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30 September 2021

Why is the plight of environmental defenders in the Global South ignored?

More people than ever are being murdered in poorer countries while defending nature. But Western politicians don’t seem to care.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio and Michael Goodier

A record number of environmental defenders and indigenous people – an average of more than four a week – were killed in 2020, with the majority of deaths in the Global South. Yet the agenda for the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow this November does not mention tackling the persecution of climate activists.

To those working in global NGOs and local civil society groups, this omission is no shock. “I wish it did, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Laura Furones of Global Witness, which has collected the data on climate activist deaths since 2012. “The situation continues to get worse and worse, and yet the issue is not getting any more attention from global leaders.”

Deaths were recorded across various sectors: there was a sharp rise in the number of land-related disputes, in particular related to logging (23), agribusiness (17), illegal crop substitution (17), and mining and extractives (17).

Global witness says that corporations have continued to contribute to, and benefit from, attacks on land and environmental defenders. By opposing development projects, these defenders are vulnerable to attacks by criminal gangs, for instance, or police and military violence.

[see also: Why China and the US’s climate announcements are cause for hope]

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“We wondered if the pandemic would give things a different context," Furones said. "But what's happened is that... the pressure to move forward with development projects has continued and defenders have been more vulnerable than ever.”

The push for constant development has a drastically negative effect on the environment.

“Obviously, when you're talking about mining or logging projects, the building of dams, or agribusiness developments, they typically entail large carbon emissions. They entail all sorts of environmental damage, particularly in forests, which are essential to keeping the climate crisis at bay,” Furones said.

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Evidence of the long-term effects of such practices is clear to see. Data published in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change outlines the mass extinction event the world is experiencing – with the Global South heavily affected. The effects of industrialisation and deforestation mean just 3 per cent of the Earth’s land remains ecologically intact.

Under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, world leaders said global heating should be kept to "well below" 2°C and efforts pursued to limit it to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. However, progress towards these targets is way off track. Only one country is the world, the Gambia, is implementing climate action consistent with the 1.5 °C warming limit, research published this month by the Climate Action Tracker NGO shows.

While renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power are vital to lowering emissions and reducing the world's reliance on fossil fuels, some experts are concerned that ecosystems and citizens are being forgotten in the rush to create and implement new technology.

“We have to be very careful about new technologies,” said Pierre Ibisch, professor at the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development in Germany. “Ecosystems are not just beautiful nature, nice scenery and beautiful plants, but systems that handle the energy,” that support life on Earth. Continually destroying the planet's ecosystems through deforestation and expecting renewable energy to offset biodiversity loss is not a viable option. “If this global system [of operating] is refusing to carry us, as it currently is, then technology will be worth nothing,” Ibisch added.

“People definitely want to talk more about just pouring investments into green technologies, sustainability products, shifting lifestyles, etc. [But] the plight and the struggles of environmental defenders are the hard questions that people always try to avoid,” said Filipino environmentalist Leon Dulce, the national coordinator at the Kalikasan People's Network.

Dulce argues corporate greed and conflicts of interest between governmental and private entities are behind the lack of concrete action on the climate. “What truly stops the relentless march of destructive capitalism, what truly stops the relentless plunder of natural resources are environmental defenders in local villages at the grass-roots level on the ground. It's what stops the big mines; it's what stops the big coal power plants; it's what stops the different extractive and disruptive projects.”

Because the work of environmental defenders in the Global South opposes this (Western, he said) way of operating, their plight “will always face opposition just to be discussed in global public discourse”.

That environmental defenders are particularly at risk in the Global South is down to a variety of factors. Laura Furones of Global Witness said: “On the one hand, I think it's a mixture of the natural resources being there and lands being lucrative. But, it's also to do with governance in those [Global Douth] countries, and to what extent laws are being enforced; to what extent there's scrutiny and monitoring of corporate activity.”

A high level of impunity in the Global South sends the message that corporations can “come into one of these countries, and then pretty much do what [they] want, because there's very little chance you are ever going to be prosecuted”, Furones argues. “We see many cases where communities try and go through the official channels and try to take corporations to court, but sadly… many don't really get anywhere.”

Indigenous groups native to the Global South are increasingly finding themselves targets. In 2020 more than a third of the 227 fatal attacks were on individuals from indigenous groups.

The worst affected country for the deaths of defenders, when adjusted per capita, is Nicaragua. “Corporations coming in has had a huge impact: it’s caused violence and the displacement of indigenous communities, and [is] causing serious health and environmental problems,” said the indigenous Nicaraguan climate activist Lottie Cunningham Wren. 

More than 60 per cent of Nicaragua's landmass has been offered up for mining concessions – "something that doesn't have the consent of the population", Cunningham Wren said. "The majority of these mining concessions are located in indigenous people’s territory, and my people don't have a clue what is happening around them – who these companies are, or what agreements they have with the Nicaraguan state. These types of things just go on and on."

The complaints of environmental defenders in the Global South have long gone unheard, and will be far from the top of the COP26 agenda.

Many individuals and civil society groups are now "at the point in time where it's darkest before dawn", said Dulce. "But we always say that hope springs eternal... We believe that every day that we assert the protection of the environment is a day that contributes to that eventual big shift in culture, politics, the economy and society. Even in the face of relentless attacks and murder, we still stand strong."

[see also: Latin America and the Caribbean are set for a climate revolution – despite the wishes of Jair Bolsonaro]