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Report Shows Sharp Rise in Murders of Environmentalists, Only 1% of Killers Convicted
Killings of people protecting the environment and rights to land increased sharply between 2002 and 2013 as competition for natural resources intensifies, a new report from Global Witness reveals. In the most comprehensive global analysis of the problem on record, the campaign group has found that at least 908 people are known to have died in this time. Disputes over industrial logging, mining and land rights the key drivers, and Latin America and Asia-Pacific particularly hard hit.
Released in the year of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Brazilian rubber tapper and environmental activist Chico Mendes, the report, Deadly Environment, highlights a severe shortage of information or monitoring of this problem. This means the total is likely to be higher than the report documents, but even the known scale of violence is on a par with the more high profile incidence of journalists killed in the same period. This lack of attention to crimes against environment and land defenders is feeding endemic levels of impunity, with just more than one percent of the perpetrators known to have been convicted.
“This shows it has never been more important to protect the environment, and it has never been more deadly,” said Oliver Courtney of Global Witness. “There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis than a dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people defending rights to their land or environment. Yet this rapidly worsening problem is going largely unnoticed, and those responsible almost always get away with it. We hope our findings will act as the wake-up call that national governments and the international community clearly need.”
The key findings in Deadly Environment are as follows:
- At least 908 people were killed in 35 countries protecting rights to land and the environment between 2002 and 2013, with the death rate rising in the last four years to an average of two activists a week.
- 2012 was the worst year so far to be an environmental defender, with 147 killings—nearly three times more than in 2002.
- Impunity for these crimes is rife: only 10 perpetrators are known to have been convicted between 2002 and 2013—just more than one percent of the overall incidence of killings.
- The problem is particularly acute in Latin America and South East Asia. Brazil is the most dangerous place to defend rights to land and the environment, with 448 killings, followed by Honduras (109) and the Philippines (67).
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of systematic monitoring or information. Where cases are recorded, they are often seen in isolation or treated as a subset of other human rights or environmental issues. The victims themselves often do not know their rights or are unable to assert them because of lack of resources in their often remote and risky circumstances.
“Human rights only have meaning if people are able to exercise them,” said John Knox, United Nations independent expert on human rights and the environment. “Environmental human rights defenders work to ensure that we live in an environment that enables us to enjoy our basic rights, including rights to life and health. The international community must do more to protect them from the violence and harassment they face as a result.”
Indigenous communities are particularly hard hit. In many cases, their land rights are not recognized by law or in practice, leaving them open to exploitation by powerful economic interests who brand them as "anti-development". Often, the first they know of a deal that goes against their interests is when the bulldozers arrive in their farms and forests.
Land rights form the backdrop to most of the known killings, as companies and governments routinely strike secretive deals for large chunks of land and forests to grow cash crops like rubber, palm oil and soya. At least 661—more than two-thirds—of the killings took place in the context of conflicts over the ownership, control and use of land, in combination with other factors. The report focuses in detail on the situation in Brazil, where land disputes and industrial logging are key drivers, and the Philippines, where violence appears closely linked to the mining sector.
This week, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a stark warning that governments are failing to reduce carbon emissions. It is likely to show the world is on course to miss the targets required to stay within the accepted two degree Celsius temperature increase that is generally considered a line that must not be crossed to avoid climatic upheaval. Global Witness’ research suggests that as well as failing to reduce their emissions, governments are failing to protect the activists and ordinary citizens who find themselves on the frontline of this problem.
“This rapidly worsening situation appears to be hidden in plain sight, and that has to change,” said Andrew Simms of Global Witness. “2012, the year of the last Rio Summit, was the deadliest on record. Delegates gathering for climate talks in Peru this year must heed this warning—protection of the environment is now a key battleground for human rights.”
“While governments quibble over the text of new global agreements, at the local level more people than ever around the world are already putting their lives on the line to protect the environment,” Simms continued. “At the very least, to start making good on official promises to stop climate change, governments should protect and support those personally taking a stand.”
The report also underlines that rising fatalities are the most acute and measurable end of a range of threats including intimidation, violence, stigmatization and criminalization. The number of deaths points to a much greater level of non-lethal violence and intimidation, which the research did not document but requires urgent and effective action.
Global Witness is calling for a more coordinated and concerted effort to monitor and tackle this crisis, starting with a resolution from the UN’s Human Rights Council specifically addressing the heightened threat posed to environmental and land defenders. Similarly, regional human rights bodies and national governments need to properly monitor abuses against and killings of activists, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. Companies must carry out effective checks on their operations and supply chains to make sure they do no harm.
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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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