By Alfred Nyakinda

The battle to protect land and the environment is only becoming more dangerous with a growing cost in terms of human life according to a report by the environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness.

The report reveals that in 2018, 164 environmental rights defenders were killed, which averages more than three every week.

To counter this threat, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Human Rights Office have prioritised efforts to promote and protect environmental and human rights with the signing of a new cooperation agreement in August.

“We must curb the emerging trend of intimidation and criminalisation of land and environmental defenders, and the use of anti-protest and anti-terrorism laws to criminalise the exercise of rights that should be constitutionally protected,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, at the signing in Geneva.

Environmental rights defenders are defined by the UN as individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna.

Despite this peaceful nature, Global Witness found that governments and companies across the world were using courts and legal systems as instruments of oppression against environmental defenders who threaten their interests.

In the Philippines, which suffered the highest number of attacks on environmental defenders in 2018 with 30 people being killed, the government has intensified its campaign of labeling rights activists, including land and environmental defenders, as communist sympathisers, terrorists or supporters of armed insurgents.

The report further states that in Brazil, the country’s new president pledged to open indigenous reserves to commercial development, which has triggered the invasion of indigenous lands by armed bands of land grabbers this year.

Suppression of environmental defenders was also seen in the Unites States, where criminalisation of protests and aggressive civil cases are being used to stifle environmental activism against the handing out of native lands to oil and gas companies.

The 14 murders of environmental defenders in Africa was found to be low by the authors of the report, given the numerous instances of conflict over land, with the report suggesting this may be due to a shortage of evidence resulting from the issue receiving less attention from civil society and the media in comparison to other matters.

“We encourage every State to develop and enforce national legal frameworks which uphold the clear linkages between a healthy environment and the ability to enjoy all other human rights, including the rights to health, water, food – and even the right to life,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the signing.

“We also strongly encourage greater recognition that the actions and advocacy of environmental human rights defenders are deeply beneficial to all societies. They must be better protected against the threat of violence and intimidation.” she added.

Whereas more than 150 countries have recognised the human right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, national laws and jurisprudence, or through regional agreements, enforcement of environmental laws remains weak internationally.

The first global report on environmental rule of law, published by UNEP in 2019, notes that according to the Resource Governance Index, more than 80 percent of 58 resource-rich countries do not have satisfactory governance in their extractive sectors, which include oil and gas extraction, mining, quarrying among others.

It adds that environmental defenders step in to fill this governance gap by helping families and communities protect their rights to land, forests and other resources.

Disturbingly, the latest statistics provided by Global Witness show mining was the deadliest sector, with 43 people being killed for protesting the destructive effects of mineral extraction.

Agribusiness saw the second highest number of deaths with 21 activists being killed, while the number of those killed protecting water resources rose from four in 2017 to 17 in 2018, making it the third deadliest sector.

The environmental rule of law report asserts that procedural rights, such as the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression are critical to environmental defenders.

Furthermore, it states that the rights of redress and accountability are central to their protection, where redress involves prompt and impartial investigation of crimes; the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators, including those ultimately responsible; compensation; and enforcement of judgments.

“Environmental defenders are at great risk of physical harm unless governments not only respect defenders’ substantive and procedural rights but actively protect them by ensuring their safety in the face of physical threats.” the report reads.

It goes on to say that protection of environmental defenders is not just a matter for governments, and that companies should take steps to prioritise early and frequent engagement with communities affected by their operations to ensure all voices are heard before a project takes form.