Actions to address some of the structural issues that are causing threats to earth rights defenders include 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.
It is not enough to respond to each specific threat to earth rights defenders as it arises. We need to tackle the structural issues that are causing threats to earth rights defenders. This includes creating space for people to raise their voices without fear of retaliation when natural resource projects endanger local communities. In parts of the world where people already have the right to speak freely, we need to prevent the shrinking of civic space.
Fossil fuels are not just dangerous to the climate. Too often, fossil fuel projects are connected to threats and attacks against earth rights defenders. Shifting away from fossil fuels towards less destructive projects can help reduce human rights abuses of local communities. Working with the renewable energy industries from the outset to develop strong community relations programs could also help to prevent future problems.
In Myanmar, ERI and its partners have had some success in stopping new coal developments. In one case, communities successfully suspended development of the 1,280 megawatt Hpa-An coal-fired power plant.
If energy developers are subject to potential legal liability for any damages they cause, they might be more willing to engage constructively with earth rights defenders. ERI successfully brought suit on behalf of 25 indigenous Achuar plaintiffs from the Peruvian Amazon against Occidental Petroleum Corporation. The plaintiffs alleged that the company caused serious harm over a 30-year period in the Corrientes River basin, contaminating the rivers and lands of the indigenous Achuar communities. After Occidental lost its effort to have the case dismissed, the parties announced the settlement of the case in 2015.
In addition to fighting individual coal and oil developments, there is an urgent need to campaign for structural change. One way to do this is to follow the money. Civil society organizations have advocated for financial institutions – including multilateral development banks, commercial banks, sovereign wealth funds, and pension funds – to cease their support for fossil fuel projects and projects linked to land grabs. Without finance, these projects cannot proceed.
ERI has worked to hold international financial institutions accountable where they invest recklessly in these types of projects. We have filed two lawsuits against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector lending arm of the World Bank Group, for human rights violations arising out of a coal-fired power plan in India and palm oil plantations in Honduras. These projects have had devastating impacts on communities and earth rights defenders, as the IFC’s own Compliance Advisor Ombudsman has found.
Too often, projects that extract and exploit are developed without the consent of affected people. This is despite the universal support from governments for the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the incorporation of FPIC-type requirements into national laws. Unfortunately, these international standards and national laws are not being properly implemented. Greater political will can help to ensure that natural resources exploitation projects respect FPIC from the earliest stages of development.
Companies and powerful interests are increasingly using “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPPs) to silence and intimidate their critics. SLAPPs masquerade as civil lawsuits, for example, alleging defamation, but their real purpose is to harass earth rights defenders, journalists, and others who speak out. Even a lawsuit that is eventually dismissed can have a damaging effect, draining the defendants’ resources, time, and morale, while sending a message to other critics.
SLAPPs have been used across the world, especially in the United States. In one example, Energy Transfer Partners, developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline, sued environmental organizations for hundreds of millions of dollars using an anti-mafia/racketeering law. If successful, this lawsuit would put these nonprofit organizations out of business and create a broader chilling effect across civil society. ERI is working with the “Protect the Protest” coalition to end the threat posed by SLAPPs in the United States.
Chinese companies play an increasingly dominant role in high-risk natural resource industries and offer a dangerous “no questions asked” alternative to the Western approach of linking social, environmental, and economic concerns to investment decisions. As a result of the rapid expansion of Chinese overseas investment, civil society and academia have started to monitor and engage with Chinese investors. This effort has progressed slowly but surely, because few Chinese companies have experience engaging with external critics and local communities.
It is important to bring together earth rights defenders, leaders of affected communities, and other civil society advocates to share information and strategize on ways to diminish the negative impacts of Chinese investments on local communities. In one example, ERI and the Mott Foundation convened a meeting in late 2017 with activists from the Mekong region and Latin America concerned with the negative impacts arising from Chinese outbound investment. At this meeting, participants shared strategies for engaging with Chinese financiers and enterprises, and evaluated the guidelines that China has introduced to govern the environmental and social standards of its overseas projects.
The global human rights regime can help keep earth rights defenders safe by drawing international attention both to their specific situations and to some of the structural issues that contribute to threats against defenders. Internationally, this includes use of the Universal Periodic Review process and the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, such as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders or the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, both of whom are able to act on individual cases and intervene directly with governments.
Opportunities also exist at the regional level. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, has powers to investigate the situation of individuals whose human rights are at risk and make recommendations to governments. The Commission can also request urgent measures or precautionary measures to prevent and protect against potential serious and irreparable harm. For example, ERI supported indigenous communities affected by 50 years of oil spills and contamination from the Norperuano Pipeline in northern Peru, as they successfully received precautionary measures.
Similarly, in Asia, civil society is working to improve the effectiveness of regional human rights institutions, primarily the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.