In 2021, the climate crisis reached a tipping point. The world’s scientists called for major action to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Despite these warnings, the people and communities who protect the environment continued to face violent repression for their work. Many forms of violence were perpetrated against them, often by the state and extractive industries.
While violence is often described as some form of property damage or physical injury, the actions of states and companies against environmental defenders suggest that violence can extend far beyond this traditional definition. Governments acting on behalf of industries often impose violence on frontline communities that resist extractive development. This violence comes in all forms: hyper-surveillance, detention, intimidation, pain compliance (or torture), physical harm, pollution, coordination between private industry and the state, and inaction on the climate crisis. When activists rise up, their civil disobedience is often framed as criminal activity. Defining violence in such narrow terms and overlooking the actions of state and corporate players means that violence against frontline communities is often accepted and allowed to continue.
Every year the climate crisis gets worse. The longer it takes for governments to act, the more dangers those on the frontlines of the crisis face. In 2021, we’ve seen many instances of violence against land defenders, water protectors, and climate activists worldwide. Here are just a few:
Wet’Suwet’En Land Defenders
In Canada, the Wet’Suwet’En people and allies are fighting to stop the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which if completed, will be the largest fracking project in Canadian history. The pipeline would cut through Wet’Suwet’En territories and create an “energy corridor,” incentivizing other gas companies to tap into shale deposits along the route. If completed, the project has the potential to irreversibly damage the environment in that area.
To stop the project, Indigenous water protectors set up resistance camps along the proposed route. The state responded by escalating its attacks against the land defenders. In November, police showed up in Wet’Suwet’En territory with assault rifles, helicopters, canine units, and even tanks to try to end the 50-day Indigenous-led blockade.
In the midst of a police raid on November 19, Indigenous land defender Molly Wickham shared: “There have been approximately 15 arrests that have happened already at the Gidimt’en checkpoint. Legal observers, media have been arrested. Two of our Wet’suwet’en elders have been arrested and removed from the territory.”
The violence against Indigenous people defending their land compounds: The project is being forced upon these communities, and the police response to their resistance is violent.
Guapinol Water Defenders
Today, eight people sit in jail in Honduras for defending their community’s access to fresh water. In 2018, the Guapinol water defenders set up an 88-day encampment to protect freshwater in the Carlos Escaleras National Park, which provides clean water for thousands of people. They did so to protect the water from a mining project by Inversiones Los Pinares, a private extractive company. The police, working with the company, charged the Guapinol water defenders with arson and unlawful deprivation of liberty. These brave community leaders have been sitting in pre-trial detention since September 2019.
Their continued detention amounts to violence, where one could argue that the company has turned the courts into a weapon to wield against their critics.
Line 3 Water Protectors
The movement to stop the Line 3 pipeline reached its peak in the summer. As the pipeline project grew nearer to completion, so did the effort to stop the project. In some cases, Indigenous water protectors put their own bodies in the way of construction.
The pipeline in itself is violent in that it subjects the community to increased air and water pollution. Man-camps, or places where temporary workers live during pipeline construction, are connected to increased sexual violence in the communities near the pipeline.
Yet, those charged with crimes related to the pipeline, including gross misdemeanors and felonies, were not the financial and industrial backers of the project. Indigenous water protectors and their allies engaging in civil disobedience to delay the completion of the line, which is likely to lead to greenhouse gas emissions comparable to building 50 new coal power plants, faced police violence in their resistance.
Police violence included: shooting rubber bullets, using pain compliance techniques (or torture), dusting water protectors with helicopters, surveilling the camps, and more. When arrested for non-violent civil disobedience, several reports from water protectors and allies in jail alleged that the state refused to give them their medications, a form of medical violence. The Minnesota police have been paid over $3 million by Enbridge through a public escrow account for policing pipeline resistance.
Omkoi Anti-Coal Movement
In the Omkoi region of Thailand, a Karen community continues to fight for its rights to clean water and air against a proposed coal mine near their homes by a company called 99 Thuwanon Co. Ltd. The company has deployed a range of tactics to repress community resistance to the project. The Karen people are the biggest ethnic minority group in Thailand, yet the Thai state has never recognized their rights to their ancestral lands or their status as an Indigenous group. Because the people had no formal recognition of the rights to their ancestral lands, the coal company was able to use this as leverage to acquire land.
The community is completely self-sustaining and its livelihood depends on the health of its surrounding environment. The looming threat of this project has intensified this year, as more youth leaders have been criminalized, with the company accusing several protesters with criminal defamation, including two human rights defenders for gathering and disseminating anti-coal mine information. This criminalization, intimidation, and refusal to recognize the ancestral right to their land is violence. The community remains in a limbo of whether or not they will lose their homes and livelihoods to the coal mine.
COP26 Climate Activists
During COP26, Indigenous water protectors and land defenders, frontline communities, and young people turned out en masse at COP26 to urge government leaders to commit to meaningful climate action. In response, police used intimidation tactics and force to silence activists.
In a quote for The Guardian, Kat Hobbs of the Network for Police Monitoring said, “Police in Scotland seem to have gone for a saturation approach to policing the COP26 protests, and with so many officers and little for them to do, reports are flooding in of police intimidation, harassment and aggression.”
These instances of intimidation were well documented in Glasgow during COP26. Journalists reported that police ramped up surveillance of activists outside of the COP venue–disturbing activist camps early in the morning, threatening them with arrest, and kettling them into confined spaces for hours on end. Intimidation is a form of violence. In Glasgow, this intimidation implies that the state was trying to silence climate activists and protesters at COP26.
Stopping the violence
In 2021, climate defenders faced violence in the form of environmental injustice, physical harm, pollution, intimidation, inaction on the climate crisis and so much more. To stop the violence, we first need to consider that a limited definition of violence only benefits those that continue to enact harm. There are many forms of harm that communities on the frontline of the climate crisis face, often caused by the state, police forces, and corporations working together to protect profit over people. If we are to meaningfully address violence, we must take steps to mitigate the climate crisis, relinquish our addiction to fossil fuels, and work towards a future where human and environmental rights are respected and protected.
To support the resistance of frontline communities against violence and repression, EarthRights, in partnership with the Giniw Collective, the Wampis Nation and the Indigneous Federation of Madre De Dios Peru (FENAMAD), launched the Frontlines of Climate Justice campaign. Learn more about the campaign here: FrontlinesOfClimateJustice.org