Opinion: We must stand up for earth and land defenders in the Global South

Image source: WECAN International


The Bigger Picture (London) — Across the Global South, hundreds of indigenous people suffer in silence as their land is seized by the wealthy business elite and Western corporations. Hundreds are brutally murdered by armed thugs, local gangs, and even soldiers affiliated with national governments. Others are met with intimidation and other forms of physical violence, designed to force them into submission, into subsuming to the will of Western neoliberal capitalism. Populism is on the rise across the globe, and as right-wing strongmen have stormed to power, they have implemented legislation in order to crack down on free speech, making it even harder for indigenous communities to protect the land which is rightfully theirs. We know that Western corporations are more concerned with maximising profits than the plight of the indigenous, going so far as to green-light massacres, exploitation and illegal activity in their quest to do so. As young people in the developed world, we must be the voice for those who are suffering in silence - we must amplify their stories around the world, to make their cases forefront in the public consciousness. We must fight for their rights, and we must realise that there is a better way, a solution to this neoliberal world of exploitation and repression, if only we fight for it, long and hard, and never give up.

A report released by the NGO Global Witness last July, titled Enemies of the State?: How governments and business silence land and environmental defenders, showed that 164 people were murdered in 2018 for trying to defend their land and the environment, equivalent to three per week. The Philippines, with thirty deaths, is the most dangerous for earth and land defenders, whilst Guatemala, with sixteen killings, is the most dangerous per capita. As Global Witness points out, these figures are likely to be an underestimation of the real scope of the issue. Many cases are tragically never recorded or investigated.

And the cases that have been reported on are absolutely horrifying.

In the Phillippines, thugs gunned down nine sugarcane farmers - some of these farmers were mere teenagers - on Negros, a Philippine island at the centre of a land dispute. A lawyer representing the victims’ families met a similar fate just days later. Indigenous people have been forced from their homes, and members of the Philippine Army have been linked with several of the killings. The institutions that are meant to serve the people are instead colluding with private interests that work against them. Activists trying to defend their land have been smeared as communist sympathisers, terrorists, and supporters of a Maoist guerrilla group called the New People’s Army. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, who is Filipino, was designated as a “terrorist” by the Philippine government for standing up for the indigenous people whose land was being seized, and whose lives were being tragically lost. As she later commented, “shrinking democratic spaces and nationalist movements have only exacerbated this trend [of the killing of earth and land defenders]. This violence is a human rights crisis, but it is also a threat to everyone who depends on a stable climate. Land and environmental defenders are among the best stewards of the world’s great forests and biodiversity, and when their rights are trampled, it is often to make way for environmentally destructive logging, mining, or plantations. Protecting indigenous land rights defenders is therefore not only a human rights imperative – but also urgent to mitigating the climate crisis.”

"The institutions that are meant to serve the people are instead colluding with private interests that work against them."

Over in Guatemala, the most dangerous country for earth and land defenders per capita, the stories are just as brutal. People resisting the construction of a hydroelectric project in Western Guatemala, which local people say pollutes water sources and destroys crops and fish stocks, have been met with extreme violence. A movement called the Peaceful Resistance of Ixiquisis has organised many demonstrations against the project - yet, in return, they have been met with intrusive harassment and attacks from police, soldiers and security guards. Tear gas and projectiles have been deployed against them. Five members of the movement have been killed, including a 72-year-old man. As Joel Raymundo, a member of the movement, told Global Witness, “They say we are terrorists, delinquents, assassins and that we have armed groups here, but really they’re just killing us.”

There are special interests behind the project - it has received funding from several international development banks to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, including the German bank KfW, and the company developing the project is owned by two of the wealthiest families in Guatemala. As Raymundo explains, “[members of the Peaceful Resistance of Ixquisis] are afraid of going to the police to report the threats we are receiving because we know that there are arrest warrants against us and the police can capture us if they want.”

In Mexico, Julián Carrillo, who has resisting mining concessions on his community’s land for decades, saw his world slowly crash and burn around him, at the hands of thugs and organised crime. He has received innumerable death threats. Thugs have murdered five of his relatives. His house was burned down. He was told someone would “chop his mouth” for refusing to comply with the corporations and local authorities who were keen to seize his land. Eventually, on the 24th of October, 2018, his life was taken as well. He was found dead, his body peppered with bullets.

In Honduras, an activist, Luis Fernando Ayala, was found dead in February 2018. The activist, who was a member of an environmentalist organisation opposing mining and hydroelectric projects in the area, was just sixteen. Before her death, she was sadistically tortured, her hands forcefully amputated.

It is not only physical violence, however, that people across the Global South are being met with, reports Global Witness. They are also being silenced through the courts, and through legislatures, bodies which again, are meant to serve the people, but in many countries have become behest to the interests of the corporatists and the wealthy. Freedoms have declined across the world in recent years, aligning with the rise in populism. The 2018 CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report declared that there are “serious, systemic problems with civic space”. Parliaments are further curtailing the few rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest activists currently have.

