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The Deadliest Year on Record for Global Land Defenders


November 30, 2017
The Oakland Institute & Global Witness

Three times as many land protectors were killed in 2012 than 10 years previously, with the rate doubling to an average of two people a week in the past four years. 2017 is on course to be the deadliest year on record for land rights defenders. 153 activists have been assassinated so far this year -- and those are the ones we know of. Thousands more face displacement, violence, intimidation, and arrest -- all for standing up for their right to live on their land.

Special to Environmentalists Against War

The Deadliest Year on Record for Global Land Defenders
The Oakland Institute

(November 23, 2017) -- 2017 is on course to be the deadliest year on record for land rights defenders. 153 activists have been assassinated this year -- and those are the ones we know of. Thousands more face displacement, violence, intimidation, and arrest -- all for standing up for their right to live on their land.

This is a reality we know only too well.

From Mr. Okello Akway Ochalla, the indigenous leader who is serving nine years in an Ethiopian jail for speaking out about human rights abuses in his home region of Gambella, to Nasako Besingi, who was arrested in September for his ongoing activism to halt land grabs in Cameroon, to Paul Palosualrea Pavol, a community leader in Papua New Guinea who is fighting a restraining order that prohibits him from stepping foot on his own land.

The criminalization of our partners has never been so great, or so deadly.

"It's a disaster. People have been evicted from land that is the basis of their livelihoods, their culture, and their social fabric. People have been imprisoned, tortured, and even killed because they demanded their right for the land."
- Ethiopian Land Rights Defender

In the face of this growing crisis, in 2015 the Oakland Institute launched a Legal Defense Fund. To date, this fund has supported land rights defenders in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Palestine, Tanzania, Madagascar, and Senegal.

The groups we support through this fund aren't professional NGOs. They don't have access to pro bono lawyers, large budgets, or international media. Often they don't even have a postal address. They are communities of pastoralists, indigenous groups, and farmers at the forefront of the global struggle for land and life who are taking risks every day in the name of justice.

And when the bulldozers or the police arrive, the Oakland Institute is proud to be by their side!

You see, over the years we've learned that advocating for land rights, indigenous groups, and agroecological alternatives is about much more than just writing policy briefs. It's also about organizing lawyers, support networks, and bail money for community leaders when they are detained; denouncing the anti-terrorism legislation that locks up land rights defenders; and standing up for the rights of those who take risks everyday around the world for their land, life, and freedom.

Our Legal Defense Fund allows us to do this critical work. Please join us in our commitment to stand with our community partners, day-in-and-day-out, in the fight for justice around the world.

The Oakland Institute is an independent policy think tank, bringing fresh ideas and bold action to the most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues of our time.

Connect With Us
The Oakland Institute, 1506 40th Avenue, Oakland, CA 94601. (510) 474-5251. www.oaklandinstitute.org



The Dramatic Rise in Killings of
Environmental Land Defenders

2014 Global Witness Report

"At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees.
Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest.
Now I realize I am fighting for humanity."

-- Chico Mendes


Executive Summary

(2014) -- Never has it been more important to protect the environment, and never has it been more deadly. Competition for access to natural resources is intensifying against a backdrop of extreme global inequality, while humanity has already crossed several vital planetary environmental boundaries.

At the same time, more and more ordinary people are finding themselves on the frontline of the battle to defend their environment from corporate or state abuse, and from unsustainable exploitation.

This report shines a light on the sharp end of this rapidly worsening and poorly understood problem. The issue is notoriously under-reported, but between 2002 and 2013, we have been able to verify that 908 citizens were killed protecting rights to their land and environment. Three times as many people were killed in 2012 than 10 years previously, with the death rate rising in the past four years to an average of two activists a week.

There were almost certainly more cases, but the nature of the problem makes information hard to find, and even harder to verify. However, even the known level of killings is on a par with the more high-profile incidences of 913 journalists killed while carrying out their work in the same period.

The death rate also points to a much greater level of non-lethal violence and intimidation, which are not documented in this report.

This rapidly worsening crisis appears to be hidden in plain sight. A lack of systematic monitoring or awareness of the growing threat to environmental and land activists is enabling killings and a wide range of other abuses, while national governments and judicial systems are regularly failing to protect their citizens from harm.

In June 2012, Global Witness' report, A Hidden Crisis, was released at the Rio+20 Summit. Nearly 25 years after the assassination of Brazilian rubber tapper and forest activist Chico Mendes, the report warned of a growing human emergency in the world's land and forestry sectors -- killings were steadily rising as protection of the environment emerged as a key battleground for human rights.

The report's findings and recommendations were noted at the summit, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay commenting, "It is shocking, but it is not a surprise to me because this is what my own office has been finding in respect of the land claims of indigenous people, not only here in Brazil but elsewhere."

Yet in the month after the Rio summit, 18 environmental and land defenders were murdered across seven countries. The day the summit closed, two advocates for fishermen's rights were abducted nearby in Rio de Janeiro state. Almir Nogueira de Amorim and Joao Luiz Telles Penetra were found executed a few days later. They had long campaigned to protect Rio's fishing communities from the expansion of oil operations. To date, no-one has been held to account for their killings.

