If you are reading this, it’s most likely because you’re interested in sustainability and the fate of our planet. But while some of us may feel like we need to sacrifice things in order to reduce our environmental impact, the sacrifice is likely very small compared to the hundreds of people around the world who are losing their lives to protect the planet.
A new report by the UK-based NGO Global Witness focussing on a lengthy investigation into corruption and environmental destruction linked to global supply chains, reveals that 207 environmental defenders died in 2017, making it the deadliest year ever on record. It also found that agribusiness is the industry most linked to these killings (even before mining and resource extraction).
Murdered for protecting their land
Each year the murder toll increases for environmental defenders; each year worse than the previous. The numbers available aren’t even representative of the entire reality; these figures only include the attacks reported, meaning that the global total is probably much higher. Moreover, murder is the most egregious example of a range of tactics used to silence defenders, including death threats, arrests, intimidation, cyber-attacks, sexual assault and lawsuits.
Most of the victims were only trying to protect their land, sometimes indigenous lands in their community for centuries, from corporate expansion or political greed. Most weren’t high profile environmental activists either, but locals who are thrown into an unequal fight to save and protect what was theirs. Latin America was the most dangerous region for defenders with nearly 60% of the total killings occurring in this region. Brazil remains year after year, the country with the most registered deaths followed by Colombia.
In Brazil, farmers using machetes and rifles violently attacked the Gamela indigenous people leaving 22 members severely injured, some with their hands chopped off. While in Colombia, Hernán Bedoya was shot 14 times by a paramilitary group for protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land stolen from his community.
In Asia, the Philippines are seeing an increase in the number of death with 48 defenders killed in 2017, the highest number ever documented in an Asian country. Ben Leather, senior campaigner at Global Witness and author of the report believes that the election of President Duarte is the reason for the rise in killings. “His aggressively anti-human rights discourse and his use of martial law, which has put the army into areas which are resource-rich, have meant that a bad situation in the Philippines has got drastically worse under his rule”, Leather tells Aljazeera.
While these instances of violence are very often linked to agribusiness and corporate land grabbing, the report highlights that they are enabled by impunity and corruption resulting in just two percent of those responsible for the killings never being brought to justice.
Indeed, it’s not rare in some countries, to find governments and big business colluding to develop projects with a high social and/or environmental impact or worse, government officials receiving bribes and special favors to turn a blind eye on illegal projects.
Brazil, for instance, has a history of doing so. In 2017, the government opened up 860,000 acres of Amazon’s protected rainforest to logging, mining and farming activities to the despair of environmental activists. More recently, Maria do Sorocco Silva an environmental defender from the Amazon has been fighting against the world’s biggest alumina refinery and its local government backers. According to the activist, the local authorities aren’t taking corrective action despite obvious illegalities because they’re receiving kickbacks from the company in exchange for protection against protesters, defenders and the press.
Of course my life is at risk, I receive death threats 24 hours a day because I’m not going to shut my mouth in the face of this atrocity.” – Maria do Socorro Silva, environmental defender tells Global Witness
Violence linked to products on our shelves
Most of these senseless killings are made in the name of profit linked to many ingredients found in consumer products.
Palm oil is one such ingredient, and it’s found in processed food, soaps, cosmetics and cleaning products. Beef, cocoa, coffee and tea are others.
“There has been an increase in consumer demand for cheap products, particularly foodstuffs but also toiletries and other household products that contain things such as palm oil,” explains Ben Leather.
And who could disagree? From cheap kilos of beef for summer barbecues to shampoos and shower gel for less than one euro, supermarkets shelves are filled with cheap products made with low-quality materials and little transparency. And just like in the textile industry, cheaper than normal products often means unethical supply chains, environmental degradation and sometimes even death.
For those of us who live in big cities and feel helpless to do anything about these issues happening thousands of kilometres from home, there’s one thing we can do: vote with our wallets.
There are many alternatives nowadays for conscious shoppers who refuse to support these corrupt and violent systems, including but not limited to:
- shopping directly from producers at farmers markets
- purchasing goods with certification labels such as certified organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ among others
- choosing homemade and handmade products
- growing your own vegetable garden or sharing a plot in a community garden
Thanks to reports like Global Witness’ “At What Cost”, scandalous behaviour by agribusinesses can now be scrutinised and the information contained within will help informed consumers make companies and governments accountable.
Unsure whether your consumer products are linked to deadly supply chains?
Let’s make sure that the only price paid for our groceries is at the counter and does not involve the ending of human life!
You can add your voice to the campaign to support Environmental Defenders here.
We recommend reading this next: Tracking The Battles For Environmental Justice: Here Are The World’s Top 10
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Photo by Mokhamad Edliadi for CIFOR