At What Cost?

Land rights defenders and environmentalists all over the world share similar stories of struggle, violence and killings.
Marivic ‘Tarsila’ Danyan- overlooking the coffee plantations near the village of Tabasco where she lives. ©Thom Pierce/Guardian/Global Witness/UN Environment

In July 2018, Global Witness, a campaigning organization which works to end environmental and human rights abuses driven by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption, released the ‘At What Cost?’ report. The report explores the link between irresponsible business and the murder of land and environmental defenders in 2017.

The food, the jewellery, the furniture in our homes and other everyday household items often hide a violent reality. As agribusiness booms, tropical forests are logged, and mining continues to deliver huge revenues to major global corporations. When businesses and governments ignore the land rights and customs of local communities and indigenous peoples, this sows the seeds of resistance, forcing communities to take a stand and become environmental defenders. They are at risk of brutal attacks for their resistance work and the numbers are only increasing.

Rachel Cox, a campaigner on the Land and Environmental Defenders team at Global Witness, spoke to WIB about the attacks against environmental activists around the world. “2017 saw a rise in the number of multiple killings of land and environment rights defenders”, she reports grimly.

High profile cases around the world

While the case stories of Global Witness span across the globe, many of them share similarities.

Ramón Bedoya in Colombia and Maravic Dayan in the Philippines both have been engaged in lengthy oppositions to extractive projects encroaching on their land. Both have lost family members. And both have inherited the fight and become defenders themselves.

“2017 saw a rise in the number of multiple killings of land and environment rights defenders”

Ramón is an eighteen-year-old environmental activist in Pedeguita y Mancilla. In December 2017, his father Hernan was shot 14 times. The family believes that his murder was orchestrated by local political and business interests and fuelled by the need to secure land for companies expanding in the region.

Maravic Danyan’s story starts with the horrific attack on the Manobo-Taboli community, where eight members of the community were killed by Filipino military forces. Maravic lost her husband, two brothers and her father Victor, who was a community leader and outspoken critic of a nearby coffee plantation.

© Global Witness

Who is responsible?

It is not always clear who is directly responsible for these violent attacks. Since governments and companies defame land and environmental activists as ‘anti-business’, this enables a widespread culture of impunity, making it difficult to identify both those pulling the trigger on defenders and their intellectual authors.

However, there have been some common patterns identified and the sector most linked to the killings of land and environmental activists was agribusiness.

Where is the most dangerous region to be an environmental defender?

While environmental activists are at risk anywhere in the world, it is important to note that one region is more dangerous than others to defend your environment in, and it is Latin America.

When international or national companies take on opportunistic business ventures, this can lead to conflict, dividing opinion at the outset of a project, or negatively impacting the livelihoods, customs and health of communities, and their environment.

This has not gone unchallenged by the local communities, and when environmental defenders call out governments and businesses, the threat to their lives dramatically increases, and crackdowns ensure on civil society space with high impunity rates.

Global Witness, in collaboration with the Vance Center, recorded in ‘At What Cost?’ that of the “122 deaths of Colombian land and environmental defenders recorded between 2010 and 2016, the impunity rate was 92%”. Also, having large indigenous populations in resource-rich areas and unequal land distribution policies have historically acted to intensify land disputes and enable corruption.

This is not just a problem in the countries and regions of Latin America, but particular characteristics such as political instability, and the ability to record attacks on civil society activism, has made it a hotspot for killings of environmental defenders.

What is the tipping point that causes attacks to occur?

There are many compounding factors behind these attacks but when big businesses and governments do not secure collective land rights from local communities and indigenous peoples, conflicts over land and resources will ensue. Communities need to be involved in decision-making processes at the outset, or they will rise up to protect their land rights, health and the environment from destructive projects.

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A culture of impunity is created when governments and companies decide to collude in the face of disagreements around projects, in turn, leaving environmental defenders vulnerable to attack.

How can you take action?

Cox implores that “defenders and the business and extractive products they oppose, are on the frontlines a long way away from the finished products that line the cupboards of everyday households.” These violent attacks may be geographically far away from where we are based, but our consumerism can have an impact that spans across the world.

She ends poignantly with the reminder that “whether it is luxury wooden flooring, cosmetics or your morning coffee stop, question the products you buy, and if unsure, demand that businesses guarantee that the companies farming, manufacturing and packaging these items have no link with land grabbing, forced evictions or killings of defenders.”

“whether it is luxury wooden flooring, cosmetics or your morning coffee stop, question the products you buy, and if unsure, demand that businesses guarantee that the companies farming, manufacturing and packaging these items have no link with land grabbing, forced evictions or killings of defenders.”

In our increasingly globalized world, we all have our part to play in the goods we import and export and can use our people power to demand that governments and businesses do better. Use your voice, call your political representatives and demand accountability. Join the collective movement and add your name to the Global Witness campaign to stand up for land and environment defenders.

EnvironmentHuman Rights
Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
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