Posts Tagged ‘land rights defender’

Land rights defenders are the main target of those destroying the environment

April 24, 2020

The world has come together in the fight against a common enemy in COVID-19; a force so strong that it has knocked economies to the ground, turned our daily lives upside down and made us reflect on what really matters. Yet amidst the world’s lockdown, there are land grabbers and investors looking to take advantage of the situation. For them, there is no better time to strike than now.

This Earth Day, more than any other, it’s time to shine a spotlight on the everyday guardians of our planet, land and environment defenders, who stand at the front line to defend their land and territories from corporate or state abuse and unsustainable exploitation.  They protect lands, forests and water sources, which provide their communities with good and healthy food, shelter and medicine.

By protecting such resources for the common good, they find themselves directly in the way of others who want to profit from these natural resources. If their lives were at risk before, this global pandemic has only exasperated an already difficult situation. When a community goes into lockdown, defenders not only become easier to target, they lose their right to protection and the world’s attention and that of the media, is elsewhere.

A Miskito woman in Nicaragua. Photo: Jason Taylor/ILC.

Defending land, ecosystems, and Indigenous rights has always come with immense risks.

More than three people were murdered each week in 2019 for defending their land and environment. Countless more were attacked or threatened. Only a year ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution, recognizing the importance of environmental human rights defenders and urging States to ensure their protection. Yet, as governments call states of emergencies and enforce new containment measures, even where national protection mechanisms for defenders exist, they are rendered futile.

Even worse, lockdowns are being used by irresponsible companies to further suppress defenders and by governments to give industries a free pass.

We saw evidence of this as the first cities in Colombia went into lockdown and three social activists were killed. Marco Rivadeneira, a high-profile activist, was murdered in the southern Putumayo province, Ángel Ovidio Quintero was shot dead in the western Antioquia region, and Ivo Humberto Bracamonte was killed on the eastern border with Venezuela. These follow more than six hundred murders of social activists in Colombia since the Peace Accords were signed.

While in Indonesia, two local land defenders have been killed and four arrested in connection with land disputes in Sumatra and Borneo, as mining and palm oil operations in rural areas continue on with business as usual and activists are told to stay home.

In Brazil, the country’s environment agency is withdrawing its enforcement staff because of the risk of contracting the virus. This move coincides with a 70 percent increase in deforestation compared to 2019. Many fear that loggers and land grabbers will take advantage of the lax policing, hoping for impunity. We are observing the same trend in other countries, all over the world.

The increased vulnerability of these defenders is palpable, and what’s happening, alarming. We must ask ourselves how we can ensure and promote their safetyUN Human Rights Experts have expressed grave concern on “the rise of reports of killings and other instances of excessive use of force targeting in particular people living in vulnerable situations”.  Amnesty International has issued a series of recommendations to states in the Americas to ensure that their responses to COVID-19 are in line with their international human rights obligations.

In addition to appealing to States to maintain and reinforce their promises and protection schemes, there are some urgent steps that we need to take.

Develop an urgent real-time alert system for crisis situations to help people in danger. Where data is available, 80 percent of killings are preceded by a non-lethal attack or a threat on the affiliated group or community.  So while environmental human rights defenders receive daily death threats, usually a sign for what’s to come, who will hear their cries for help?

A group of organizations belonging to the Defending Land and Environmental Defenders Coalition – among them, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Frontline Defenders, Global Witness, the World Resources Institute and the International Land Coalition – are systematically monitoring COVID-related incidents in order to identify trends. Cases can be securely collected beginning Friday via LANDex, a global monitoring system dedicated to democratizing land data.

Particularly vulnerable are many of the world’s 320 million Indigenous peoples, whose territories are often rich in natural resources. Despite protecting more than 50% of the world’s land surface, they have formally recognized ownership over just 10%, which leaves them especially exposed. Governments and corporations should heedcalls for a moratorium on external activities in Indigenous territories without their express consent.

Beyond urgent measures, building longer-term resilience for these communities is essential so that they are not as vulnerable to increased harassment, threats, criminalization and eventually, killings. Secure land rights for local communities gives greater control over their own territories, and provides them with legal recourse when faced with harassment and attacks.

