This is a special Earth Day Op-Ed by Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and Michael Taylor, the Director of the International Land Coalition Secretariat.
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.
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 safety. UN 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 heed calls 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.
Michel Forst is the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Michael Taylor is the Director of the International Land Coalition Secretariat, a global alliance working towards securing land rights.