Farah Theodore
Farah Theodore

Environmental activism is being portrayed as the in-thing in recent years where those who desire to feel relevant can join the party from Hollywood actors, pussyfooting politicians to shady businessmen who engage in greenwashing. All this hides the dark reality that environmental activism is a dangerous endeavour drenched in blood, antagonised by greed and labelled as terrorism. Environmental activism is not new. For as long as man has roamed the earth, the plunder of natural resources, acquisition of land, stirring up of civil wars and imperialism has occurred in varying forms.

A fine example is that of Columbus who 'discovered' a New World that was already inhabited and eventually seized from its rightful owners. Those who lost their lives protecting the human rights of their people and land are the true environmental activists. No one deserves praise for cleaning a mess they created and benefit from; in the least it is their duty and responsibility. The protection of the environment, more specifically the sustainable use of natural resources, is NOT glamorous - it is a downright dirty bloody war.

Global Witness (London based NGO) published a report that drew attention to the increase in the number of land and environmental activists who are killed, with 212 murders in 2019 which is a 30% increase from 164 recorded in 2018. An estimated 40% of those killed were indigenous people and traditional land owners. Many of these occur in resource rich countries and the top five with the highest death rates in 2019 are: The Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Romania and Honduras. An example of such an unfortunate assassination that inspired the Escazú Agreement, to include protection for human rights defenders in environmental matters, is that of Berta Cáceres, a recipient of the Goldman Environmental prize.

Berta was a Honduran activist and an indigenous woman of the Lenca community. She was the coordinator for the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and challenged a proposed dam on the Rio Gualcarque which could flood most of the land belonging to her people. "Women have an important leadership in the fight against extractive companies and criminal groups that want to take away their land", said Marusia Lopez of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, which documented 1,233 attacks against these women defenders between 2017-2018. Many untold number of activists face threats, intimidation, slander, victimization and other forms of harassment.

The controversial 'Agua Zarca' hydroelectric project that Berta Cáceres and others opposed was made possible in part by financing from European Development banks FMO (Netherlands) and Finnfund (Finland). Turbines for the project were to be supplied by the German company Voith Hydro. The project's funding was suspended after the death of Berta Cáceres and other violent incidents and in July 2017 FMO and Finnfund finalised their withdrawal and exit from the project. Some argue that it is often support of foreign investors that make contentious projects like this possible. Furthermore, a Human Rights analysis of the 'Agua Zarca' project was never carried out. FMO expressed on their website (fmo.nl), "the lenders believe dialogue should be voluntary, convened by a credible international institution that is acceptable to all parties, allow for all the views of community members to be heard and respected, and should be free from interference from any private or public external institution or group".

Finally, a tool has been made available to facilitate such much needed dialogue in the form of the Escazú Agreement which will come into force on 22 April 2021. UN Secretary General António Guterres commented, "It is a powerful instrument to prevent conflict, achieve informed, participatory and inclusive decision-making and deepen accountability, transparency and good governance". According to Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), "The regional agreement is a ground-breaking legal instrument for environmental protection…also a human rights treaty….It aims to ensure the right of all persons to have access to information in a timely and appropriate manner, to participate significantly in making decisions that affect their lives and their environment, and to access justice when these rights have been infringed".

Making fundamental issues justiciable is encouraging especially when climate change litigation is on the rise. The UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Global Climate Litigation Report 2020 Status Review revealed that in 2017, 884 climate change cases were filed in 24 countries and there was a notable increase in 2020 with 1,550 cases brought in 38 countries. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UNEP wrote, "judiciaries around the world are increasingly playing a critical role in addressing climate change". Don't you love it when the chickens come home to roost? The ugliness has been unmasked and no one can turn a blind eye now. Albert Einstein said it best, "If I were to remain silent, I'd be guilty of complicity