“It is up to me to follow in the same footsteps as my father walked, so that they’ll give us back our land again.”
- Ramón Bedoya, Colombia
“The desire for justice and reparations for the fallen defenders, for their families, and above all that this never happens again—that is an energy that compels you to keep working.”
– Isela González, Mexico
“The owner of the plantation… should give back our land… It’s not just for our family but the rest of the people living in the area. My father offered his blood. He gave his life. We will continue.”
– Tarsila Danyan, Philippines
Three brave activists showing the power and resilience of their communities
In 2017 Ramón’s father was shot 14 times by a paramilitary group, Isela’s colleague murdered by a suspected hitman, and Tarsila’s husband, father and brothers all killed by the army. These were brutal reprisals for having dared to question powerful interests, and the way in which the products we consume are made. Yet their families, colleagues and communities continue to stand up for their rights and our environment.
They are our inspiration. They are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. And they are the reason why Global Witness published our report At What Cost? last week.
We are campaigning so that governments and companies end irresponsible business practises and keep land and environmental defenders safe. And you can join us.
It’s been a big couple of weeks since our report At What Cost? launched
The enormous amount of media coverage which followed publication showed the interest that exists globally and the energy which can be harnessed to create change. The report has been publish in 800 outlets including CNN, National Geographic and El País and has reached 6 million people on social media.
Crucially, though, the report was widely covered in those countries where defenders face greatest risks and are often disparaged and stigmatised in the media. In Colombia, El Espectador ran a front page exclusive using our research to show exactly why over 92% of land and environmental defenders’ murders remain in impunity. Defenders also made the front pages and top outlets in Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines and Honduras.
Here in London, meanwhile, the Daily Mirror reported that the UK government may have put defenders in danger through sales of spyware to the Honduran authorities, just before recent elections which led to widespread violence and repression. It was a stark reminder of the role of those who invest in countries where defenders are at-risk. The UK government claimed that ‘risks around human rights abuses’ were a ‘key part’ of their licensing assessment.
They weren’t the only ones in denial. The Brazilian President questioned the veracity of our data, rather than committing to change anything in a country which has consistently topped the polls of the worst places for environmental and land rights activists. After a year of rigorous data verification, we felt compelled to respond.
However, other authorities were more receptive to our concerns. The Philippines government said they would look into our findings. We spoke with Colombian authorities about what can be done, and representatives of the President Elect in Mexico received copies of the reports and agreed to speak to local NGOs working on this issue.
The faces and voices of Defenders
Particularly popular among the general public were film maker Leo Plunkett’s 2-minutevideo and Thom Pierce’s photoessay, which help visualise and explain the struggles of defenders, giving voice to those on the front line.
Those photos and that film visibly moved the audience which joined us at The Guardian’s offices on Wednesday, for an event to mark one year of our collaboration together, through which the newspaper’s journalists have complemented our real-time data on murders of defenders, with stories and news from around the world.
Leo spoke about his visit to meet Maria do Socorro, a Brazilian activist fighting for justice for a community suffering the devastating health and environmental impacts allegedly caused by a nearby alumina plant. After just a couple of days there, he and Thom had thumping headaches from the toxicity of the air - yet the community have had to fight hard just for any recognition of the issue. An exhibition of Thom’s photos is open for public viewing at the reception area of the Guardian’s offices at King’s Place, London, until the end of August.
This is all part of our endeavour to make our work - and defenders’ voices themselves - more accessible. Hence our user-friendly report landing page, via which you can access a range of resources including an interactive photo-essay, plus recommendations for governments and business on how they can prevent threats against defenders, support those at risk, and guarantee accountability when attacks occur.
Who can make the change
Despite the odds they face, the global community of environmental and land defenders is not going away – it’s only getting stronger. Global Witness will campaign alongside them, taking their struggle to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will not tire in our fight to ensure that their voices are heard. That’s why we’re heading to Brazil in September and Brussels in November: to talk to defenders, policy makers, governments and business; to push for change.
And there’s a role which you can play too. Defenders are dying for questioning the way in which the products we consume are made. The coffee and fruit on our shelves, the minerals in our electronic devices, the wooden furniture in our homes. Where there are land grabs and environmental devastation, there are defenders fighting to stop that. And right now that implies grave risks.
We, the consumers, have power. If we show solidarity with defenders and show politicians and companies that they cannot count on our votes and custom unless they too take action, then we can help keep brave activists like Ramón, Isela and Tarsila safe.
We must use our voices to amplify those of defenders, highlighting the critical work they do and the challenges they face on a daily basis. Use yours. Join the movement and add your name to our campaign, at www.globalwitness.org/defendersvoices.
This blog was originally published as part of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) They Should Have Known Better campaign.