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Dying defending the earth for us

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Global Witness, report, environmental defenders, killed, murdered, Indigenous People's DayIt is increasingly clear that governments and business are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is held on 9 August, to bring to draw attention to the rights and achievements of indigenous peoples.

And this year marks the tenth anniversary of the UN General Assembly adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – the most comprehensive international agreement on indigenous peoples’ rights.

Ten years since the Declaration, indigenous peoples around the world have made significant progress in advocating for their rights, but there continues to be a gap between policy and action.

Indigenous peoples continue to face exclusion, marginalisation and major challenges in enjoying their basic rights.

All around the world indigenous people are among the people being murdered, attacked and arrested for standing up to companies that want to take their land.

At least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014, and a shocking 40 per cent of those victims were indigenous.

Most of the people died amid disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business.

Global Witness, who have been researching and recording these figures, said nearly three-quarters of the deaths that they were able to find information about were in Central and South America.

Honduras was the most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental activist, with 101 deaths between 2010 and 2014.

The case of Berta Cáceres is emblematic of the systematic targeting of environmental defenders in Honduras.

Since 2013, three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca hydro-dam on the Gualcarque River, which threatens to cut off a vital water source for hundreds of indigenous Lenca people.

Fabricated criminal charges were filed against her, and two of her children left Honduras, fearing for their safety.

Berta Cáceres was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for defending the environment at great personal cost; you can hear about her work in this video.

Cáceres was shot dead in March 2016 while supposedly under state protection after receiving death threats because of her opposition to a hydroelectric dam.

Leaked court documents raise concerns that the murder of the Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres was an extrajudicial killing planned by military intelligence specialists linked to the country’s US–trained special forces, a Guardian investigation revealed earlier this year.

A new Global Witness report, Defenders of the Earth, published last month, found that 2016 saw a record 200 killings of people defending their land, forests and rivers – and that we too depend on – against destructive industries: four people were murdered every week.

Murder is just one of a range of tactics used to silence land and environmental defenders, including death threats, arrests, sexual assault and aggressive legal attacks.

Killings of defenders are not only growing, they’re spreading too.

In 2016 Global Witness documented 200 killings in 24 countries, compared to 185 in 16 in 2015.

And again, almost 40 per cent of those murdered were indigenous.

Land they have inhabited for generations is being stolen by companies, landowners or state actors.

Projects are typically imposed on communities without their free, prior and informed consent, backed up by force: police and soldiers are suspected perpetrators in at least 43 murders.

Protest is often the only option left to communities exercising their right to have a say about the use of their land and natural resources, putting them on a collision course with those seeking profit – apparently at any cost.

A lack of prosecutions also makes it hard to identify those responsible, but Global Witness found strong evidence that the police and military were behind at least 43 killings, with private actors such as security guards and hitmen linked to 52 deaths.

Mining remains the most dangerous sector – with 33 defenders killed after having opposed mining and oil projects – though the number of murders associated with logging are on the rise

The ruthless scramble for the Amazon’s natural wealth makes Brazil, once again, the world’s deadliest country in terms of sheer numbers killed, though Honduras remains the most dangerous country per capita over the past decade.

Nicaragua is beginning to rival that dubious record. An inter-oceanic canal is set to slice the country in two, threatening mass displacement, social unrest and the violent suppression of those who stand against it.

A voracious mining industry makes the Philippines stand out for killings in Asia.

In Colombia, killings hit an all-time high, despite – or perhaps because – of the recently signed peace deal between the government and the guerrilla group, the FARC.

Areas previously under guerrilla control are now eyed enviously by extractive companies and paramilitaries, while returning communities are attacked for reclaiming land stolen from them during half a century of conflict.

And India has seen a threefold increase in killings as police brutality and repression of peaceful protests worsens. 2016 saw 16 murders, mostly linked to mining projects.

It is increasingly clear that, globally, governments and business are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk.

They are permitting a level of impunity that allows the vast majority of perpetrators to walk free, emboldening would-be assassins.

Investors, including development banks, are fuelling the violence by backing projects that harm the environment and trample human rights.

The report also notes the increasing criminalisation of these activists right across the world, including in the USA.

They are often painted as criminals, facing trumped-up criminal charges and aggressive civil cases brought by governments and companies seeking to silence them.

States have the primary duty, under international law, to guarantee that human rights defenders can carry out their activism safely.

However, land and environmental defenders face specific and heightened risks because they challenge business interests.

Therefore, to keep them safe, action is needed from governments, companies, investors and bilateral aid and trade partners.

“States are breaking their own laws and failing their citizens in the worst possible way.

“Brave activists are being murdered, attacked and criminalised by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

“Governments, companies and investors have a duty to guarantee that communities are consulted about the projects that affect them, that activists are protected from violence, and that perpetrators are brought to justice,” Global Witness’s Ben Leather said.

To read the full report, click here.

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