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Saving The Earth Is A Very Dangerous Job

Two environmentalists are killed on average every week as land struggles intensify violence against green activists worldwide.

Russian environmentalists trying to break through a cordon of security guards
Russian environmentalists trying to break through a cordon of security guards
Rémi Barroux, Marie Jégo

In recent weeks, the Brazilian government has taken new measures to protect small farmers and environmentalists who are risking their lives in the Amazon. In May, a couple of activists were killed in an ambush in Para, a state in northern Brazil.

Unfortunately, it's not an isolated example. Celso Rodriguez, a 42-year-old Guarani Indian, also died June 12 in an ambush set by two armed men, supposedly hired by the livestock farmers occupying the nearby territory of the Paraguassu community, according to the group Survival International. “The battle for the possession of land is very violent,” says Fiona Watson, Survival International director. “Let’s not forget that the lands that belong to indigenous people are rich in resources, especially metal ores.”

According to a census carried out this year by the NGO Global Witness, two people are killed every week on average because of their environmental work. Green activists and representatives of indigenous people are threatened and persecuted by paramilitary organizations, private militias, even official police officers. Though it is difficult to estimate, this number is believed to have doubled since 2000.

“In fact, people who defend land rights against big industrial or agricultural projects are subjected to a lot of pressure,” explains Gerald Staberock, head of the World Organization Against Torture. “These activists are often active in rural and isolated regions, so they are more vulnerable. They are at the mercy of private militias in the pay of big businesses. And the state, which is supposed to protect them, is quite often corrupted by these very same groups.”

A worldwide problem

In its 2013 annual report, Amnesty International argues that these “earth keeper” people are in danger all over the world — in Brazil, Colombia, Cambodia, India, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, Honduras, Philippines, Thailand and Cameroon, to name but a few places.

Of course, the political context is different in each country, but the motive behind these murders is almost always the same. “In some cases, the governments that are supposed to protect the people have instead seized their land in the name of the State and then rented it to other people,” Amnesty International concludes.

According to the NGOs, the procedure is often the same. “They send the leaders death threats, and they also target their children. If that is not enough, they are gotten rid of,” says an Amnesty International official.

The bitter struggle for these lands and their resources is not new, but it is worsening, says Pascal Hunting, director of Greenpeace International. “In Malaysia, crime levels are getting higher and higher in the forestry sector,” he says. “Most of the wood on the market is illegal. We need to be more aggressive in order to combat this increase in violence.”

Greenpeace — whose campaigns against nuclear energy, the fishing of certain species and timber trafficking are very centralized — has made its activist training more rigorous “to be able to ensure the physical and mental well-being of our activists in rural areas.”

Crackdown on green activism

The criminalization of these green movements is becoming more common. In Russia, environmentalists are subjected to police raids and interrogation. A law passed in 2012 forces NGOs that receive financing from abroad to declare themselves as “foreign agents,” a term likely to be associated with “spy” that discredits them in the eyes of the public. As yet, none of the charities has complied.

In recent months, the Russian public prosecutor has ordered the most active green organizations — Bellona, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and outside the capital, the Baikal Environmental Wave and the Environment Observatory in Sakhaline — to register as “foreign agents” at the ministry of justice. If they refuse, they risk a six-month suspension of their activity, and individuals face up to three months in prison. The fines are no less severe: a maximum of 15,000 euros ($19,880). At the end of April, the NGO Golos, which monitors elections, was fined 9,523 euro fine ($12,621) for rejecting the “foreign agent.”

In Russia, the accusations made against many of these NGOs are often linked to their round tables and information campaigns, which the Kremlin sees as too political. “Teaching the population how to build a composting toilet is indeed very political,” says Marina Rikhavona sarcastically. Rikhavona is one of the leaders of the Baikal Environmental Wave, an NGO founded in 1990 and based Siberia focusing on the protection of Lake Baikal, the biggest water reserve on earth.

On May 16, the NGO's offices were searched, and the public prosecutor declared, “Your organization shows all the signs of being a ‘foreign agent’.” The purge is well and truly under way. After the first police raid targeting human rights defenders, it is now the environmentalists’ turn to undergo close surveillance.

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Image of a group of five people sitting on the grass inside of the Indian Institute of Technology campus.

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