Caring About the Environment Should Not Get You Killed

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Last week our friends at Global Witness unveiled their annual analysis of government and corporate attacks against environment and land defenders. Enemies of the State? reveals that 164 people were killed, with many more injured in 2018 for defending their land and environment from encroachment by governments and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and agribusiness. While activists around the globe faced intimidation tactics, the Philippines, Colombia, India, Brazil, and Guatemala experienced the most killings. 

These atrocious practices have persisted for years and are consistent with the scare tactics we’ve observed in our own cases where corporations like Unocal, Chiquita, Energy Transfer, and others that have supported groups who use intimidation tactics and violence against those who dare to defend their lands and environment. In this age of impunity, if you have enough wealth and resources, you can hire government security forces or death squads to have someone silenced.

 We’ve seen these issues time and again in the cases we’ve tried and the activists we’ve defended. EarthRights was established in the early 1990s after oil companies colluded with Myanmar’s (Burma’s) notorious State Law and Order Restoration Council to forcibly remove ethnic minorities and indigenous communities to make way for a gas pipeline. In Colombia, paramilitaries financed by Chiquita targeted trade unionists, banana workers, political organizers, and social activists. A recent EarthRights report found that mining companies regularly partner with police forces in Peru, which all too often quash opposition to the companies’ practices

The corruption at the heart of this violence can feel overwhelming at times, and also extremely far away. But corporate actors’ involvement in the suppression of activism isn’t just a problem that happens abroad, it happens here too. Corporations, aided by the Trump administration, are exploiting our legal system through abusive Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (or SLAPPs). Energy Transfer’s suit against Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne organizer Krystal Two Bulls and several environmental organizations is a prime example of this intimidation tactic. Energy Transfer is suing Ms Two Bulls for defending indigenous land and exercising her First Amendment rights–neither of which are crimes.  

Here in the United States, we have also seen the rise of laws that criminalize protest against corporate interests. The most egregious examples are “critical infrastructure bills” designed to criminalize peaceful protest, in some cases making it a felony to protest against the construction of oil pipelines. To date, 16 of these bills have been enacted in state legislatures around the country.  

Sometimes, corporations aren’t content to employ just one abusive tactic. In addition to the SLAPP suit we mentioned earlier (which EarthRights succeeded in getting dismissed), Energy Transfer has doubled down on its harassing practices towards activists. The company has supported efforts to pass anti-protest laws in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio and used questionable private security practices at the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, including hiring off-duty police officers to provide private security services to the company while still in uniform

So what is being done to stop these abusive practices? Last year we launched our comprehensive strategy for fighting back. And in close coordination with Global Witness and many other human rights and environmental groups, that’s exactly what we’re doing–both in the United States and abroad. In addition to representing Ms. Two Bulls and related groups in Energy Transfer’s SLAPP suit lawsuit against them, EarthRights is a proud member of the Protect the Protest task force, which is working to expose, fight, and stop abusive corporate lawsuits aimed at activists in the U.S. 

As civic space closes in other parts of the world, our EarthRights Defenders program is working with human rights activists in Southeast Asia and the Amazon region to help them build the skills needed to advocate for much-needed reforms. Our school, the Mitharsuu Center for Leadership & Justice in the Mekong region, trains activists from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and China in locally-based, grassroots activism to stand up to intimidation from extractive corporations. 

As EarthRights looks ahead to our 25th anniversary next year we will continue to challenge abusive corporations, governments, financial institutions, and other bad actors with disproportionate amounts of power. We’ll be making sure that corporations are held accountable for their role in creating our current climate crisis, we’ll continue to support communities in the Amazon and Mekong regions facing intimidation and violence from extractive corporations, and we’ll continue to train the next generation of EarthRights Defenders. 

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