Environmental Human Rights Defenders

Environmental human rights defenders face persecution all over Latin America, not just in Brazil.

I come from a long line of farmers. We go back to before confederation in Canada and even further back in Ayrshire. This has led me to watch, and hopefully learn, some values. These include a work ethic, being neighborly, respecting nature and ties to the land. The land is a farmer’s livelihood. In fact, it’s their life. Farmers do whatever it takes to care for the land they 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.

people who stand up to defend communities

We take these rights for granted here in Canada. Even here, we’ve had incidents. For example, police recently arrested Green Party leader Elizabeth May for protesting the TransMountain Pipeline.

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

Bolsonaro’s policies in BrAZIL not helpful

The media and the public have been paying a lot of attention to Brazil. Of course, President Bolsonaro’s policies in that country have not been helpful. He’s rolled back measures to stop cutting and burning forests in the Amazon. He’s made it clear that he thinks business is more important for Brazil than conservation.

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

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 only one of the tactics. Attackers 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

Brazil is not the worst offender. Those are Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Columbia, Peru and Ecuador. Yet, nobody seems interested in what happens 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. Colonialism still exists toward what we used to call “banana republics”. The region boasts many valuable natural resources. 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 are 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 don’t have legal protection, judges don’t recognize their title to the land and they have no real access to justice.

This is all a power struggle

It’s 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 should get free, prior and informed consent under international law.

In practice, any consent or consultation they get means nothing is and their authorities ignore their concerns. In communities, certain privileged groups have a voice while women and minorities in the same community don’t. When we deny people peaceful access to their rights, they’ll resort to unrest. That plays into the hands of the security forces.

Environmental issues in Latin America are more complicated than most of us realize. They connect directly 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 prevail? If we believe in democracy, we should be for communities.

We need to pressure Latin American governments to stop turning a blind eye to corruption and violence. Authorities need to hold corporations to higher standards of social responsibility. Business leaders need to treat indigenous peoples as stakeholders in their projects. We all need to educate ourselves 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
Human Rights Call to Action From UN Chief
Canada’s Genocide
Amazon Wildfires: 4 Things We Still Need to Know
Mass Extinctions Past and Present
Justice Denied by Lost File
No Safe Drinking Water for 25 Years


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