Murders and arrests of land and environmental defenders hit a record high in 2020 as the violent resource grab in the global south continued unabated despite the pandemic. Here are five ways to defend them from a webinar held by ILC Africa and its partners on 14th June 2022
“I have just left the prison. I was there for four years. My community was against the grabbing of our sacred river. Defending our sacred land was my crime,” began Bernardo Caal, a Guatemalan environmental defender who soberly painted the picture of the challenges facing land and environmental defenders.
From the figures released by Global Witness, 227 people were killed in 2020 while trying to protect forests, land, and other ecosystems that their livelihoods depended on.
Defending environmental defenders is the role of all.
The report’s authors say that environment-related conflict is disproportionately affecting the global south, like the climate crisis. Indigenous communities suffered more than a third of the killings, despite accounting for only 5% of the world population.
Defending environmental defenders is the role of all. Here are five areas where action is needed:
1) Leveraging research to bridge “a crucial gap”
State-reported data severely undermine the ability to monitor the situation of land and environmental defenders. As a result, the Allied Data Working Group, formed in 2018 by over 20 organizations who are local, national, and global data collectors, looks at lethal and non-lethal attacks on land and environmental defenders and Indigenous Peoples.
In 2021, the Working Group published A Crucial Gap that documents the state of reporting of attacks on Human Rights Defenders, specifically those working on environmental, indigenous peoples, and land rights, and examines potential pathways towards building a better dataset that could inform better, evidence-based policies and protection mechanisms.
Through a review of data on indicator 16.10.1 available in the Global SDG Indicators Database and an assessment of the 195 Voluntary National Reviews submitted since 2015 to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the Group produced this essential tool.
State-reported data severely undermine the ability to monitor the situation of land and environmental defenders.
“We’ve committed to working together to see how our data can formulate a better, more comprehensive picture of the kind of attacks being faced by defenders, in the numbers,” said Eva Hershaw of the International Land Coalition Secretariat in Rome. “We are working on better integrating datasets looking at different kinds of violence to send the messages together.”
The need to learn from the experience – a first of its kind – is critical. “We use the group as a learning space: first, we exchange methodology strategies; second, we share data; third, we do joint advocacy and research,” Hershaw said.
2) Capacity building of institutions, governments, and practitioners
To keep the hope of achieving results in defending the defenders within reach, institutions, governments, and practitioners must build their capacity—individually and collectively.
“Most African environmental defenders do not identify as such, and hence risk overlooking existing protection mechanisms that could assist them,” said Eva Okoth of Natural Justice.
The key drivers of land grabs are the fossil fuel crisis and the extractives. - Pooven Moodley
There is need to address what Ms. Okoth calls the “limited awareness of the existing mechanisms and how to access them, including for what purpose and in which circumstances.”
The key drivers of land grabs are the fossil fuel crisis and the extractives.
“It’s important that we learn to assist the defenders in the reality of what is happening. Communities have become like chess pieces being kicked out of the chess board. In South Africa, we recently went to court with communities on just oil and gas. We find out that 148 other massive projects are given permission for extraction,” Pooven Moodley of Natural Justice said.
Capacity building also comes up as improving our proactivity and response. “We need to improve our capacity on documentation, proper recording and reporting of violations,” said Beverly Litdog Longid of the National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples in Asia.
“Our reporting is often quite late. But with prompt reporting, we can engage national, regional and international frameworks.”
3) Enhancing efforts to build collective action
The bottom line is that we all need to be defenders, not just a few people standing at the front. In that way, there is less exposure for the activists.
We have pledged in the new Strategy to protect land and environmental defenders at all costs. - Audace Kubwimana
Nowhere else would such collective action be better upheld than within the most extensive networking fighting to advance people-centred land governance.
“For International Land Coalition members, we have pledged in the new Strategy to protect land and environmental defenders at all costs,” said Audace Kubwimana, International Land Coalition Africa Regional Coordinator.
The solidarity element is seen as indispensable by all. “Sometimes, we may be unable to help every community based on their needs. But connecting with comrades, connecting with activists makes a big difference because it enables them to know that people around the globe are standing with them,” said Moodley.
This solidarity was emphasized in International Land Coalition’s new Strategy, mentioned above, as putting the people’s organisations at the core of ILC initiatives. Only by putting the power into the hands of people whose lives depend on land can the world achieve inclusive and sustainable development that “leaves no one behind.”
“The painstaking building of people’s organisations, grassroots peoples, remains the best way of fighting land grabbing,” Longid added.
The issue of unity broadens the defenders’ ranks and helps demand government accountability.
4) Using available frameworks and cross-regional experience to hold governments accountable
Momentum for confronting land and environmental attacks gained further steam leading up to discussing national and regional frameworks. National frameworks include (1) national administrative bodies, (2) national human rights institutions, and (3) the court and legal justice systems.
Protection mechanisms at the regional and subregional levels include the sub-regional Courts: the Economic Community of West African States Court; the Eastern African Court of Justice and the Southern African Development Community Tribunal.
For regional complaints, reporting and judicial mechanisms, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights cater for these.
At the global level, protection mechanisms are provided by the United Nations processes such as special procedures of the Human Rights Council, the treaty bodies reporting system and the OHCHR monitoring.
Most African environmental defenders do not identify as such, and hence risk overlooking existing protection mechanisms that could assist them. - Eva Okoth
5) Benefiting from and supporting the African Environmental Defenders Fund
In December 2019, the International Land Coalition and Natural Justice launched the African Environmental Defenders Fund. Initially, this fund targeted the International Land Coalition members who faced threats and harassment due to their work as environmental defenders.
Using ILC’s seed funding, Natural Justice expanded the fund in 2021.
Using ILC’s seed funding, Natural Justice in 2021 expanded the fund. It can now provide funding to various environmental defenders, including non-ILC members. It is also targeting (1) defenders in several countries on the African continent that are experiencing extractive and other industrial development, (2) women defenders, who face many more threats than their male counterparts and are vulnerable in many ways in terms of security and types of violations.