Currently, Latin America is the most deadly region in the world to be an environmental defender. IUCN NL and other partners recently held a meeting in Bogota, Colombia, centered on improving the safety of these defenders. Attendee and IUCN NL Environmental Justice Expert, Liliana Jauregui, learnt that we need to take action on three levels; Protection mechanisms on the ground, sharing experiences, and diplomatic pressure.
Latin America is my mother continent, but it is also the most deadly region in the world to be an environmental defender. In 2016, 60 percent of the killings of environmental defenders were registered in Latin America, including the murder of Berta Caceres that sparked international outrage.
This week, dozens of environmental defenders (including Berta’s daughter), legal and safety experts, government representatives and NGOs convened in Bogota. The aim of the meeting was to learn from each other’s experiences, and unite strengths to improve safety.
Because this region is in desperate need of more safety. The pressure on natural resources is increasing rapidly. A gold rush is spreading across Peru, while in Colombia deforestation has increased by 44 percent in the last year. Environmental defenders who are protecting their land, forests and rivers against these threats are facing more and more risks. People living in remote areas, such as rural and indigenous defenders, are especially vulnerable to attacks.
What could be done to better protect these people? Three elements are important, with each being considered during the Bogota meeting.
Protection mechanisms on the ground
First and foremost, we need to put in place direct protection mechanisms for people who are exposed to risks. As part of our Defending Environmental Defenders campaign we started a 2-year safety training project for people living and working in Tambopata, a protected area in the eastern part of the Peruvian Amazon. One of the people involved in this project is Demetrio Pacheco. He lives at the outer edge of the park with his family, and he is also a communal ranger. That means he patrols the park and reports illegal activities by miners or loggers. Over the years, Demetrio has received many threats – finding a bullet on his desk was the crudest of all.
The safety project was a break-through for Demetrio, he told me in Bogota. It was the first time that representatives of all stakeholder groups of Tambopata convened. And that delivered direct result: ‘The communication is now much stronger. We keep an eye on each other and alert each other in case of risk.’ Moreover, they mapped out the places within the park that are most dangerous: where do people live isolated, where are the illegal mining or logging activities? From this analysis, Demetrio emerged as one of the people with a high risk profile. After all, he lives remote and close to the park’s frontier, where mining concessions are expanding rapidly. A tailor made protection plan is now put in place for Demetrio.
These ‘best practices’ can be a huge source of inspiration for fellow defenders in high risk areas. Which leads to the second important element: we ought to stimulate the exchange of knowledge and experience. This meeting in Bogota, organized by the Universal Rights Group, offers a platform for sharing and imparting key information on the matter. In the wake of this successful event, meetings will be held in Ecuador, Chile and Costa Rica. Digital meeting places will also support the exchange of this knowledge, such as the online portal Environment-Rights.org launched by UN Special Rapporteur John Knox
Finally, governments have a duty to protect activists at risk. Pressure from international bodies such as the United Nations can help to coerce governments to take responsibility and ensure that protection is guaranteed and laws are enforced. In Bogota, defenders from the field had the opportunity to bring their plights to a higher level of advocacy by sharing it with representatives such as UN Special Rapporteur John Knox and delegates from CEPAL, the Inter American Commission for Human Rights and several embassies. It is now up to them to ensure that the safety of environmental defenders is recognized as a priority at the highest international policy level.
This article first appeared on IUCN blog on14 November 2017 and has been reproduced with their kind permission.