By: George Kurzom
suspicious global silence over the assassination of hundreds of environmental activists and land advocates over the past few years in Latin America, Asia and Africa
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons (Afaq magazine):
Thousands of recent wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have sparked international outrage, but the global media has almost never touched on the essence of the Amazon crisis. Gangs, mafias, and thugs are the real controllers of large areas of the Amazon, working for government agencies, major stakeholders, and huge agricultural companies that practice intensive eradication of the Amazon trees; they do not hesitate to prosecute, terrorize, and kill tens of environmental activists every year in Brazil, to marginalize and silence their voices that expose corruption and crime, and that defend indigenous people in the forests.
Environmental and social activists in Brazil accuse the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, along with some of his predecessors, of colluding with companies and gangs to uproot trees and deforesting.
Assassination of environmental activists in the world is not limited to Brazil, as it extends to many other countries. According to a recent annual report by the London-based international organization Global Witness, the number of people killed has remained high and disturbing, compared to 2017, with a slight drop in the number of casualties. The Philippines specifically surpassed Brazil, and "won" the title of the world's bloodiest country against environmentalists defending their land and environment.
According to the report, more than three environmental advocates on average were killed in the world every week in 2018. The total number of fatalities in that year was 164. The authors point to the continuing dangers facing people who target environmentally-destructive projects and activities, such as mines, deforestation, large chemical farmers, and fishermen.
In 2017, a record 201 killings (of environmental pioneers) globally were recorded. The authors of the report attribute the relative decrease in assassinations in 2018 to the high importance that indigenous organizations, NGOs, the United Nations, and the media cast on this issue. Global Witness says that many companies and governments are increasingly inclined to use non-lethal methods to combat their social and environmental activists, including discrimination and threats; however, the high rate of killing of environmentalists remains alarming.
For the first time since the annual documentation of killings of environmental defenders in the world began, Brazil has not been on the top of the list; with 20 environmental defenders killed in South America in 2018 - nearly two-thirds lower than 2017 when 57 persons were killed. This decrease is partly attributable to the general decline in the homicide rate in Brazil, as well as to increased international attention to this issue.
Many of the killers were employed by large monopoly companies; some were even hired by governments whose interests met with those of monopolies to exploit land for economic purposes.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), an organization promoting environmental activities in developing countries, called last year for greater pressure on governments around the world to protect environmental advocates. The organization also held a conference in Rio de Janeiro that aimed at promoting recognition of the human right to a healthy environment. In addition, the international media, including the British Guardian, have covered the issue widely by publishing a series of reports on defenders of lands and environment of indigenous peoples.
Indigenous organizations say they have contributed to the decrease in the rates of killings of environmental defenders, because now there’s a better reporting mechanism in remote areas, without which killings may not have been previously reported.
Environmental activists fear that the decrease in killings of environmentalists in Brazil is temporary, as President Bolsonaro is very keen on weakening indigenous peoples' rights to their lands, and on dismantling the legal systems that guarantee the protection of the country's natural reserves. Just in late July, a Waiapi tribe indigenous leader was killed in the reserve where he lived in the state of Amapa in northern Brazil. After that, tens of illegal gold miners invaded his village and displaced the inhabitants (as Palestinians, what do these crimes remind us of?).
In 2018, 30 environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines, compared to 48 in 2017. One-third of the murders were recorded on Mindanao, which is strongly targeted by President Rodrigo Duterta's government plans, aiming to allocate 16,000 square kilometers of land for industrial purposes. Interesting enough, half of the murders in the Philippines were related to agriculture.
Globally, the mining and metallurgy sector bears the lion's share of the 43 murders of environmentalists in 2018. However, the largest increase in murders is among activists for the protection of water resources - from 4 in 2017 to 17 in 2018. Most of the killings took place in Guatemala, in the context of disputes over the construction of hydroelectric power plants.
Global Witness estimates the true number of environmental defenders killed in the world to be higher than the data at its disposal, as many of the murders have not been reported at all. The organization also noted the increase in using courts as a tool to crush movements that opposed environmentally hazardous economic projects.
Many countries of the world—from Brazil to India—prioritize corporate interests, before any consideration of environmental protection and human rights. This increases the likelihood of land conflicts. This also falls in line with the worldwide-spreading oppression of social protests and movements for freedom of expression—from countries that claim to be the "beacon" of democracy such as the United States and France, to China and Russia. The use of courts to criminalize environmentalists is one of the tools used in both the South and the North to suppress people who pose a threat to centers of power, and the profits of large corporations and governments.
Back to the execution of the Waiapi tribe indigenous leader in Brazil (this past July), we find that the crime was carried out in an ugly manner, as the victim was stabbed to death, then his body was thrown into the river. A Brazilian opposition senator, and members of the tribe of the victim accuse President Bolsonaro of the killing and of the invasion by dozens of miners of the village of Waiapi tribe, warning of bloodshed in the region. Armed hooliganism gangs not only murdered the man, but few days after the leader was stabbed, his village (Mariri) in northern Brazil was swept by dozens of gold miners in military uniforms, who seized the village after displacing the indigenous people.
The assassination of the leader of the tribe in the village of Mariri coincided with the invasion of miners and loggers of protected areas in which some indigenous people live, with the blatant encouragement of the fascist far-right Bolsonaro, who argues that "indigenous communities control vast areas that must be opened to local industries to accumulate capital". Ironically, Belsonaro, a white colonialist-racist, and against the backdrop of massive arson fires in the Amazon forest, accused the French President, Emmanuel Macron, of acting with a colonial mentality. Belsonaro recently compared the indigenous peoples with prehistoric people. In an interview with local media, he talked about Brazil's mineral-rich natural reserves and urged the First World (industrialized capitalist states) to “explore these areas”.
Although invasions of indigenous lands have increased throughout Brazil, the execution of indigenous leaders is considered to be very rare. Illegal gold mining is a widespread phenomenon in the Amazon. The activities held by the 'garimpeiros’, the name used by locals to refer to illegal miners, pollute the rivers and destroy the forests in the area.
Finally, we note that the Waiapi tribe has lived in isolation for hundreds of years in the areas of northern Brazil and in French Guiana. In the 1970s, the gates of "civilization" were flung open after the Brazilian government constructed a road to make their area accessible to miners and other external groups. In 1996 the tribe's lands were defined as a natural reserve.
Translated by: Carol Khoury