Article by PBI-UK
PBI provides tailored protection and support to environmental defenders as part of our commitment to protect the planet. We believe that respect for environmental rights can only be achieved when earth defenders are protected from violent attacks and shielded from risks they face protecting local ecosystems. Those who defend precious resources like water, clean soil, and land are at the frontline of environmental conservation. They must be able to continue their work in secure conditions, without fear of losing their lives.
212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019, an increase from 164 in 2018.
As the COVID-19 pandemic develops, the work of environmental defenders should be seen within a broader context of human survival. Planetary health specialists have begun to identify the connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things, and whole ecosystems.
Critically, the destruction of untouched forests in the interests of logging, mining or even renewable energy brings people into contact with animal species for the first time. Environmental defenders have been fighting tooth and nail to prevent extractive industries from accelerating these processes, risking the lives of themselves and their families.
At PBI we stand by the side of environmental rights defenders and offer them the political protection and support they need to protect Mother Earth. We need your help to continue protecting them, at a time when international solidarity is more important than ever.
Join PBI-UK's Picasso for Human Rights Raffle for a chance to win an original linocut, and help save the lives of environmental defenders. We believe that only a truly holistic approach to environmental justice will safeguard humanity from future crises, whether drought, flood, or epidemic.
Silvia with two PBI field volunteers. Photo by Manu Valcarce
"I want to enjoy all the wonders of Mother Earth because I am part of her. They can’t kill me. I will give up my life defending life."
Sylvia Villaseñor is an environmental lawyer working for the Mexican Institute for Community Development. She is involved in defending indigenous land rights in Puebla, Mexico, where mining and hydroelectric companies are appropriating indigenous lands and threatening the lives of the communities.
In 2011 the Mexican constitution was modified to marginally extend indigenous rights. This led to limited attempts at consultation over land titles. But so far in Mexico there has not been a single consultation with indigenous communities that meets the criteria set out in the International Labour Organisation Convention 169 on indigenous rights.
In the case of the Walmart Hydroelectric Project in Puebla, corporate representatives carried out a fake consultation, co-ordinated by the Energy Ministry, which failed to meet the standards required by law. The consultation was recognised by the government regardless, in order to allow the project to advance.
The communities Sylvia works for are strongly organised through their indigenous roots. They have tried everything to defend their territories. They ask “Where will we go if they move us from these lands?” The execution of these extractive projects would lead to vast displacement and tremendous environmental devastation in the Sierra Norte of Puebla.
A Glimmer of Hope
Environmental defenders all around all around the world are working tirelessly to set new legal precedents.
In February 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, at the request of the Republic of Colombia, described a healthy environment as “a fundamental right for the existence of humankind”. The Court held that this right should be implicitly included among the economic, social and cultural rights protected by Article 26.
In the judgement of the Case of the Indigenous Communities of the Lhaka Honhat Association (Our Land) v. Argentina in April 2020, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the State of Argentina internationally responsible for the violation of the rights to community property, cultural identity, a healthy environment, adequate food and water for indigenous communities. The judgement could set a legal precedent for environmental lawyers around the world working to protect the environment and against climate change.
For the first time in a contentious case, the Court analysed the rights to a healthy environment, adequate food, water and cultural identity autonomously from Article 26 of the American Convention, ordering specific measures of reparation for the restitution of those rights, including actions for access to water and food, for the recovery of forest resources and for the recovery of indigenous culture.
Domingo Vasquez and the CCCND work to defend indigenous Maya Ch’orti’ communities, whose lives and livelihoods are at risk because of hydroelectric dams, extractive projects, and intensive agriculture. The affected communities are rarely consulted or able to voice their concerns about the environmental impacts in what is one of the driest regions of the country.
Recently the CCCND has been supporting the The Peaceful Resistance to the Cantera Los Manantiales Mine. The Resistance campaigns against the ‘negative impact on the water and the environment’, as ‘fish were beginning to die in large quantities’ and the water ‘totally affected by pollution from the waste material’. The license for the mine was granted without the free, prior and informed consent of the affected communities as required by International Labour Organisation's Convention 169.
Through concerted action including ‘sit-ins’ at the entrances to the mine, the Resistance managed to secure the suspension of the mine’s licence and withdrawal of machinery.
"The truth is that being a defender arises from necessity. We human rights defenders are those who defend the land, the water, the woods, the rivers and hills and everything that’s in our territory."
Domingo Vasquez Ramirez
CCCND member from Chiquimula, Guatemala
The defense of environmental rights are intimately connected to the current crisis. Just as rights to water and sanitation were declared an essential component of an adequate standard of living by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, so has the WHO announced that safe water and hygienic conditions are essential to mitigating the COVID-19 outbreak. Human-to-human transmission could be prevented through well maintained water and wastewater infrastructure, but in many communities around the world these have been decimated by development projects and polluting industries. By fighting for rights to local resources, human rights defenders have been safeguarding the lives of generations to come.
Grassroots non-violent resistance from brave individuals and organisations like the CCCND is incredibly effective at protecting people and planet. PBI works to minimise the risks they face so that their activism can thrive. We need your help to keep them alive.
We provide moral support and solidarity so that they never stand alone. We focus on improving the security of environmental defenders, and empowering those on the cutting-edge of the global fight for justice, peace, and a sustainable future. Polluting industrial practices like mining, logging, and agribusiness further the social injustices and inequalities that render communities and whole nations more vulnerable to the impacts of the current pandemic and other crises.
PBI has been accompanying CCCND since 2009, following threats and harassment of its members. This means risk assessments, documentation of violations, and engagement with influential stakeholders such as pro bono legal experts to ensure their safety. Omar Jeronimo (coordinator of the CCCND) says: ‘accompaniment in Guatemala saves lives’.
The pillage of our natural world has devastating consequences. It is only by protecting environmental defenders that we guarantee the survival of our species.
At this critical time, we are stepping up our efforts to support environmental defenders:
- Rolling out our toolbox for environmental defenders on corporate accountability through a series of online training sessions with Simmons & Simmons legal experts.
- Digital support to monitor and track environmental violations and respond to immediate security risks.
- Global advocacy actions and online petitions around violations of economic and social rights to protect defenders in immediate risk.
- Increased capacity and wellbeing of environmental defenders so they can build their resilience, and develop to tools required to support their communities.