They were just two of 147 known killings of activists in 2012, making it the deadliest year on record to be defending rights to land and the environment.

In December 2014 government officials from around the world will gather for the next climate change talks in Lima, Peru. Without urgent action, they are once again likely to be discussing ways to protect the conditions for life on the planet, while the murder and intimidation of ordinary people actually defending the environment and land go ignored.

This report aims to increase awareness and improve understanding of this crisis, asks why so little is being done to address it, and makes recommendations for what must happen. Given that a lack of information on this issue was identified as a key driver of the problem in "A Hidden Crisis," we have refined our data-gathering methodology and definition of those affected.

We hope this will provide a solid foundation for future research and monitoring by Global Witness and others. We have also looked into the underlying causes of the problem globally and in specific countries, and consulted widely with partners in the field to see what work is being done, and how it can be supplemented. Finally, we have updated our statistics to cover the two years since our last publication.

People have died protecting a wide range of environmental needs and rights, but dominant themes also emerge. Many of those facing threats are ordinary people opposing land grabs, mining operations and the industrial timber trade, often forced from their homes and severely threatened by environmental devastation. Indigenous communities are particularly hard hit.

In many cases, their land rights are not recognised by law or in practice, leaving them open to exploitation by powerful economic interests who brand them as 'anti-development'. Yet local communities are invariably struggling to secure good livelihoods as a result of their stewardship of natural resources, which is fundamental to sustainable development. Often, the first they know about a deal that goes against their interest is when the bulldozers arrive in their farms and forests.

This problem is poorly understood and addressed. Where cases are recognised or recorded, they are generally seen in isolation and not as part of a larger trend. Definitions of those affected vary widely, with the unique set of problems these defenders face often seen solely in terms of their human rights or environmental dimension.

Plenty of excellent and highly courageous work is being done by NGOs in specific contexts, generally in a single country or region, but they need more and better support from outside. A key theme emerging from our consultation process was the view that a more coordinated, concerted effort is required from governments, civil society and international bodies such as the UN to monitor and tackle this crisis as a global phenomenon in its own right.

Our analysis highlights an endemic culture of impunity, which national governments and their aid donors have a responsibility to address. Often, defenders face threats from the very people supposed to protect them -- a number of cases involve state security forces, often in collaboration with corporations and private landowners.

The lack of political will to ensure large resource deals are done fairly and openly appears matched by the lack of political will to deliver justice for those killed in resulting conflicts.

Evidence suggests that responsibility rarely only lies with the person pulling the trigger -- complex and secretive networks of vested interests ultimately lie behind these crimes. Just 10 perpetrators are known to have been tried, convicted and punished between 2002 and 2013 -- around one per cent of the overall incidence of known killings.

This lack of redress for victims and their families has an additional silencing effect on environmental activism, in turn deterring others from protecting rights to the environment and land. In the words of Isolete Wichinieski, National Coordinator of the Commisao Pastoral da Terra (CPT) in Brazil, "what feeds the violence is the impunity."

Weak understanding of rights or ability to exercise them is one of the main reasons why environment and land activists are one of the most vulnerable groups of human rights defenders, according to Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders: "[they] are particularly disadvantaged due to the often limited knowledge they have about their rights and lack of information on how to claim them, scarce resources and weak organisational capacity."

Meanwhile, UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment John Knox commented to Global Witness:
"Human rights only have meaning if people are able to exercise them. Environmental human rights defenders work to ensure that we live in an environment that enables us to enjoy our basic rights, including rights to life and health. The international community must do more to protect them from the violence and harassment they face as a result."

The aim of this report is to push for this to happen, firstly by making the problem more visible and urgent for governments, policymakers and the wider public. We have included extended case studies that focus on countries where the issue is particularly serious, in the Philippines and Brazil, to help better understand these contexts. Brazil is particularly badly affected, accounting for over half the global total of deaths from 2002-2013.

These findings are very likely just the tip of the iceberg in two important respects. Firstly, rising fatalities are the most acute and measurable end of a range of threats including intimidation, violence, stigmatisation and criminalisation. However, lack of public information around these threats and security implications for those in danger make it very difficult to track and systematise this data.

Secondly, there are without doubt more cases than we have been able to verify. Because of the live, under-recognised nature of this problem, an exhaustiveglobal analysis of the situation is not possible.

For example, African countries such as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Zimbabwe that are enduring resource-fuelled unrest are highly likely to be affected, but information is almost impossible to gain without detailed field investigations. In future, Global Witness hopes to carry out such work to further bring this issue to national and international attention.

But others must act as well, and they must do so now. What we can say with grim conviction is that we have a dramatically worsening global situation, and that national governments, companies and the international community must do much more to stop the violence, intimidation and murder of those we should be celebrating as heroes.

Key Facts
* Three times as many people were killed in 2012 than 10 years previously, with the rate doubling to an average of two people a week in the past four years.

* Only 10 perpetrators are known to have been tried, convicted and punished between 2002 and 2013 - around one per cent of the overall incidence of known killings.

* Brazil is the most dangerous place to be defending rights to land and the environment, with 448 cases, followed by Honduras (109) and the Philippines (67).

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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