This article is written by Mouna Chambon.
2016 has been the deadliest year on record for environmental activists defending their land. A collaborative research, which has been conducted by the Guardian and the organisation Global Witness, revealed that 200 environmental defenders were killed last year. While representing only 5 % of the world population, indigenous peoples make up 40 % of the total recorded death number. These stark statistics underline the high vulnerability of indigenous peoples all over the world.
Although Indigenous communities contribute little to greenhouse emissions, they play an active role in shaping climate action. Indeed, they are on the very frontline of climate change and may draw from their traditional knowledge in order to develop local-based climate solutions. Data from the World Resources Institute show that significant global carbon benefits result from tenure-secure indigenous forestlands. Yet, this particular relationship between indigenous communities and their ancestral land remains largely omitted and might even represent a motive to aggression.
An alarming number of indigenous leaders are killed for defending their community ‘s land and natural resources each year. Some of these murders have been highly mediatised such as the case of Bertha Caceres, a Honduran activist, who was shot dead for her fight against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Rio Blanco. With 171 recorded killings so far, 2017 is on course to break the sinister record of the previous year. But like if being threatened of killings was not enough, environmental activists are also facing intimidation and criminalisation from their own government on a daily basis.
So what is driving this rising violence? Well, no need to look far : the answer is simply related to the presence of extractive industries. In fact, most of the killings occur in remoted areas where fossil fuel industries are operating with the state approval. The two-years investigation by The Guardian and Global Witness show that state forces are using their power to impose mining and extractive projects, meanwhile silencing the grassroots opposition through violent attacks and harassments. Nina Gualingua , an Indigenous leader from the Pueblo of Sarayaku in Ecuador, argues “Many of the fossil fuel reserves are on indigenous lands in Ecuador. Instead of supporting that fights, governments are supporting these industries and are criminalising Indigenous defenders.“ Global hotspots of these killings are located in South East Asia, the African Congo Basin and Latin America, with the Amazon region concentrating the great majority. According to Global Witness, Honduras won the award of the most dangerous country with 120 activists killed for having defended their land and natural resources in 2016.
Women are even more at risk due to gender-based specific violence. Indigenous women are often victims of sexual abuses that might come from their own communities because of the male-dominated power structure in place. In 2013 Nina Gualingua led a women march from her community to Quito in order to protest against the governmental support for extractive industries in Ecuador. She relates: “The president [of Ecuador] insulted us and said we should go back home. We have been seriously harassed and criminalised whereas we only spoke up for the right of our families and territories.“ For Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), it’s, above all, a matter of Human’s rights and state responsibility : “ At a time where climate change has an increasingly strong impact on Human rights, Natural resources and livelihoods, it is clearly the responsibility of states and the international community to reverse the trend by protecting the rights of the most vulnerable” .
Indigenous activists call for having a seat at the climate negotiating table. While the Paris Agreement marked a fundamental shift by recognising their contribution on dealing with climate change, COP23 definitely set the path to move forwards. Among its significant achievements was the operationalisation of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP), which aims to support the exchange and sharing of good practices related to climate action between indigenous stakeholders. However, this must be considered as a first step. Governments have now to recognise the crisis and prioritise the protection of indigenous activists’ rights. Investors, on their side, should not invest in projects that are likely to be harmful for indigenous communities and environmental defenders.Finally,“ without guaranteeing communities a say in how their land and natural resources are used, the roots of this violence will continue to grow” concluded Billy Kyte of Global Witness.
About the author: Mouna Chambon is currently completing her Master degree in Tropical Ecology in the National Museum of Natural History. She holds a dual bachelor in Political Sciences and Biology from Sciences Po Paris and the University Pierre and Marie Curie. After an exchange year in South Africa, she decided to focus on tropical ecosystems and biodiversity governance. As part of her Master, she has conducted a research project on the impact of climate change on women in Vanuatu. This experience aroused her interest in that research area. Subsequently, she joined CliMates and launched the project “Gender and climate change “ in January 2017. She speaks French, English, German and Italian.