To stop the killings of environmental defenders, we need land reform and binding laws

To stop the killings of environmental defenders, we need land reform and binding laws

To stop the killings of environmental defenders, we need land reform and binding laws

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Two months ago, in early September, four Asháninka indigenous forest defenders were brutally slain in a remote region along the border of Peru and Brazil. One of the activists, Edwin Chota (pictured at left) had received frequent death threats from loggers he had previously tried to expel from the lands for which his community was seeking title. As the New York Times reported, “Pervasive corruption lets the loggers operate with impunity, stripping the Amazon region’s river basins of prized hardwoods” — and leading to killings such as these.

Today, at events in Lima and New York, the daughter of one of the murdered men will accept an Award for Extraordinary Achievement in Environmental and Human Rights Activism from the Alexander Soros Foundation on behalf of her father and their Asháninka community. The award ceremony also marks the launch of Peru’s Deadly Environment, a report by Global Witness that sheds light on the drivers behind the killings of environmental activists in Peru. The four assassinations were not isolated cases, the report argues, but part of a pattern of killings of environmental defenders in Peru.

In tandem with the Global Witness report, Handcrafted Films has launched a video about the Ashéninkas and their plight.

Tragically, such killings are on the rise. In our report We Defend the Environment, We Defend Human Rights, released in June, Friends of the Earth International recorded more than 100 incidents of violence against environmental defenders over a period from 2011 to 2013. In a separate report released in April, Global Witness reported that the killings of environmental and land rights activists worldwide has tripled over the past decade. On average, two such killings occur every week.

While some of these killings, such as those of the Asháninka leaders, are attributed to “illegal loggers,” others can be tied directly to corporations, finance institutions and development dollars. In March, a member of the Suku Anak Dalam indigenous community was killed and five others injured in a clash with security forces on an oil palm concession owned by PT Asiatic Persada, in one among hundreds of ongoing land conflicts in Indonesia. Since 2009, at least 100 peasant farmers have been killed in the lower Aguan region of Honduras in a struggle over land clearly tied to Corporacion Dinant, the region’s largest palm oil interest. (See Friends of the Earth’s issue brief on the Honduras land grab here.) Nigerian forest defender Odey Oyama received death threats for resistance to palm oil plantations leased by Wilmar International. The list goes on.

In the case of these killings, the parties responsible have name brands and stock exchange listings, and they should be held accountable.

A recent study by Forest Trends concluded that as much as 75 percent of global deforestation is undertaken to make way for palm, soy, beef and sugar. What this suggests is that faceless killers such as those who murdered the Asháninka leaders are often propelled to their actions, directly or indirectly, by big agribusiness. The study also showed that, of the forests being destroyed, some 36 to 65 percent of the destruction results from fraudulent licenses, illegal clearing techniques and other activities formally prohibited by governments. But while the high rate of illegal deforestation is significant, the obverse is also significant: an equal ratio of deforestation — 35 to 64 percent — is legal.

Indeed, it’s not only legal, it’s virtually required by a global economy predicated on endless consumption and growth.

Multilateral development institutions, for example, bear their share of the responsibility. Palm oil company Dinant Corporation, a recipient of $30 million in World Bank loans, is directly implicated in the killings in Honduras. Another World Bank loan, this one ironically for forest conservation, is implicated in the recent violent evictions of the indigenous Sengwar people of Kenya. And yet the World Bank is currently poised to weaken its human rights safeguards — a move that is earning the ire of civil society groups around the world.

There is no lack of awareness among global actors that deforestation is out of control and accompanied, on a regular basis, by killings and forced evictions. An increasing number of corporations are so acutely aware of the brand damage, if not the actual damage, that they are making voluntary pledges to get forest destruction out of their supply chains.

These commitments can have far-reaching effects. Brazil’s groundbreaking 70 percent reduction in deforestation, for example, is in large part due to a voluntary moratorium on forest clearing by the soy and beef sectors.

But voluntary commitments can also serve to greenwash fundamentally unsustainable industries and shield the guilty from justice by forestalling the need for binding regulations. Indeed, as Brazil continues to expand its agribusiness frontier, it continues to lead the world in killings of environmental defenders.

It is increasingly recognized that the best way to protect forests is to give traditional and indigenous communities like the Asháninka the right to manage the forests where they have lived for generations. Sadly, a recent report from Rights and Resources Initiative notes that formal titling of indigenous peoples’ territories is slowing down worldwide — a trend that will make both indigenous peoples and forests more vulnerable.

In the wake of the Asháninka killings, the InterEthnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon issued several demands, among them the immediate titling of their territory and of more than a thousand other Amazonian communities; the suspension of palm oil leases throughout the Peruvian Amazon; and a national forestry law that “respects the territorial rights of indigenous communities and promotes community-based forestry management, stops illegal logging, and stops oil palm.”

In the weeks leading up to the next United Nations climate summit in Lima, Peru, let’s hope that governments unite in condemning the Asháninka murders; but further, let’s hope that the Asháninkas’ profoundly urgent and profoundly sensible demands guide the forestry agenda. In seeking remedy for tropical forests, human rights and the climate, the world would do well to heed their call.

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