Beyond the Amazon

I come from a long line of farmers that goes back to before confederation in Canada and even further back in Ayrshire. This has led me to observe, and hopefully absorb, some key values. These include a demanding work ethic, neighborliness, respect for nature and intimate ties to the land. The land is a farmer’s livelihood. In fact, it’s their life. Farmers will do whatever it takes to preserve the land they work so long and hard to cultivate.

Those ideals and this week’s incidents in Brazil reminded me of the plight of environmental human rights defenders in Latin America. These are people who stand up to defend land, water, air and habitat in their communities. We take the right to do this for granted here in Canada. Even so, there have been incidents. Take, for example, the recent arrest of Green Party leader Elizabeth May for protesting the extension of the TransMountain Pipeline.

Conditions are much worse when we look around the world, though. According to a 2015 Global Witness report, 185 environmental human rights defenders were killed in one year. That’s more than 3 per week. They were protesting resource extraction, logging, agribusiness and hydroelectric dams.The region most affected by these attacks is Latin America.

The media and the public have been paying a lot of attention to Brazil. Certainly, President Bolsonaro’s policies in that country have not been helpful. He has rolled back existing measures that prevent deforestation of the Amazon. He has made it abundantly clear that he thinks economic development is more important for Brazil than conservation.

His lax regulation turns a blind eye to deforestation activities, including fire setting, throughout his country. Still, bear in mind that Bolsonaro won 52% of the vote in the Amazon region. Brazilians view these fires as controlled burns and a routine part of agriculture. Deforestation didn’t start with Bolsonaro and it used to be far worse than today.

We all need to take a broader look at the issue. Let’s look at the rest of Latin America. Virtually every Latin American government took part in the above murders. Murder is one of a range of tactics. Attackers also resort to sexual assault, blackmail and judicial harassment, among other crimes.The old Latin American ploy of “disappearance” is another way they get rid of troublesome environmental human rights defenders.

Brazil is not the worst offender. Those are Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Columbia, Peru and Ecuador. Yet, nobody seems interested in the outrages that happen in any of these other countries. Powerful and corrupt interests are at work throughout this part of the world.

This includes state actors like corrupt officials and security forces. It also involves non-state actors like organized crime, foreign corporations and corporate owned news media. A strong attitude of colonialism still exists toward what were once called the “banana republics”. The region is blessed with valuable natural resources and greed drives these groups to get their hands on them.

Victims of these attacks are often indigenous communities as well as ethnic and racial minorities. The most vulnerable tend to be those who oppose the powerful interests seeking to amass land, extract resources, sell timber and build mega-projects. These marginalized people live in the affected territories. They have no legal protection, their title to the land may not be properly recognized, and they have no genuine access to the justice system.

This is all a power struggle. A major imbalance of power exists between the governments and corporations on the one hand and economic human rights defenders and their communities on the other. The marginalized groups and those who represent them are entitled to free, prior and informed consent under international law.

In practice, any consent or consultation that takes place is meaningless and, in the end, their concerns are ignored. Within local communities, certain privileged groups will have a voice while groups like women and minorities in the same community will not. When people are denied peaceful access to their rights, they may resort to unrest. That plays right into the hands of the security forces.

The point is that environmental issues in Latin America are more complicated than most of us realize. They are intimately tied to human rights. They also have to do with competing environmental philosophies. Is the environment a commodity for the powers that be to exploit, or should the local community’s rights prevail? If we believe in democracy, we should favor the latter.

That means we need to pressure Latin American governments to stop condoning corruption and political violence. Authorities in the region need to hold corporations to higher standards of social responsibility than they practice today. Business leaders need to treat indigenous peoples as genuine stakeholders in their projects. We all need to be better informed if we want to get this done.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Amnesty International
New York Times


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