On this Earth Day, as we look forward to re-building a more sustainable world, we cannot forget those who have dedicated their entire lives – putting themselves and their families at risk – to do just that.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/01/14/front-line-defenders-global-analysis-2019-is-out-304-hrds-killed/

Land and environmental defenders are sitting ducks, while world goes into lockdown

New law in Peru may protect the police more than indigenous human rights defenders

April 5, 2020

Matias Perez Ojeda del ArcoPolice Protection Act (Law No. 31012), which was passed in Peru by the new Congress on 27 March, without approval by the Executive, 11 days after declaring a state of emergency in the country due to the spread of COVID-19. This law is constitutionaly questionable and may open the door to impunity according to the Institute of Legal Defense (IDL), the Ombudsman’s Office, the National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDDHH) of Peru, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). [The Act forbids ordering a warrant of arrest or pre-trial detention for Peruvian National Police (PNP) personnel who may injure or kill in a regulatory intervention. Its complementary provision repeals the principle of proportionality in the use of force for a police officer response, which undermines actions under a constitutional framework and is against full respect for human rights, and may create excesses and arbitrariness.]

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, as of January 2020, there were 129 socio-environmental conflicts in Peru. So how will the National Police respond to unforeseen events, even more so in a post-COVID-19 context, where indigenous people’s territories could be more vulnerable to actions to reactivate the country’s economy?  This is more relevant within the framework of the End of Mission Statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. At the beginning of this year, it identified that, despite the progress made in this area, human rights defenders, especially from indigenous peoples and local communities, are still unable to carry out their work in a safe environment.

According to the Rapporteur and a report by the Ombudsman’s Office, 960 people have been criminalised for defending and promoting human rights since 2002, of whom 538 were criminalised during social protests. Between 2011 and 2016, 87 human rights defenders lost their lives in Peru, 67% because of law enforcement, according to a CNDDHH report.

Comprehensive police protection for common interest has lost its essence. Instead, the interests of companies are gaining serious ground in Peru, i.e. 145 agreements of “Extraordinary Police Service”, between the Peruvian Police and extractive companies (mining and hydrocarbon sector), were established between 1995 and 2018, according to a report by the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples of the CNDDH. One example of this is the agreement between the hydrocarbon company PETROPERÚ S.A. and the PNP (2018) for operations in Amazonas and Loreto regions, which affects the ancestral land of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW).It is crucial that Peruvian authorities repeal said law to avoid risking the lives of human rights defenders, especially indigenous peoples who are at the forefront of threats, harassment and criminalisation when they protest due to conflicts arising in their territories. Indigenous territories are more vulnerable than ever during the current community contagion phase of COVID-19, as proper health infrastructure and equipment may not reach those areas, nor provide timely and dignified protection for them. There are companies working on indigenous territories during the State of Emergency, including the oil palm company Ocho Sur P. in the Shipibo land of Santa Clara de Uchunya. According to IDL, Ocho Sur is continuing to work without an approved Environmental Impact Assessment. When the State of Emergency is over, most companies will want to recover their losses by any means, regardless the rights of indigenous peoples. This is the moment when the State Protection rules must focus on these issues.

http://www.forestpeoples.org/en/new-law-in-peru-threatens-indigenous-human-rights-defenders

Brazil remembers Sister Dorothy Stang murdered 15 years ago

February 13, 2020

Sister Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, is pictured in a 2004 file photo in Belem, northern Brazil.  (CNS/Reuters)

12 February 2020 was the 15th anniversary of Sr. Dorothy Stang‘s assassination in the Amazon region of Brazil. The nun was 73 when she was murdered on 12 February, 2005, on an isolated road near the Brazilian town of Anapu. She had lived in the country for nearly four decades and was known as a fierce defender of a sustainable development project for the Amazon forest. The U.S.-born nun is remembered as a crusader for the poor and the landless and for her love of the land and the Amazon forest.

Lise Alves, for the Catholic News Service, wrote about her on 12 February 2020:

She taught me how to be a missionary in Brazil; she was my mentor,” Sr. Rebeca Spires told Catholic News Service. Spires, who, like Stang, is a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur, said the first thing Stang gave her was Brazil’s land statute. “She was all about doing things within the law,” said Spires.

