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Fighting Back: A Global Protection Strategy for Earth Rights Defenders

Read our global strategy for earth rights defenders

Earth rights defenders are instrumental in supporting their communities to stand up for and claim their rights: they expose injustice, demand accountability from their governments, and change the laws that undermine human rights. They also directly challenge the prevailing political and economic systems. Earth rights defenders are advocates, organizers, trainers, educators, and connectors. Because they are often the last line of defense between frontline communities and ecosystems, and powerful elites that seek to extract and exploit those resources, their lives and security can be threatened. Their work is critically important.

Two hundred and seven killings of land and environment defenders were documented in 2017, the worst on record. The scale of killings indicates a truly global crisis. Because indigenous people, by definition, live in close connection to specific lands, and often stand between valuable resources and the elites who want those resources, it is predictable that they are vastly over-represented in the number of earth rights defenders killed each year. It is not just the deaths of earth rights defenders but also other threats and attacks against them that is of grave concern – these other threats include torture and disappearance, physical violence, rape, criminalization (including illegal arrest and arbitrary detention, and using criminal, defamation, and libel laws to silence earth rights defenders) and digital surveillance.

Around the world, people are standing between the world’s most powerful corporate, financial, and government elites and the world’s most valuable natural resources that these elites will increasingly do anything to get. Communities are fighting against projects that extract and exploit, and that will have detrimental impacts on their lives. Not surprisingly, threats and attacks against human rights defenders are most frequently connected to the mining, oil and gas sectors, and to agribusiness, logging, hydropower and large infrastructure projects, and are often carried out or condoned by state actors and vested business interests. In too many parts of the world, attacks against earth rights defenders are rarely investigated and fewer still result in any serious consequences for the perpetrator. Failure to take any action against the perpetrators of abuse against earth rights defenders increases the risks posed to earth rights defenders, and leads to further attacks against them.

EarthRights International believes that the global protection strategy outlined in this report will help to protect and keep earth rights defenders safe; address the structural issues that are causing threats to earth rights defenders, including to prevent the shrinking of civil space; reveal and shine a light on collusion and corruption; and obtain justice for victims by holding the perpetrators accountable. The global protection strategy is a plan of action. The component parts of the strategy include actions that are proven strategies that we know can work and that we want to scale up, and the “next generation” of strategies that we want to test and pilot. These include:

  • Equipping earth rights defenders with the knowledge, tools, and resources to stay safe; challenging the criminalization of earth rights defenders in the courts; and ending ties between corporations and police and paramilitaries to prevent the occurrence of violence against earth rights defenders
  • Fighting against those projects that extract and exploit – such as fossil fuel projects – and that are connected to threats and attacks against earth rights defenders, and preventing the shrinking of civil space by pushing back on corporate attempts to silence earth rights defenders and intimidate their critics
  • Using anti-corruptions laws and demanding greater revenue transparency in those industries most frequently connected to threats and attacks against earth rights defenders
  • Using transnational litigation and efforts to strengthen global legal protections to obtain redress and justice for victims of human right abuse, and to end the impunity that the perpetrators of attacks against earth right defenders enjoy

There is an urgent need for our collective efforts to be scaled up and for civil society to act in a coordinated and strategic way to reduce the number and severity of threats and attacks against earth rights defenders. These efforts must pay attention to those earth rights defenders most marginalized – in particular, indigenous earth rights defenders and women earth rights defenders – and therefore those most vulnerable to attacks and threats.

This strategy provides a partial roadmap to potential solutions, and a world in which earth rights defenders can peacefully speak out in defense of their rights and homelands without fearing retribution. The 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders also presents the global community with an opportunity to celebrate the importance and legitimacy of all human rights defenders, and their rights to peacefully protest all exploitation and abuse, including the exploitation and abuse of this finite planet on which we all depend.

Strategies in Action

Case: Sahu v. Union Carbide

In Bhopal, India, people continue to suffer from water contamination. And no one is taking responsibility. In 1984, the world’s worst industrial disaster – a toxic gas leak at a

Case: Barrick

Security guards for world’s largest gold mining company rape and kill locals in Papua New Guinea. For decades, security guards at Barrick Gold Corporation’s gold mine in the remote highlands

Case: Campos-Alvarez v. Newmont Mining

Shooting Peaceful Mine Protesters in Peru. In Peru, police brutality against earth rights defenders is a systemic problem especially in the context of extractive industries. One emblematic example of police

Case: Norperuano Pipeline Contamination

A pipeline in the northernmost Peruvian Amazon has been spilling oil and contaminating communities for 50 years. The pipeline is operated by the Peruvian government, through its state-owned oil company

What You Can Do