In Bangladesh, legislation was enacted in September 2018 which means that online posts that “ruin communal harmony or create instability” run the risk of a 10 year jail sentence. Using digital media to “intimidate people and/or cause damage to the state” comes with a 14 year jail sentence. In Nicaragua, the government has broadened their definition of terrorism to include peaceful protesters; in Egypt, a law was implemented allowing authorities to monitor any social media account with more than 5,000 followers; Vietnam has implemented a China-style Cybersecurity Law forcing internet companies like Facebook and Google to store private user data in the country, sparking fears that Hanoi will use the data to spy on civilians. When cases do make their way to court, the matches are clearly unfair. Armies of highly-paid, compliant lawyers face off against farmers and indigenous community leaders, who, as Global Witness points out, have “little formal education or knowledge of their rights.”

It is these people, who are having their voices forcefully silenced, through the media, through the judiciary, and even through death, who will bear the brunt of the climate crisis. It will literally be an existential threat, if the world does not act quickly. Hundreds of millions will be forced to migrate, to flee their homes by 2050. Extreme weather events will increase, as we are already seeing. If the planet’s global average temperature increases by 3°c or more, Bangkok will become submerged. In Jakarta, the ground has already sunk 2.5m over less than a decade. Four out of every five people impacted by sea-level rise by 2050 will be those who live in South-East or East Asia. Africa will also be hugely impacted by the climate crisis. Pacific Islands like Kiribati, Vanuatu and Fiji could all become submerged. It will further exacerbate the hunger crisis, will cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, and developing countries will struggle to combat climate change, due to their weakened economic situation and lack of resources as compared to the Global North.

We must remember, also, that the West is utterly complicit in the silencing of activists and the environmental destruction in the Global South. In one of the most infamous cases of earth and land defenders being murdered, the Ogoni Nine were executed in Nigeria in 1995 on trumped-up charges of murdering four chieftains opposed to their protest movement against oil fields in the Ogoni region. Two witnesses, whose testimonies formed the basis of the sham trial, have later alleged that they were bribed by Shell, who owned many of the oil fields, to give false testimonies. As Mark Dummett of Amnesty International noted, there are “hundreds of documents and hundreds of pages of court depositions which point to an incredibly close relationship between Shell and the Nigerian government at all levels." Last February, a Nahuatl indigenous activist, Samir Flores Soberanes, was assassinated for resisting the construction of a gas pipeline and power plant in Morelos, Mexico. The constructors of the project were three Spanish companies and an Italian corporation.

Further Global Witness findings demonstrate that Shell swindled the Nigerian people out of a billion dollars for access to an oil block. As Global Witness revealed, leaked emails show that Shell knew what they were doing when they paid the money to Dan Etete, a money launderer and former Nigerian oil minister, who spent his windfall on a private jet, armoured cars and shotguns before handing the rest to the then President, Goodluck Johnson.

The work of Global Witness has also revealed that Western banks and investment firms have financed large agribusinesses operating in the Global South, with sums amounting to billions of dollars; the six agribusinesses Global Witness investigated are often responsible for climate destruction and deforestation. Deutsche Bank, from Germany, the American BlackRock and the American Capital Group hold millions of dollars in JBS shares, a meatpacking company which has purchased cows from suppliers responsible for deforestation in the Amazon. Santander, the Bank of America, and the World Bank have provided tens of millions to JBS’s competitors, who engage in similar dubious behaviour. HSBC, the British bank, has provided more than a billion dollars in loans to the Olam Group, which has cleared around 20,000 hectares of forest inside Gabonese oil palm plantations. Standard Chartered also provided a loan amounting to $1.16bn. HSBC, Citigroup, Standard Chartered and the Dutch Rabobank have plied Indonesian palm oil, pulp, rubber and timber producers in Indonesia with tens of billions of dollars - this is the same country that has lost 16% of its total tree cover this century. The UK has provided a total of US$6.5bn in funding to those six agribusinesses, the second highest among all countries. HSBC, the British bank, provided the most in investment and credit to the six agribusinesses, at US$3.7bn. JPMorgan Chase provided US$1.9bn, Standard Chartered US$1.3bn and ANZ US$1.1bn.

If these Western corporations are complicit, then by extension the developed world is complicit, too. We know, also, that the Western neoliberal establishment is more concerned with their own economic dominance than the economic development of the Global South, as economists like Ha Joon-Chang and Jason Hickel have argued. We must rise up against the establishment, then; we must be the voice for those who are silenced, ensuring that the public know the true extent of the suffering of indigenous people trying to simply protect their own land. As Greta Thunberg has said, “we cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis...if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then... we should change the system.”

As Greta Thunberg has said, “we cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis...if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then... we should change the system.”

As young people, not all of us can vote to directly install progressive governments in the developed world who will respect the rights of indigenous people and be their voice on the world stage. Instead, then, we must focus on the grassroots, as several youth environmental advocacy organisations, such as UKSCN, have done; raising awareness on social media, amplifying our voices as much as possible, through whatever means necessary. Millions of schoolchildren have been mobilised in coordinated global school climate strikes taking place worldwide. We must continue to strike, and we must not stop fighting until justice has been delivered across the globe, to those who are desperately trying to protect their land, those suffering from discrimination and physical violence, in silence.

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