…She said that, in the early 2000s, Stang started to pressure public officials to combat land invasions by ranchers and large landowners, who wanted to take away areas occupied by smaller farms. The officials “became extremely irritated with her, with her persistence,” Spires said. “Although threatened with death, Dorothy never failed in her life’s mission, to fight for the poor of the land, so that they had their rights guaranteed and a dignified life,” read the statement issued by the Brazilian bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission to mark Stang’s death.Mary Cohen, a lawyer in Belem and a member of the Brazilian bishops’ justice and peace commission, was president of the human rights commission at Brazil’s lawyer association when Stang was in Anapu. Cohen remembered Stang’s determination, as the nun pushed and pressured government agencies into taking action. “She once slept on the steps of the INCRA (Institute for Agrarian Reform) so they would talk to her. She had a lot of determination, and that invigorated all of us,” said the lawyer. That determination made many people in the region angry. Trying to reduce the tension between landowners and peasants and their advocates, the lawyer’s association gave Stang a human rights award two months before she was killed.

We thought that more media attention and recognition of her work would keep her safe, that they (landowners and ranchers) would be deterred. We were wrong,” said the lawyer. And although Stang’s assassination made international headlines and caused worldwide commotion, those who continue her work say the threats today to the landless and their advocates are even greater. “There are still a lot of people being threatened, and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize anyone’s life,” Sr. Jane Dwyer, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur who worked closely with the murdered nun, told CNS.

Dwyer, who still lives in Anapu, told CNS she was uneasy about giving interviews over the telephone. She said that, since 2015, 19 landless, small-scale farmers had been assassinated over land conflicts in the area. “Nineteen in the last five years,” she said. “Of the 19 assassinations, in only one did authorities bring someone to justice,” added Spires, who works with the Brazilian bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council in Belem. Cohen said those who speak out today against the rich and powerful in the region continue to be threatened. “Her successor, Father Amaro (Jose Amaro Lopes de Souza), continues to be threatened, and when they were unable to scare him off, they accused him of extortion and inciting violence among landless peasants,” she said…

“The synod document is titled ‘Querida Amazonia’ (Beloved Amazonia), which … embodies what Sister Dorothy spoke of her entire life: ‘Dear Amazon, we are here to defend you, to protect you. Dear people of the Amazon, we are here to help you in your fight, in your resistance, in the recognition of your rights.'”

Being a Woman Human Rights Defender in Thailand is risky

February 10, 2020

Thai land rights activist Waewrin Buangern, or Jo, working in the fields in Ban Haeng village. Photo: Lam Le
Thai land rights activist Waewrin Buangern, or Jo, working in the fields in Ban Haeng village. Photo: Lam Le

Growing up, cassava farmer Nittaya Muangklang did not think she would ever become an activist – let alone that she would lead a group of land rights defenders in the first-ever bid to challenge Thailand’s government and its “take back the forests” policy at the Supreme Court. “We did encroach on the national park, but as poor farmers, we should be eligible for exemption,” said Muangklang, who is fighting eviction, imprisonment and fines. Faced with what farmers and rights groups perceive as increasing judicial harassment, more women living in rural areas have joined the fight for land rights in Thailand – amid the spectre of intimidation and the threat of jail time or even being killed for their activism. The appeal court last year sentenced Muangklang and 13 other land rights defenders from Ban Sap Wai village in Thailand’s northeast to up to four years in prison, and ordered them to pay fines of between 40,000 and 1.6 million baht (between US$1,300 and US$52,000) for encroaching on and damaging land in Sai Thong National Park. The court said the farmers failed to prove they had occupied the land before the park was established in 1992. Muangklang, out on bail since last August, said her family had not applied for a land certificate when they moved to Ban Sap Wai in 1986 because they never thought it necessary until the day they faced eviction.

..Thai NGOs estimate that at least 8,000 households have been threatened with eviction since 2015. Meanwhile, Thailand’s ruling junta has in the past five years given away around 999 hectares of forest conservation land as concessions to large corporations, including cement and mining companies, according to Land Watch Thai. Muangklang’s case caught the attention of United Nations special rapporteurs, who last August expressed their concern that Thailand was misusing the forest reclamation policy. In a letter to the government, the UN said Muangklang’s prosecution “appears to be a result of her work as a community leader”, and pointed out that the eviction of the Ban Sap Wai farmers might violate their human rights. The Thai government has yet to respond to the UN’s request to justify its prosecution of the farmers. Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment did not respond to This Week in Asia’s request for comment.

