Protecting Earth Rights Defenders: The Human Rights Cause of Our Time

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When I first got started working on human rights issues more than 20 years ago, very few major U.S.-based organizations apart from EarthRights International were examining or discussing the relationship between human rights and the environment. Defending human rights and protecting the planet and our shared resources were seen as two distinct areas of work. Indigenous peoples’ organizations, in contrast, particularly those founded by frontline communities, have always recognized the integrated nature of protecting people and the planet. But as globalization has accelerated, it’s become increasingly clear that extractive industries such as oil, gas, and mining are trampling on human rights as they simultaneously trash the planet. As EarthRights prepares to celebrate our 25th anniversary next year, it’s clear that what initially made us unique is now also priming us to tackle the most pressing issues facing humanity–our climate crisis and the toll it’s taking on billions of people around the world. 

Climate change is now the most serious human rights crisis the world has ever faced. No other man-made calamity has the potential to violate the rights of so many people, on so many levels. As pollution increases and global temperatures rise, every aspect of our lives will be compromised, spelling disaster for many in developing nations. As global populations rise, crop yields could fall by as much as 35 percent by the year 2100, undermining meat and fish production and food security for billions around the world. From 2030 to 2050, climate change is expected to cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year from heat stress, malnutrition, malaria, and more; tropical storm-related deaths are expected to increase by 52 percent. Perhaps most chillingly, some experts predict that climate change could lead to climate apartheid where the wealthy will be able to afford food, water, and shelter, but a disproportional number of people around the globe will not, leading to civil and political turmoil as more and more people are deprived of their basic human rights. 

Put simply, if we care about human rights and the well-being of our fellow citizens on this planet, we must care about climate change. Most importantly, we must take action to protect earth rights defenders–those brave men and women from frontline communities most directly affected by extractive industries, who are fighting to save their communities and the planet from climate catastrophe. Earth rights defenders will bear the brunt of the coming wave of criminalization and repression as efforts intensify – as they must – to resist fossil fuels and other climate-destroying industries. 

These industries won’t go down without a fight. Much like the death throes of a wounded animal, their counter-attacks will only grow in ferocity and violence. This means that more than ever, we will need to protect the civil and political rights of activists, communities, and others on the frontlines of the resistance against fossil fuel and mining corporations. It also means launching an aggressive offense by cutting off the funding sources of these industries, blocking their access to communities, and curbing their political influence.

Around the world, earth rights defenders are standing up to major corporations to defend their communities, lands, and our shared environment from abuse. This includes Krystall Two Bulls, an indigenous activist from Montana who has faced civil charges for her opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline and Yesid Blanco, a pediatrician from Barancabermja, Colombia who was forced into exile for his stand against oil-related contamination of his community and opposition to fracking. It also includes Maxima Acuna, a farmer from Peru who became a global symbol of resistance when she stood up to  Newmont mining after it destroyed her community’s vital water resources. These individuals know that human rights and the environment are inextricably linked and that our common future depends on fighting for them hand in hand.

At EarthRights, we support earth rights defenders like these through legally defending them against criminalization and SLAPP lawsuits, pressuring governments to take action, and fighting to hold corporations accountable.  Last year we set out our global strategy for this work, which we called Fighting Back: A Global Protection Strategy for Earth Rights Defenders. The strategies and tactics we set out then have, if anything, only become more important. The clock is ticking and we have to act now to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Supporting earth rights defenders is one of the most important actions we can take in realizing a future where climate change is averted and corporations and governments respect the human rights of local communities and their environments.

 

    

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