Every day men and women around the world dedicate their lives to protecting the ecosystems upon which entire communities and other living things depend. This work, essential for the protection of our planet, is carried out in legal, social, and political spheres.
Unfortunately, those who defend the environment are victims of threats and assassinations. For many years now, Latin America has been the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender, accounting for nearly 60 percent of these crimes. This, despite the fact that national and regional governments recognize human rights like free speech and a healthy environment, as well as the rights of nature.
In 2019, Global Witness reported on the murder of 164 environmental defenders, many from Latin American nations—Colombia (24); Brazil (20); Guatemala (16) and Mexico (14). The report explained, “mining was the worst sector, causing 43 deaths, though deaths related to conflicts over water sources also surged. Attacks driven by agribusiness, logging and hydropower continued too.”
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the grave risk facing environmental defenders has not ceased. Despite social distancing and other measures adopted to slow the spread of the virus, violence aimed at defenders has continued.
It is important to consider that the pandemic strains the networks of protections that exist to respond to emergencies, putting environmental defenders at increased risk. This, combined with the lack of will or ability for institutions to respond to any problems other than the current health crisis, makes for a complicated security situation.
In effect, States must respect and guarantee human rights at all times. These are obligations that cannot be deferred, even in emergency situations, and must be emphasized and strengthened for those at risk, like environmental defenders.
The work of environmental defenders has been recognized within the international system of human rights as essential, in a democratic society, for strengthening the respect and enjoyment of other rights.
The reality of the dangers with which these defenders live has been accompanied by a judicial evolution, as evidenced by international legal instruments such as the Escazu Agreement, which for the first time included environmental defenders as people subject to special protection.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights said that this type of protection is especially necessary due to the threats and intimidation defenders face.
States have the obligation to:
Finally, it’s important to highlight the need for all measures taken by States to clearly respect human rights and, at the same time, assure the life and integrity of environmental defenders as an indispensable element for climate justice and environmental democracy.