Being a female advocate for land rights in Thailand is a dangerous calling. In 2012, female activists Montha Chukaew and Pranee Boonnak were brutally killed. Since 2014, 225 female human rights defenders from Thailand’s rural areas have been subjected to judicial harassment, according to NGO Protection International, which estimates that 70 per cent of these activists are land rights defenders accused of encroaching on national parks and other lands. However, their work is often overlooked and underappreciated…Even when efforts are made to enshrine women’s rights, as is the case with gender equality in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a 17-section blueprint on achieving a sustainable future by 2030 – on-the-ground implementation when it comes to female land rights defenders tends to be lacking. “There’s a challenge there because many times states are not really connecting a human rights-based approach with [the SDGs’] development approach,” said Dubravka Simonovic, UN special rapporteur on violence against women. Thai human rights activist Matcha Phorn-in, who works with marginalised communities, agrees. “When the government is the key actor, [SDGs won’t work for] many people who oppose the government because of violations of human rights,” she said, explaining that this meant a lack of indicators and data to assess how female land rights defenders were being affected….On top of this, Phorn-in fears that millions of people could be affected, now that officials involved in the forest reclamation policy have search-and-destroy powers they can use without first needing court orders.

Protection International’s Somwong explained that with the labour involved in household and family-care duties, female activists were essentially “doing double work” while also facing the risk of sexual harassment. Consequently, rights groups have been calling for gender-sensitive support for these activists. “When you’re not protecting women, you’re not protecting the family, the community, or the movement,” Somwong said. Nine of the prosecuted Ban Sap Wai farmers are women.

…..

…Waewrin Buangern, or Jo, said it was her habit of questioning authority that led her to activism. She contended that the local authorities and the Kiew Lueng Company, which oversees the project, had not been transparent with local villagers on the environmental and economic impact of the mine. As a result, she and members of the conservation group have faced more than a dozen defamation lawsuits from the mining company as well as the local government. The project was put on hold in 2015 after the group counter-sued. The company got a mining permit in 2015 but has not been able to move forward since then due to the lawsuits. Jo has paid a steep price for her perseverance. She lost her job at the local school, another job as assistant to the village chief, and suffered two miscarriages due to the stress of activism, which also took its toll on her marriage and saw her divorce her husband. At 36, Jo’s main sources of income are farming and being an administrator of a Facebook group. But she has found a different family. Of the Rak Ban Haeng Conservation Group’s 1,400 members, 70 per cent are women. …….

Early last year, Ban Haeng villagers received a note that the government was planning to annex the forest the community had been relying on as a source of livelihood, and turn it into a national park. The villagers have submitted a letter of objection, stating that people are living in the area. Jo is positive that no one will get evicted. Unlike the Ban Sap Wai case, she said, the people of Ban Haeng had clear proof of the village’s history – a namesake temple that dates back to 1851….

https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3048456/thailands-female-land-rights-defenders-activism

Rural women in South Africa win landmark case in court

January 30, 2020

Kim Harrisberg for the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported on 29 January 2020 that an elderly black women in South Africa won property rights in a landmark ruling. Two weeks ago I wrote about Sizani Ngubane and her struggle for land rights for women [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/01/07/more-about-mea-finalist-sizani-ngubane-from-south-africa/] and this is a similar case:

Facing destitution when her marriage broke down, 72-year-old Agnes Sithole went to court – with the help of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) – to challenge a sexist law – and won not only a share of her husband’s property but a legal victory that will protect some 400,000 other black South African women. Under South African law, married couples own all their assets jointly and both must consent to major transactions.

But for black women married prior to 1988, the husband owned all matrimonial assets and could sell them without consulting his wife – until Sithole’s landmark High Court win this month which overturned the discriminatory law. “This is a major judgment for South African women,” said Aninka Claassens, a land rights expert at the University of Cape Town, responding to the ruling against sections of the Matrimonial Property Act of 1984 and amendments made in 1988. “If you haven’t got property rights as a woman, you are more vulnerable to stay in an abusive marriage. This case changes these rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Traditionally, women are regarded as inferior to men in Sithole’s KwaZulu-Natal province, said women’s land rights activist Sizani Ngubane, who has campaigned against evictions and abuse of women in rural areas for more than 40 years. Male-dominated tribal authorities hold great sway over rural communities, with the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini controlling 2.8 million hectares of land, an area the size of Belgium, under an entity called the Ingonyama Trust. Ngubane, nominated as one of three finalists in the 2020 Martin Ennals Award, said this month’s Durban court ruling was significant.

