Blog | Sept. 18, 2020

The climate leadership of land and environmental defenders is more vital than ever

Our annual report into the killings of land and environmental defenders in 2019 shows the highest number yet were murdered in a single year. At least 212 defenders were killed in 2019 – an average of four people a week since the Paris Climate agreement was signed, when the world supposedly came together amid hopes of a new era of climate progress. Countless more have been silenced by violent attacks, arrests, death threats, or lawsuits.

Time after time, these defenders have challenged those companies operating recklessly, rampaging unhampered through forests, wetlands, oceans and biodiversity hotspots.

Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play and the dangers they increasingly face, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work.

Not only that, but in the midst of a global pandemic, defenders are seeing their freedoms restricted and communities put at disproportionate risk through a lack of protections. All this while irresponsible businesses continue to expand and sometimes accelerate environmentally destructive projects.

Global Witness convened an expert panel of four speakers for our global online event to discuss what has to happen next when it comes to supporting the rights of land and environmental defenders, and following their international leadership to protect our planet and its people.

Sejin Kim, Programme Manager at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM ASIA) opened the session, highlighting how state and non-state actors continue to have an impact on defenders, especially during the escalation of COVID-19, and how it’s critical we don’t disregard basic measures like Free, Prior and Informed Consent at this time. 

We heard from winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize Alfred Brownell, on his work on the West African land and environmental defenders baseline project that aims to develop a clearer understanding of the threats that defenders face in the region so that better protections can be put in place. It’s clear that we’re not even at the tip of the iceberg of recording and analysing data when it comes to violence and attacks against defenders in Liberia and the broader region.

Leon Dulce, National Coordinator of the Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment in the Philippines explained how President Duterte has mobilised more police workers than health workers in COVID-19, and what the escalating impact on defenders has been as a result.

Finally, we heard from Timer Manurung, Chairman of Auriga, Indonesia on his recommendations on how to tackle the imbalances of power - where corporate and state interests overlap, and how Auriga is working to address this.

The online format of the event meant we were able to open up it up widely, with everyone from defenders organisations themselves to banks, businesses and NGOs attending.  A huge thank you to Timer, Leon, Alfred and Sejin and everyone who took part and submitted their questions. It is our hope that governments, investors and businesses alike all sit up and take notice of the crucial measures that must be taken now to protect and support land and environmental defenders across the globe.

Preview image credit: Benjamin Wachenje / Global Witness

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