of activists relative to its population, with four killings, according to the British-based organisation.

The “Global Analysis 2018”, produced by the international organisation Front Line Defenders, also depicts a grim outlook, counting 321 human rights defenders killed in 27 countries, nine more than in 2017. Of that total, 77 percent involved defenders of the land, the environment and indigenous people. [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/09/front-line-defenders-says-record-number-of-activists-killed-in-2018/]

For Ana María Rodríguez, a representative of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, difficult conditions persist in her country, where 20 human rights activists have been murdered so far in 2019. “There are delays and non-compliance with the peace agreement,” which have contributed to the defencelessness of human rights activists, according to the lawyer.

The rapporteurs present at the meeting, on unofficial visits to Mexico, listened to the accounts given by activists and recalled that governments in the region have international obligations to respect, such as guaranteeing the rights of indigenous people, displaced persons and journalists, as well as protecting human rights defenders…In her October report on Mexico, the special rapporteur criticised the violation of rights of indigenous people, especially the right to prior consultation on energy, land or tourism projects in their territories. [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/02/16/human-rights-defenders-journalists-in-mexico-in-1919-2-killed-2-released/]

For his part, Lanza, the IACHR special rapporteur, said the recommendations of the joint report released in June 2018 with David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, should be the starting point for the measures to be adopted by the Mexican government.,,

Profile of Mexican indigenous defender Romel Rubén Gonzalez Diaz

February 17, 2019

ISHR published on 21 January 2019 this profile of Romel Rubén Gonzalez Diaz from the Indigenous and Popular Regional Council of Xpujil. This organisation works in partnership with the Cooperativa Chac Lol, in the defense of the territory, training in municipal and human collective rights, generating sustainable development alternatives (agriculture, biocultural tourism, sustainable management of natural resources). The main problem in Muna, Yucatan is the proposal to establish a solar park megaproject with 1227,000 solar panels, destroying 700 hectares of tropical forest, by the company Sunpower of the USA.