Op-Ed: Why planetary survival will depend on environmental justice
Here’s a shameful fact about the 21st century: Standing up for the planet can get you killed.
In the Peruvian Amazon, three Indigenous leaders were murdered in the span of three weeks during February and March of this year: Herasmo García Grau, Yenes Ríos Bonsano and Estela Casanto Mauricio. All of them were attempting to secure land rights over their territories to stop illegal deforestation by, among others, coca and oil palm plantations.
Jiribati Ashaninka, president of ORAU, an alliance of 15 Indigenous peoples in Peru, spoke to me in March by Zoom from his home in Ucayali, the region where the recent killings took place. “Our communities have asked us leaders to fight’’ against land grabbing and illegal deforestation, he said. “They have asked us to claim our rights, and because of that we are at risk.”
The risk he describes exists outside Peru as well. Global Witness counted 212 publicly reported killings of environmental defenders worldwide in 2019, the largest number since it started tracking in 2012. (The 2020 count is not yet published).
Ashaninka said every murder sends a message. “Some of our leaders have gone silent on the issue of land rights,” he said. “Some have gone deeper into the forest to hide.” He said killings have occurred for years, but no one has ever been convicted. Peru’s minister of internal affairs sometimes issues a report, he said, but “that isn’t useful when you’re dead.”
Deforestation could turn the Amazon from a carbon sink into a carbon source. By fighting for their home, people such as Grau, Ríos and Casanto are protecting all of us. But they aren’t given the kinds of legal protections extended to witnesses in criminal cases or corporate whistleblowers.
A new regional pact, the Escazú agreement, which comes into force in Latin America and the Caribbean on Earth Day, Thursday, would be the first to require member nations to provide legal protections to environmental defenders.
The agreement also aims to make environmental regulation more responsive to communities facing harm. Member governments are required to disclose information about proposed industrial projects, ensure early and genuine community participation in permitting decisions, and create effective remedies when companies exceed pollution limits or seize land unlawfully.
The Escazú agreement is overdue. My organization helps organize a network of more than 2,500 grass-roots justice groups from nearly every country in the world. The specifics vary, but the basic pattern is everywhere, from Odisha, India; to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa; to Washington, D.C.: Communities with less power bear the brunt of environmental degradation, and when they try to stand up for themselves, they face intimidation and retaliation.
President Biden, to his credit, has acknowledged this connection between environmental destruction and inequality by prioritizing environmental justice in his domestic plans.
But global environmental policy, including Biden’s approach to it, continues to be largely technocratic and top-down, focused on national commitments to transfer technology and reduce emissions. Those measures are necessary but not sufficient. The Escazú agreement shows what global environmental justice policy could look like.
You might wonder whether international agreements are worth much, given the severe power imbalances at play and the fact that many governments are embracing hyper-nationalism. But activists report that Escazú has already made a difference.
Gabriela Burdiles, a lawyer with the Chilean environmental justice group FIMA, told me that multilateral negotiations over Escazú have helped make environmental rights a prominent subject in the debate over Chile’s new constitution. Aída Gamboa Balbín, who leads the Amazon program of the Peruvian organization Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, said that, without the Escazú negotiations, civil society would not have been able to persuade the Peruvian government to create its first court dedicated to environmental crimes, which happened in 2018.
In the 12 countries that have ratified Escazú, including Mexico, Bolivia and Argentina, the real work begins this week, when local environmental justice movements will start pushing for effective implementation. Burdiles, who coordinates with advocates throughout the region, says having the common lever of the agreement will make those movements stronger.
If the Biden administration is willing to take environmental justice seriously abroad as well as at home, it should support negotiations for a global Escazú agreement as Part 2 of the Paris climate accord. It’s both a matter of justice and a matter of planetary survival. “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones,” writes Hop Hopkins, an urban farmer and environmental justice organizer. “And you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people.”
Those who profit from sacrifice zones regularly collaborate across national borders. It’s time that those working to ensure that no community is disposable have the tools and legal framework to work across borders, too.
Vivek Maru is founder and chief executive of Namati, a nonprofit organization that advances social and environmental justice and hosts the Legal Empowerment Network, which is open to people everywhere.
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