This will make a difference in terms of women’s land and property inheritance,” said Ngubane [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/26/breaking-news-mea-has-3-women-hrds-as-finalists-for-2020/]. Ngubane has gone to court to challenge the Ingonyama Trust, which she said only leases land under its control to men, with widows being evicted from their homes when their husbands die. Despite the legal victory, women’s rights experts were wary of celebrating too soon…….For Ngubane, such grassroots work is critical in improving the lives of rural South African women. “We know the courts can protect women,” she said. “The biggest challenge for us is changing attitudes of men on the ground who believe that women are children. We are so much more than that.”

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-safrica-land-women-trfn/elderly-black-women-in-south-africa-win-property-rights-in-landmark-ruling-idUSKBN1ZS1FV

Front Line Defenders Global Analysis 2019 is out: 304 HRDs killed

January 14, 2020

The most dangerous and deadly sector of human rights defenders remains land, environmental and indigenous rights, according to the Global Analysis report 2019 by Front Line Defenders. 304 people across 31 countries were targeted and killed last year and the document starts by listing their names.

Front Line Defenders said this was due to “the profit driven exploitation of natural resources, combined with corruption, weak governments and poverty“. Speaking to RTÉ News, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, Andrew Anderson, described the scale of the killings as “horrific” ..almost one person a day is being killed around the world because they are working “peacefully to defend land rights, environmental rights” and to “hold the powerful to account”.  “The true scale of the problem is probably much higher” he said.

In the cases for which the data is available, the report found:

  • 85% of those killed last year had previously been threatened either individually or as part of the community or group in which they worked
  • 13% of those reported killed were women
  • 40% of those killed worked on land, indigenous’ peoples and environmental issues

Last year saw mounting pressure on activists defending LGBTI rights, as well as women’s rights and migrants’ rights. Female activists faced online smear campaigns, trolling and defamation to intimidate, shame or harass in order to push women activists out of online spaces. The statistics show that 13% of human rights defenders killed in 2019 were women. The report also notes some positive developments, including the male guardianship system being revoked in Saudi Arabia, women from the Sulaliyat tribe in Morocco being able to inherit and own land, and Sudan removing a law where women could be arrested if found dancing, wearing trousers or mixing with men who were not their relatives.

With massive protests in Iran, Hong Kong and Chile, Front Line Defenders said that 2019 was characterised by waves of public uprisings of “remarkable magnitude”, which demanded change of how people are governed. However, it said there were restrictions on freedom of expression and authorities often invoked “security” as a justification to ban all peaceful demonstrations Physical assaults, defamation campaigns and digital attacks were major issues.

Internet shutdowns, restricting access or blocking communication tools, such as social media, were common. Messaging app WhatsApp, which is popular for organising and communications, became a “serious threat” when it was used against human rights defenders in a number of cases.

As the role of human rights defenders ranged from organising and mobilising to monitoring and documenting human rights violations, the human rights organisation said it provided more than 620 protection grants to activists at risk in 2019.

For last year’s report see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/09/front-line-defenders-says-record-number-of-activists-killed-in-2018/

https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2020/0114/1107280-front-line-defenders/

https://www.theguardian.com/law/2020/jan/14/300-human-rights-activists-killed-2019-report

Land rights defenders in Uganda face tough legal regime

January 14, 2020

DSC_0354 (1)
By witnessradio.org Team

in Uganda reported about the criminal trial of the 28 land rights defenders.

…Grace Nantubiro and Ronald Mugwabya are among the 28 land defenders and also members of witnessradio.org. They were arrested because of being on the frontline defending over 3000 people from were being violently evicted by local businessman George Kaweesi.  Kaweesi was shielded by police and the due process was never followed. Their pleas fell on deaf-ears until a violent crash ensued between the communities and the workers of a businessman that claimed a life of one Yunus Kasajja. Kasajja had been tasked by Kaweesi to supervise the eviction exercise.

The land under dispute is registered on Block 168, Plot 19, 22 and 23 with over 322.5 hectares covering five villages namely, Kambuye, Kikono, Kyabaana, Kanseera and Lwensanga in East Division, Mubende Municipality, Mubende district. The land forcefully taken was hosting some of the families that were evicted by Kaweeri Coffee Plantation limited in the early 2000s. The 600 families are part of the 2000 families, relocated to that land as compensation for what they had lost to Kaweeri Coffee Plantation limited. That land was formerly owned by Emmanuel Kayiwa Bikko who has since passed on.

