Global Crackdown on Environmental Defenders: The Cost of Fighting for the Earth
By Bennett Collins
From the recent oil spill in Indonesia to the overwhelming plastic pollution of our oceans, one might think the planet as we know it was a lost cause, and even completely forgotten about. But don’t be fooled. The fight for the protection and preservation of our Earth is an ongoing global one. Thousands of grassroots environmental activists around the world continue to fight against some of the most powerful entities lobbying for, and financing ,wide spread land grabbing, privatization of fresh water resources, and the proliferation of fossil fuel extraction and development. The battle is certainly a David versus Goliath story. However, one of the biggest problems is that the general public has yet to get behind David, let alone recognize him.
Environmental activists are not getting the public support that is needed to fight some of the most powerful multinational corporations and governments in the world, and they are paying for it. In 2016 and 2017 alone, nearly 400 environmental defenders were murdered – predominantly in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. While Global Witness has noticed that the level of deaths has plateaued in recent years, it is difficult to forget that Mexican anti-logging activist and Goldman environmental prize-winner Isidro Balenegro was gunned down in 2017 or that Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres was murdered the year before. Both were leaders at the local, national, and international levels for global environmental justice movements, and yet, the general public remained largely ambivalent to the causes for which they fought.
At the end of the day though, murder is only one tactic used to suppress movements for environmental justice. Governments and corporations have made it a tradition to work together against coordinated and organized environmental activists. It has become an incredibly successful PR campaign against activists to paint them as criminals, outcasts, and terrorists, often relying on underlying divisions (e.g. racism, sexism), and to even portray the global environmental justice movement, of which they are apart, as an elitist funded campaign.
It remains that many governments have been curtailing free speech, privacy, and freedom of assembly rights to ensure that multinational corporations remain unhindered in their efforts, often in the name of national security. This bipartisan letter to the US Department of Justice, for example, paints activists who have shut down oil and natural gas pipelines as ‘threats’ to ‘national security’. During the time since Donald, Trump has been elected, thanks to the efforts of ALEC, over 31 states have considered bills meant to curb the right to peaceful protest.
The Philippines, Canada, and Peru are just a handful of countries that have used anti-terrorism legislation to monitor and oppress Indigenous communities and environmental activists as well.
This is important to reiterate. It is, of course, important to safeguard populations from the threat of terrorist assault. But anti-terror legislation is no longer about protection; rather, it is about targeting environmental defenders and curbing the rights of citizens of their freedom of speech. It is about maintaining a status quo and promoting a political agenda that seeks to address short-term political expediency at the expense of the long–term guardianship of our planet. It is about gaining profit in the short-term at the risk of having nowhere left to live in the long-term. And it is about overlooking knowledge that doesn’t fit with a neoliberal ideal.
For this reason, it remains an extremely precarious situation for environmental defenders if governments, and most importantly the general public, are not allowed the opportunity to fight for their own protection and voices to be heard. No longer can we ignore the infringement of counter-terrorism legislation upon our most basic human rights.