On 22nd April this year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the theme is climate action. In order to celebrate this day, PBI draws attention to the plight of environmental defenders who put their lives at risk to protect their territories from economic projects that destroy ecosystems and instigate irreversible damage.
Just as Coronavirus is a very real and current threat, so too is environmental devastation. We acknowledge the importance of recognising the role of key workers, such as doctors and nurses, to fight Coronavirus and protect the most vulnerable. We extend this understanding to human rights defenders who are the key workers addressing the climate crisis. They must be protected to prevent further climate breakdown of our shared planet.
The Peaceful Resistance of La Laguna, Guatemala
In Guatemala PBI supports many environmental and land rights defenders. One such group is the Peaceful Resistance of La Laguna. In 2015 this group formed a protest camp to resist the installation of an electrical distribution plant and power station by the Colombian company Transportadora de Energía de Centroamérica SA (TRECSA). The aim was to provide energy to 20 mining projects in the area.
The Resistance was primarily concerned about the environmental and health consequences of the project. These included deforestation, the contamination of the water supply with harmful chemicals and threats to the water supply.
In Guatemala deforestation is a major issue. As the Guardian reports: ‘In 2010, primary forest accounted for 1.6m hectares, compared with 2.4m 20 years earlier. Guatemala, which, after Brazil, has South America's second-largest rainforest cover, lost an average of 27,000 hectares a year between 2000 and 2005 (a rate of 1.32% per year), increasing to 68,000 hectares a year between 2005 and 2010 3.72% per year), meaning that the rate of deforestation has almost trebled in the course of a decade’.
As the Week reports tree planting is currently being put forward as a solution to climate change ‘as the most effective carbon capture machines on the planet’ however ‘newly planted trees need to grow for many decades to come close to their carbon storage potential’. It’s hence crucial that existing forest is protected.
Following requests from the Resistance TRECSA’s construction license was cancelled in May 2015.
In January 2019, PBI-Guatemala accompanied the Peaceful Resistance of La Laguna to a meeting with the Municipal Council of San Pedro de Ayampuc and the National Institute of Forests in order to ‘reach agreements regarding the issuance of deforestation licences in the area’. The resistance wishes to protect the forests to support wildlife, sustainable livelihoods and culture.
PBI has been accompanying the Resistance since 2015 after members suffered attacks and threats. Members of the Peaceful Resistance have said: ‘
PBI's accompaniment supports us in our actions. The authorities take care to attend our requests’ and that: ‘with the accompaniment of PBI we feel safer. We could approach the businessmen who were blocking our access to the river’.
In Honduras PBI accompanies COPINH, an indigenous Lenca organisation founded in 1993. More than 200 communities are currently members and the organisation promotes the protection of territories, the environment and indigenous culture.
PBI have been accompanying COPINH’s coordinators since 2016 after the assassination of Berta Caceres, a figurehead of the organisation. Before her assassination Berta was the victim of harassment, persecution and discrimination from State and non-State actors, because of her activities defending the human rights of indigenous communities opposed to hydroelectric and mining operations imposed in their territories without their free, prior and informed consent.
Indeed Honduras is an extremely dangerous country for environmental defenders. In 2019 The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre recorded 98 attacks on human rights defenders in Honduras, up from 31 in 2018. After visiting Honduras in 2019, Anita Ramasastry, a member of the UN Working Group (UNWG) on Business and Human Rights, said:
‘The majority of conflicts related to large-scale investments and results from the systematic lack of transparency and meaningful participation of affected communities in any decisions regarding business activity’.
As Earth Day focuses our attention on conserving the natural environment it is important environmental defenders on the frontline are supported and protected. PBI will continue to seek ways to ensure these defenders can continue with their fundamental work, despite the risk and even during the Coronavirus crisis, as without their work we risk further crisis across the planet.