Lately, the land-grabbing elements have resorted to using the Penal Code to charge land defenders because the law is lethal.  It imposes harsher prison sentences than any other and also obtaining bail once charged under it is either legally hard or too expensive for the rural communities in Uganda. These persecutions are manifesting majorly in districts that host minerals including sub-regions of Karamoja, Bunyoro and Buganda. Essentially, the prosecution alleges that on October, 12th, 2018, the accused:  Nantubiro Grace and Mugwabya Ronald and others at Kambuye-Kanseera, Mubende district, robbed Yunus Kasajja Tabu of his three mobile phones and thereafter proceeded to end his life.  If found guilty of the murder charge, they stand a chance of facing the ultimate punishment which is death.

https://witnessradio.org/the-criminal-trial-of-the-28-land-rights-defenders-is-set-to-resume-today/

More about MEA finalist Sizani Ngubane from South Africa

January 7, 2020

staff writer on the Christian Science Monitor published on 6 January 2020 a Question and Answer piece with Sizani Ngubane, the South African land rights defender who became a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/26/breaking-news-mea-has-3-women-hrds-as-finalists-for-2020/ ]
The first inkling Sizani Ngubane had that she might grow up to be an activist came when she was just 6 years old. It was the early 1950s, and while her father, a migrant worker, was away from the family home near the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, his brother evicted her mother from their land. “You’re a woman,” she remembers her uncle telling her mother, “so you have no right to this property if your husband isn’t around. Those were the early years of apartheid, South Africa’s infamous system of white minority rule, and a woman like Ms. Ngubane’s mother had few places to turn. The white government wasn’t likely to be on her side, and neither were the men in charge in her own community. At 6, of course, Ms. Ngubane didn’t know exactly what was happening, but her mother’s humiliation told her all she needed to know. “From that experience I just said to myself, when I grow up I want to be part of the people who are going to correct these wrongs,” she says. 

In the 70 years since, indeed, she has become the voice for tens of thousands of women like her mother. In the late 1990s, Ms. Ngubane was a founding member of the Rural Women’s Movement, which today counts some 50,000 members. Among other work, the organization fights to make sure women have access to, and ownership over, the land on which they live and work. This has been a major challenge in many rural areas under the authority of semi-autonomous traditional chieftaincies that were originally set up by the apartheid and colonial governments. These leaders have often been reticent to give more rights to women. As South Africa’s government mulls over whether to expropriate some land from white owners and return it to the country’s black majority, her work has become all the more urgent – and complicated.

Ms. Ngubane spoke by phone with the Monitor’s Johannesburg bureau chief Ryan Lenora Brown about why land is so important in South Africa, and what keeps her going as an activist.

Since the start of democracy in South Africa, there’s been a program to provide land or money to people who were stripped of their land during the colonial or apartheid periods. But it’s moved slowly, and over the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about expropriating land – that is to say, redistributing the land, whether current landowners want that or not. What do you think of that idea? And do you think it will really happen?

I support it. A large percentage of South African arable land is still in the hands of white people, even though they are a small minority in this country. How equal is that? How constitutional is that? But the problem now is that our government is not really doing anything about it. They promised us in the 1990s that by 2014 they would have redistributed 30% of land into hands of original users. I say users and not owners because in our culture land is not owned. Mother Nature was not a commodity that could be bought and sold. But only about 10% of that land has been returned to date. So I think those promises were politically motivated to get people to come out and vote in elections. I don’t see real transformation of the land situation happening anytime soon.  

Why is access to land so important for South African women in particular?

When you begin to give land to women, a lot of abuses in society are eliminated. They can feed their own families without fear of being evicted. They can inherit land when their male relatives die. And most importantly, they are not so controlled by the men in their lives. Because when land is the main value of a society and women cannot own land, we are nothing. We are not 100% human beings. It is easy to abuse and abandon us. So the land is the only way out for us.

What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of? 

The thing I’m most proud of isn’t necessarily any legal battle we’ve won. It’s the fact that before we started this movement women in many rural communities were not empowered to speak. Now we see our women speaking up for their rights, even at national and international levels. And no one tells them to shut up, because we have taught them that this is our constitutional right. [The men] know they must listen.

You’ve been an activist for nearly six decades. And there are still more battles to be fought. Right now, for instance, you’re preparing to go to court as part of a challenge against the Ingonyama Trust, an organization run by the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini that controls an area in eastern South Africa the size of Belgium. I’m wondering what keeps you going through battles like this one. 

