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Two women sit on a sidewalk holding posters with the portrait of environmental leader Berta Caceres, as they protest outside of the Secretary of Natural Resources and Environment (SERNA) to demand justice over the recent slaying of Caceres in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 18, 2016.
Fernando Antonio/AP
Environment

Attacks on Indigenous Land Defenders Surge Globally: Report

Why Global Citizens Should Care 
Indigenous land defenders protect some of the world’s most important environments and are leading champions of human rights. The United Nations urges countries to protect the rights of land defenders. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Indigenous land defenders across the world are increasingly being attacked for standing up for their civil, environmental, and human rights, according to a report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC).

Honduras, in particular, has become especially dangerous for land defenders. At least 98 people in Honduras were attacked in 2019 for defending their land, a more than 300% jump from the year before.

These attacks can be largely attributed to the country’s increasingly open economy since the coup in 2009, when agribusiness, mining, and other industries began to rapidly expand and trample Indigenous rights, the report notes.

Other countries in the region where attacks have risen or remained high include Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. 

Across the world, land defenders are often attacked and even killed because governments fail to enforce existing laws that seek to protect land and human rights.

“This often takes place in the context of economic models which prioritise investments and profit over respect for human rights and protecting the environment,” BHRRC wrote in the report. “This is manifest in weak regulations and poor enforcement of existing laws and international norms, including the frequent failure to ensure that Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent is respected.”

The report states that at least 572 people were attacked in 2019, up from 492 the year before. More than 2,000 land defenders have been attacked since 2015. The industries most likely to be responsible for these crimes are mining, agribusiness, waste disposal, and renewable energy. 

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Attacks on land defenders are first and foremost human rights violations that often involve violence. 

Not only do states largely fail to prosecute those responsible for violent attacks and intimidation, they’re sometimes the perpetrators of these attacks when they arrest and intimidate land defenders, according to the United Nations

Exceptions to this rule sometimes emerge. In 2016, the Indigenous leader Berta Caceras was shot to death after protesting against a dam. Years of protests and political pressure led to the sentencing of seven people involved in the crime in December of 2019

In Brazil, attacks on land defenders have increased since President Jair Bolsonaro took office, partly because he has pushed for Indigenous lands to be turned over to corporate interests

Another consequence of these attacks is their deterring effect. Indigenous people are less likely to stand up for their rights and demand justice if they know they will be attacked and the government will fail to protect them, the UN argues

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“Murder is not the only way environmental defenders are persecuted,” John Knox, former UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said in a statement. “For every 1 killed, there are 20 to 100 others harassed, unlawfully and lawfully arrested, and sued for defamation, amongst other intimidations.”

This dynamic has major repercussions for the rest of the world, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). Not only does it lead to an erosion of human rights, but it also causes the destruction of essential environments. 

Lands under the control of Indigenous communities are significantly more likely to be conserved and shielded from industrial activity, WRI reports. These lands in turn become major carbon sinks that mitigate climate change by pulling greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. 

The UN calls on countries to enforce laws that protect Indigenous communities, and enact stronger laws that recognize and support land defenders. 

“It is high time for all actors, states, businesses, and investors in particular to understand that defenders are not enemies, but essential allies who will help to create a better and safer future for our planet and for all of us,” the UN Human Rights Office wrote in a statement

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