The German election is now running and posters of smiling politicians are lined up on street lamp posts and seem to pop up on every second corner and public wall space. While cycling around Berlin, I came across one sentence once or twice on posters and it has since then stayed in my mind. It loosely translates to: ‘Environment is not everything. But without environment, there is nothing.’ It is one of the slogans of the Green Party and it made me think about the recent news and events in the world that seem to be related to the environment. Whether that is the effect of climate change that seems not only to cause a rise in natural disasters but also the displacement of human beings who are forced to move, the endangerment of wildlife, the loss and destruction of arable land and wildlife habitat.
Environment does not only happen somewhere far away, but is close to us, right at our bodies, right at our mouths: The fruits and vegetables from the supermarket that are sprayed with pesticides have, according to a UN report, hazardous effects on human health, the ecosystem and human rights. At the forefront of environmental struggles are often affected people and land defenders, mostly in developing countries.
This article wants to shed some light on some of the recent deaths and struggles of environmental defenders. According to the Guardian, chances are that four environmental defenders will be killed each week on this planet. So far, more than 134 campaigners have been killed so far in 2017, their deaths linked to industry (especially mining and illegal poaching) and deforestation. Most death tolls have been recorded in Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo) and have often occurred in remote villages, with indigenous communities at highest risk.
This September, six Peruvian peasant farmers were killed for refusing to give up their land to a criminal gang who were active in the lucrative palm oil trade. Several other farmers have been receiving death threats. There is little action from the state, in fact, environmental defenders claim that the regional government is linked to the trafficking gangs. The regions of the Amazonas and San Martin in northeastern Peru are considered the most biodiverse region on Earth. At the same time, unfortunately, it faces acute threats of deforestation, industry, corruption and land trafficking. Palm oil plays a huge part in causing deforestation and habitat loss. It became popular as a replacement for trans fats in recipes. Once processed into a saturated fat, it is used as cooking oil and in packed food products, such as confectionary, soups, crackers to name a few. As a saturated fat, however, it has been claimed to be linked to heart diseases and obesity.
In August, wildlife conservationist Wayne Lotter was shot dead in a taxi in Tanzania. Lotter supported the anti-poaching campaign that led to the arrest of more than 1000 ivory poachers and the dissolvement of several key poaching syndicates in the country. The rising demand for ivory has led to a sharp decline of the elephant population in Tanzania where poaching and corruption is high. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has reported a fall of elephant numbers from 70,000 in 2006 to 13,000 in 2013.
Just a few months earlier, in April, elephant poachers killed two rangers in the Garamba National Park in Congo. While on patrol, Joel Meriko Ari and Gerome Bolimola Afokao came into shoot-out with six poachers who were busy with an elephant carcass. Once abounding with wildlife, Garamba is now estimated to have only 2000 elephants, whereas there were 20,000 in the 1960s. In July in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, four Congolese park rangers and a porter were ambushed by local rebel forces involved in poaching and mining.
On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a group of people from the Pandumaan-Sipituhuta indigenous community have lobbied president Joko Widodo for support to be handed back rights over customary lands. At the beginning of the year, Widodo returned 13,000 hectares to nine indigenous groups which had previously been declared property of the state. Previously, the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) to the highest court won a case to be granted legal control over indigenous lands but it was only after Widodo’s act has started to effect change. Back then, the challenge was seen as to the lack of administration and management procedures over these indigenous lands. Now, the elders are facing some of these problems: A local inspector wants to sell off land to a large pulp company which some of the community see as a betrayal. Some others argue that there should be a right to sell or lease land in order to boost the country’s economy.
The AMAN and other indigenous groups are still waiting for the president’s promise of returning 600,000 hectares, and eventually want to push for 70m hectares. There are still a lot of problems to face: Apart from the administrative challenges and possible corruption, there are overlapping claims over land which are granted, under the previous Suharto dictatorship, to political elites; the government’s denial of indigenous rights, as it claims that almost all Indonesian citizens are indigenous, thus persecuting indigenous people working on their customary lands as it is deemed illegal by the state.
It remains for the reader, for us, to think, what to do? All I can say is: Read, share, talk, discuss, join campaigns and environmental groups, lobby politicians, change consumptive patterns, think before you buy (or buy at all), support grassroots organisations and charities, donate, talk.
Global Witness: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/series/the-defenders
Support The Thin Green Line Foundation: https://www.thingreenline.org.au/
Picture by the Green Party: http://www.gruene-dinslaken.de/ohne-umwelt-ist-alles-nichts/