It comes from my heart. From when I was 6 years old I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. Don’t ask me how exactly I knew there was a world outside that rural community where I grew up. The only other place I had ever seen was the city of Pietermaritzburg [10 miles away], where I went once a year with my mother to buy school shoes. But somehow I knew even then I was going to grow up to see the world, and learn from it. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

——

On 28 November 2019 Kim Harrisberg reports for the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the “Death-Defying South African Nominated for International Human Rights Award“. A South African women’s land rights activist who has been stabbed with a knife, slapped with a gun and hit by a speeding car and those are just a few of the murder attempts on Sizani Ngubane who is currently in hiding to prevent further attempts on her long life of activism.

“We cannot separate women’s land rights from gender based violence in South Africa,” said the 74-year-old activist who frequently champions women’s access to land in rural KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province. “We are celebrating 25 years of democracy, but rural women are still treated like children. It is not in line with our constitution,” Ngubane, founder of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) land rights group, said in a phone interview.

Land is a hot topic in South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa last year launched a process to change the constitution with a proposed redistribution of land aimed at addressing high levels of inequality. But in KZN, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini controls 2.8 million hectares of land, a fragmented sub-tropical area the size of Belgium, under an entity called the Ingonyama Trust established in 1994. The Zulu monarch wants President Cyril Ramaphosa to sign an agreement promising to exclude territories that the king controls from land reform.

Land rights activists are challenging the control wielded by such traditional authorities over rural communities, particularly on women who are often evicted once widowed. “The trust has turned communities into tenants by leasing ancestral land to them,” said Ngubane, adding that a compulsory rent, rising 10% every year, had to be paid by community members who otherwise face eviction.

Ngubane, along with rights groups, is challenging the Ingonyama Trust in Pietermaritzburg High Court in March 2020. The work of the Rural Women’s Movement includes finding housing for evicted women and children, helping grow food on communal land for the hungry and sick, campaigning for better legal protection of women’s land rights and more. “We are like one big family,” Ngubane said. “We have now begun to spread our wings into different parts of the country.” Launched in 1998, the Rural Women’s Movement has grown to 50,000 women, said Ngubane.

Ngubane said there was retaliation and danger involved in challenging the traditional authorities, citing burnings, kidnappings and beatings of outspoken women and men. “My dream is that one day KwaZulu-Natal will be like other provinces, where women’s rights are seen as human rights and women are given the same power over land that men are keeping for themselves,” Ngubane said.

https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2020/0106/A-woman-s-right-to-her-land-Q-A-with-Sizani-Ngubane

Death-Defying South African Nominated for International Human Rights Award

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2019-11-28-human-rights-award-nominee-in-hiding-as-she-fights-for-womens-land-rights/

Opening statement by UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet focuses very much on climate change

September 11, 2019

The Opening statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, at the 42nd Session of the UN human Rights Council in Geneva on 9 September 2019 was widely reported in the media as having an exceptionally strong focus on climate change and human rights.

The crucial paragraph on environmental human rights defenders is quoted below:

Read the rest of this entry »

World Environment Day: seven stories of human rights defenders

June 9, 2019

Amnesty International marked 5 June – World Environment Day – by focusing on environmental human rights defenders, who often face the gravest risks to protect their homes and communities. Being an environmental human rights defender has deadly consequences, making it among the deadliest types of activism. According to the NGO Global Witness, in 2017 almost four environmental defenders were killed each week for protecting their land, wildlife and natural resources. In 2017, 207 environmental activists were killed. The vast majority of them hailed from South America, making it the most dangerous region in the world. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/09/global-witness-report-2018-on-environmental-defenders-bad-but-2017-was-worse/]

Amnesty highlights the stories of seven environmental activists from the Americas who remind us of why we need to stand up for Earth’s defenders.

BERTA CÁCERES, COPINH (HONDURAS)

Berta Cáceres cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras, COPINH) in 1993 to address the growing threats posed to the territorial rights of the Lenca communities and improve their livelihoods. For more on her case see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/berta-caceres/

JULIÁN CARRILLO AND THE COLORADAS DE LA VIRGEN COMMUNITY (MÉXICO)

Julián Carrillo was a leader of the Coloradas de la Virgen community. His job was to take care of the territory, the water, the forest and the wildlife. He had publicly denounced logging and mining by landlords in their ancestral land, as well as violence by criminal armed groups against his community. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/11/07/reprehensible-says-un-about-mexican-killing-of-human-rights-defender/%5D

PARAGUAY: AMADA MARTÍNEZ, INDIGENOUS DEFENDER OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND TERRITORY

Amada is an Avá Guaraní Indigenous environment defender from the Tekoha Sauce community.

