The world as we know it is changing at an exponential rate. The impact of COVID-19 on global health and financial systems will ripple for decades. As lives and livelihoods remain the top priority, many manifestations of this virus will continue to play out in the short, medium and long term. At Global Witness, we’re committed to being part of the movement for a more resilient planet going forward. This includes standing up for land and environmental activists. States and business must do the same.
Indeed it is in their interest to do so. It is widely recognised that deforestation and the loss of wildlife are two key contributors to the rise in infectious diseases. In order to avert a future pandemic, decision-makers will need to listen to those environmentalists, indigenous leaders and community activists taking a stand to protect nature. Front line activists can also be a key voice in tackling the inequalities that have exacerbated the virus’s impact, and in proposing more sustainable ways of doing business in future. But only if they are safe enough to do so.
As is the case for other types of human rights defenders, threats and attacks against land and environmental activists have not slowed in this COVID-19 crisis period. In fact, they appear to have accelerated. From Colombia to Niger, to Indonesia, the Philippines and beyond, Global Witness and its allies have received credible reports of:
- Defenders confined to a known location and subsequently targeted, and sometimes even murdered, by state and non-state armed groups.
- Suspended courts and closed-door hearings, leaving criminalised defenders locked up for extended periods of time, with limited legal recourse.
- Draconian limitations on free speech, including censorship measures - which have subsequently been applied to arrest those defending their land or environmental rights.
- Governments invoking COVID-19 as a reason to shut down protests, even in countries with no registered presence of the virus, or where protesters observe social distancing rules.
- Increased surveillance and intimidation of defenders, under the excuse of emergency powers.
Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of the battle to avert climate breakdown. However, they are also disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 - with governments neglecting their healthcare needs, and illegal miners and loggers entering their territories without precaution, bringing the threat of disease with them.
With the majority of NGOs and many social movements taking their activities online during the lock-down, fears for digital security – as well as psychological wellbeing – are rife. Many grassroots defenders are forced, reluctantly, to prioritise their families’ daily struggle for survival, with jobs and livelihoods on the line, hindering their ability to protest and organise.
Without exception, defenders are concerned about whether the broad emergency powers implemented to contain and confront the lethal virus might be abused to clampdown on activism, reduce civic freedoms, and target those standing up for their rights. COVID-19 response measures are already being applied differentially to activists: as governments release prisoners to reduce the spread of the pandemic in jails, detained defenders often remain locked up.
At-risk activists are not always receiving the support they ought to. Governments, diplomats, donors and responsible business must show creativity and commitment to find ways to engage with, support and protect threatened defenders without spreading the virus.
Business as usual and a fear for the future
As activists struggle with these new restrictions, some businesses have responded to the relative lack of civic scrutiny to push ahead with controversial operations, lobby for loosened regulations and fast-track applications. This will only strengthen the existing root causes of the risks facing defenders. Governments should not stand for opportunism at a time of international crisis, and should commit to building a post-COVID-19 economic stimulus upon a solid base of human rights and environmental protections.
A sustainable, resilient and fair response to the pandemic will be one in which rights are upheld and those who defend them are listened to. However, there are warning signs that some might take the opposite tack. In the US, the Federal government have rolled back enforcement of environmental laws as a handful of States have simultaneously criminalised environmental protest.
Civil society will need to be vigilant.
Civil society responding, but will governments and business?
Inspirationally, even under the heightened pressure and restrictions, human rights and environmental organisations around the world are pulling together to find creative responses, and to pool documentation. Global Witness is part of an effort by the Defending Land and Environmental Defenders Coalition to systematically monitor COVID-19-related incidents and identify trends. NGOs are tracking threats to civil liberties and COVID-19’s impact upon indigenous peoples, as well as responses to the crisis by business and the UN.
Not only are healthcare and workers’ rights at massive risk when activists cannot provide proper scrutiny because they are facing threats, but if we want to build a more resilient and fair planet once this crisis passes, it is crucial that land and environmental defenders are better protected. These defenders stand on the frontline of fighting climate breakdown, and are the key to a green economic recovery the world over - halting damage to the very environment which protects us from infectious diseases, and standing up to irresponsible business that ploughs through to its profits at any cost .
In the long term, it is crucial that we consider how responsible business can operate in a way that puts local communities and defenders at the centre of decision-making, rather than at risk. Global Witness recently published guidance for how companies and investors can do this.
In the short term, governments and business should:
- Use public and private communications to emphasize that the role of land and environmental defenders is as important as ever and that reprisals against them will not be tolerated.
- Dedicate resources to identifying increased reprisals-related risks across investments, operations and supply chains, and take action to prevent and mitigate any risks identified, and to support land and environmental defenders globally.
- Use secure channels to ensure that information on the environmental or human rights impact of potential business projects reach those affected, allowing them the opportunity to engage in decision-making in a safe way.
- Commit to putting land and environmental rights, and those who protect them, at the centre of any response to COVID-19.
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