On March 22nd, Honduran environmental defender Carlos Cerros was shot and killed in front of his children near the city of San Antonio, Intibucá. Cerros was a representative of the Indigenous Lenca people and the president of a local advocacy group, United Communities. His murder is the latest in a longstanding trend of violent persecution of environmental activists. According to Global Witness, 14 environmental defenders were killed in Honduras alone in 2019.
Environmental and land defenders work peacefully to advocate for and protect land rights and the environment. Importantly, these defenders operate on the frontline of the conflict between those who seek to conserve the environment and those who seek profit from extracting natural resources. As political leaders financed by extractive industries sway policy further in favor of the latter side, resources will become scarcer, and this conflict will only become more violent as the stakes rise.
Environmental defenders in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil see the highest rates of violent persecution. Similar groups in the Philippines, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo follow soon after. In places like the Philippines, many of the killings may be connected to government and security forces. In Latin America, the perpetrators are more typically affiliated with gangs. Those targeted are often members of marginalized Indigenous or Black communities in regions where the law has been co-opted as a tool for exploitation.
In a U.N. special report on human rights defenders, U.N. Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor argues that homicide rates for environmental defenders continue to rise because their persecution is met with impunity. In international human rights law, “impunity” refers to a failure to punish human rights violations and thereby redress the harms victims incur. Violations of their land rights, criminalizing attempts to challenge or resist such violations, and failing to punish those who commit violence or homicide against them are examples of governments treating environmental defenders’ persecution with impunity. “There is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders,” Lawlor writes, citing the murder of environmental defender Mama Fikile as an example. Fikile was shot in her home after advocating against a local coal mine in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa, and has yet to receive justice despite environmental justice groups’ calls for investigation.
Corporate activity plays a significant role in driving land rights violations and environmental degradation. At the end of March, eighty-one indigenous leaders and environmental defenders from the Amazon, West Africa, and Southeast Asia signed an open letter to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm. The letter criticizes the firm for failing to hold the companies in its investment portfolio accountable for deforestation and land rights violations and argues that the firm’s failure to do so is escalating violence against environmental defenders. For example, three agricultural companies in BlackRock’s investment portfolio, Archer-Daniels-Midland, JBS, and Golden Agri-Resources, have been connected to violations of Indigenous land rights in recent years.
Such allegations against BlackRock are compounded by the firm’s recent attempt to rebrand itself as an environmentally conscious investor. BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink, declared that the only way to ensure long-term profitability is via sustainable investment in 2020, and the firm has made considerable effort to modify its voting practices in consistence with this goal. Just last week, BlackRock released new guidelines on the responsible use of “natural capital” and human rights. However, indigenous leaders and environmental defenders argue that these guidelines fail to specify actionable steps BlackRock would take against companies violating human rights and/or engaging in unsustainable deforestation practices. Signatory Eloy Terena of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil stated, “Our challenge to BlackRock is clear: Safeguard Indigenous peoples’ rights and eliminate deforestation and human rights violations from its portfolios.”
Beyond challenging impunity and pressuring BlackRock to follow through on its pledges to environmental and social sustainability, there are several ways to work toward justice and protection for environmental defenders. Political reform to tighten regulations on company practices, create greater accountability, and increase transparency is key. International solidarity and greater press exposure of both environmental defenders’ efforts and the corrupt tactics deployed against them are also needed. Charitably funded advocacy groups, such as Not 1 More, which aim to connect environmental defenders to resources to aid in their protection, play an equally important role.
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