In the 1970s, the construction of the Itaipú Binational hydroelectric plant, in the border between Paraguay and Brazil, forcibly displaced her community from its ancestral territory, putting their survival at risk. Since then, she has defended the right of her community to have a territory in which they can thrive in harmony with nature and has denounced the serious impacts of hydroelectric projects on nature and Indigenous Peoples’ lives. On 8 August 2018, a group of armed men threatened to kill her. Amada was leaving the community in a taxi along with his seven-year-old son, his sister and two young nephews, when the vehicle in which they were traveling was intercepted by a pickup truck with the logo of the hydroelectric plant. Amada Martínez believes that the threat against her was due to her work defending Indigenous Peoples rights and the environment.

PATRICIA GUALINGA, INDIGENOUS DEFENDER OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND TERRITORY

“We are united and we will continue our struggle to defend Mother Earth.”

Patricia is an Indigenous leader of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku community. She defends her people’s rights to their territory and to live in a healthy environment in the face of damaging oil activities there. Patricia is also protecting the Amazonian environment and promoting sustainable development. In 2012, the Indigenous Sarayaku community achieved a historic victory for Indigenous Peoples against the Ecuador government after reporting an oil concession that had installed explosives on their territory without consulting them. In the early hours of 5 January 2018, an unknown man made death threats to Patricia and attacked her at her home in Puyo, in the east of Ecuador., The man shouted, “Next time we’ll kill you, bitch!” before fleeing. Patricia and her family had to leave their home after the attack because the property owner “was terrified that something would happen to her.”

NEMA GREFA, INDIGENOUS DEFENDER OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND TERRITORY

 

Nema is defending the Amazon environment and her people’s right to protect their territory from the possible negative effects of oil activity. After being legally recognized as President of the Sápara nationality of Ecuador in January 2018, her appointment was challenged by a group of people who Nema says are supportive of oil activities on the Sápara territory. Nema’s appointment was revoked in April 2018 as a result. Later that month a video was shared on social media featuring a man armed with a spear, identified by Nema as belonging to the group who had challenged her appointment, issuing her with a death threat: “Those present here are united in rejecting her and are thus going to kill Nema Grefa; she has no territory.” One year on, the Attorney’s Office has yet to open in investigation into the death threat. On 19 October 2018 Nema was finally recognized as president but still faces serious threats to her life. In April this year, despite the Ecuadorian authorities’ promises to protect her and her family, unknown individuals forcibly broke into her home to steal two computers containing sensitive information on her human rights work.

SALOMÉ ARANDA, INDIGENOUS ENVIRONMENTAL AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS DEFENDER

Salomé is an Indigenous leader from the Kichwa people who is defending the Amazonian environment and the right of women in her community to live in a healthy environment, free from sexual violence. Salomé is the Women and Family Leader in Moretecocha commune, Pastaza province. Salomé has publicly denounced the possible environmental impacts of oil operations in the Villano River basin, Pastaza province, and the sexual abuse of Indigenous women that have occurred in this context. In the early hours of 13 May 2018, a number of unidentified individuals attacked and threatened her and her family at home. Despite making a formal complaint, the Pastaza Provincial Attorney’s Office has yet to make any significant progress in this investigation. The authorities have not even offered her protection measures to address the risk facing her and her family.

MARGOTH ESCOBAR, ENVIRONMENTAL AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ RIGHTS DEFENDER

Margoth has devoted her life to defending the environment and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. In August 2015, Margoth was physically attacked by police officers at a protest and national strike called by the social and Indigenous movements in Puyo, Pastaza province. She was held on pre-trial detention for more than a week despite poor health caused by her injuries. She was charged with “attack and resistance”, which she was eventually acquitted of. In September last year Margoth’s house was set on fire, destroying all her belongings. On 1 October 2018, the Puyo Fire Brigade Commander stated that the fire at Margoth’s house had been intentional. Margoth lodged a criminal complaint with the Pastaza Provincial Attorney’s Office to investigate the attack, yet no progress has been made in her case. Margoth refused to join the country’s witness protection program because of her previous experience at the hands of the police: “I didn’t want to join the victim and witness protection system because I have no faith in the current government, I have no faith in the independence of the legal system in Ecuador, nor in the military or police forces.”

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/06/why-we-need-to-stand-up-for-earth-defenders-this-world-environment-day/