Last month marked the 18th anniversary of the tragic murder of outspoken writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight colleagues by the Nigerian government. Saro-Wiwa and the others had waged a long campaign to stop multinational oil company Royal Dutch Shell from drilling in the lands of the Ogoni people in the Niger delta.
Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. A recent report by human rights organization Global Witness documents the murders of more than 700 environmental and indigenous-rights activists over the past decade – more than one killing a week, on average.
They reviewed databases, academic studies and news reports, and found citizens are often harassed, intimidated, beaten up, sexually assaulted and sometimes killed for opposing endangered wildlife poaching, illegal logging, dams and activities of foreign mining companies – including some Canadian firms.
I experienced this in 1988 when we interviewed rubber tapper Chico Mendes about his battle to save the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. He was assassinated two weeks later.
In 1989 Kaiapo Chief Paiakan asked me to help stop a dam proposed for Altamira, Brazil. My wife, Tara, and I helped raise $70,000 for a demonstration and the World Bank was persuaded to withdraw its project loan. Paiakan was later subjected to death threats.
Many instances of persecution and killing have occurred in countries with atrocious human rights records, such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet surprisingly, most attacks on environmentalists have been in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines, with democratically elected governments, independent judiciaries and other institutions intended to protect citizens’ rights to voice concerns about the environment without facing harassment, intimidation and violence.
As the recent incarceration of 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists by Russian authorities clearly demonstrates, human rights are vulnerable at a time when governments aggressively promote the interests of corporations over a healthy environment, and are willing to use heavy-handed tactics to ensure people who disagree don’t stand in the way.
Leaders of the Netherlands, Brazil and Germany called for release of their nationals and other members of the “Arctic 30,” but Prime Minister Steven Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have so far been silent. You can sign letters at Greenpeace.ca asking Baird to bring the Canadians home and Greenpeace.org asking Russian embassies to urge their government to drop the charges.