Leaving No One Behind: Land and environmental defenders at the heart of sustainable development

by Marie Becher and Jill Powis | Peace Brigades International
Thursday, 28 July 2016 13:34 GMT

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More land and environmental activists are being killed than ever before. We can't forget their work when planning for the future.

The phrase "leaving no one behind" is used no fewer than six times in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development agreed by global leaders as a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. While certainly a compelling phrase, as Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS, warned in the foreword of this year’s State of Civil Society Report, civil society needs to be in the vanguard of shaping and delivering this ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are designed to stimulate action in areas of "critical importance for humanity and the planet" such as measures to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies free from fear and violence; to ensure that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature, and to create a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity.

The Agenda's text itself acknowledges that the reality is currently very different, something that Peace Brigades International (PBI) has observed first-hand. PBI provides unarmed protection to human rights defenders, with a focus on those who defend land and environmental rights.  

Such defenders are on the frontline in civil society's struggle to defend land, forests and rivers against destructive industries, but in doing so face a unique set of risks. Many are indigenous and peasant farmer communities who have been 'left behind' by their own societies, while standing up to powerful interest groups – such as corporations or the state. Marginalised both geographically and socially, land and environmental rights defenders often work in isolated rural areas in conditions of extreme poverty, with poor communications and little access to legal protections.

Thus they, and the situations they face, are mostly invisible.

ON DANGEROUS GROUND

Global Witness's report On Dangerous Ground, published in June, starkly illustrates the need to put protecting land and environmental defenders at the heart of sustainable development. The report documents 185 killings of land and environmental rights defenders across 16 countries in 2015.

This is by far the highest annual death toll of such defenders on record and a 59 percent increase over the previous year, with indigenous people accounting for almost 40% of the victims.  Furthermore, the report warns that the true number of killings is likely much higher, due to severe limits on information available.  Conflicts over mining were the number one cause of killings in 2015, with agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and logging also key drivers of violence.

Honduras has become notorious for the number of land and environmental defenders killed since the 2009 coup, after the government removed legal obstacles to exploiting mining concessions, ended negotiating processes for longstanding land disputes relating to agribusiness, and granted a large number of hydroelectric concessions – 40 in just one law in September 2010 - without prior consultation with affected communities. According to Global Witness, at least 109 defenders were killed between 2010 and 2015.  

The most high-profile victim so far has been Berta Cáceres, who, at the time of her death in March, was supporting Lenca indigenous communities in their struggle against the Agua Zarca dam. Those charged with her murder include employees of the hydroelectric company and an active member of the military.

As Donald Hernández of CEHPRODEC has said, Berta's death is just “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of persecution of Honduran land rights defenders.  PBI has been accompanying CEHPRODEC since 2014. This organisation provides support to communities defending their land and environment.

The courageous defenders it works with include 29-year-old mother of five, Ana Mirian Romero, who received the 2016 Front Line Defenders Award in recognition of her role in defending her community's ancestral lands after a hydroelectric dam concession was imposed without its consent. She and her family have suffered serious and repeated attacks by the police, the military and armed civilians, all representing the interests of the hydroelectric company.

Ana Mirian Romero, an indigenous and land rights defender from Honduras, holds her four-month-old daughter at Thomson Reuters offices in Canary Wharf on 14 May, during a visit to London to receive the 2016 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. TRF/Shanshan Chen

This apparent collusion between state and corporate interests is not confined to Honduras. PBI has accompanied communities and organisations subjected to a range of acts of persecution by state entities for opposing economic projects. For example, in Guatemala, members of the Peaceful Resistance of La Puya have been the targets of excessive police force and falsified criminal charges for their opposition to El Tambor mine.

In Mexico, members of the Popular Assembly of the Pueblo Juchiteco, which opposes a vast expansion in wind farms, have also faced false criminal charges and in 2013, three were shot, one fatally, by masked gunmen accompanied by police officers.    

"RELENTLESS RISE IN KILLINGS"

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) have been hailed by the world’s major business organisations and networks as a “powerful and critical companion to the Sustainable Development Goals”. However, the seemingly relentless rise in killings and other acts of persecution of land and environmental rights defenders raises serious questions about the current effectiveness of the UNGPs, five years on from their adoption.  

Last month PBI UK held a conference to highlight the situation for human rights defenders as well as to and discuss strategies for their protection, including the UNGPs. One of the speakers, Peter Frankental of Amnesty International UK, observed that the principles are not legally binding on either states or companies.  Furthermore, only 10 states  have so far adopted National Action Plans (NAPs) to give effect to the UNGPs, and those NAPs that do exist tend to be minimalist, focusing largely on what the government is already doing rather than on any new commitments.

Despite their critical role in promoting corporate respect  for human rights, human rights defenders are not mentioned in the Principles themselves at all, and only once, in passing, in the commentaries to them.

A new report by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) - Human Rights Defenders in National Action Plans (NAPs) on Business and Human Rights - is a very welcome response. It provides guidance on consulting human rights defenders in the development of NAPs and how their rights can be addressed through them, providing an important contribution to the implementation of the UNGPs.  

PBI has seen the courage of human rights defenders in their efforts to protect forests, mountains and rivers, as well as in seeking to promote the rule of law and the observance of international standards when this environment is under threat from destructive industries.

The current scenario shows the vital role that civil society can and must play, both in supporting these defenders directly, as well as ensuring that the international human rights framework affords them the protection that they need and deserve. This will go some way to ensuring that they can become fully recognised partners in the efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and that they and their communities are not "left behind."  

Marie Becher and Jill Powis work with Peace Brigades International. Marie’s paper on Threats and Attacks on Indigenous People’s Rights Activists is part of the 2016 State of Civil Society Report.