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The Deadly Price of Being An Environmentalist

Posted: 11/27/2013 12:25 pm

Early November marked the 18th anniversary of the tragic murder of outspoken writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight colleagues by the Nigerian government. Saro-Wiwa and the others had waged a long campaign to stop multinational oil company Royal Dutch Shell from drilling in the lands of the Ogoni people in the Niger delta.

Nigerian military harassed and intimidated members of the Ogoni community for years because they opposed Shell's drilling program. Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues defended their communities and local environment from a notoriously toxic industry. In November 1995, a special court established by the military government illegally detained and tried them on spurious charges. Convicted without due process, they were executed 10 days later, despite enormous international outcry.

Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. A recent report by human rights organization Global Witness documents the murders of more than 700 environmental and indigenous-rights activists over the past decade -- more than one killing a week, on average. They reviewed databases, academic studies and news reports, and consulted with the United Nations and other international agencies. They found citizens are often harassed, intimidated, beaten up, sexually assaulted and sometimes killed for opposing endangered wildlife poaching, illegal logging, dams and activities of foreign mining companies -- including some Canadian firms.

I experienced this reality in 1988 when we interviewed rubber tapper Chico Mendes about his battle to save the Amazon rainforest in Brazil for The Nature of Things. He was assassinated two weeks later. The following year, Kaiapo Chief Paiakan asked me to help stop a dam proposed for Altamira, Brazil. My wife, Tara, and I helped raise $70,000 for a demonstration, and the World Bank was persuaded to withdraw its project loan. Paiakan was then subjected to death threats. We brought him and his family to Vancouver until the danger subsided.

Many instances of persecution and killing have occurred in countries with atrocious human rights records, such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet surprisingly, most attacks on environmentalists have been in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines, with democratically elected governments, independent judiciaries and other institutions intended to protect their citizens' rights to voice concerns about the environment without facing harassment, intimidation and violence. These countries have also signed international agreements to protect human rights, like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As the recent incarceration of 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists by Russian authorities clearly demonstrates, human rights are vulnerable at a time when governments aggressively promote the interests of corporations over a healthy environment, and are willing to use heavy-handed tactics to ensure people who disagree don't stand in the way.

In this latest case, Russian special operations forces arrested the Greenpeace International activists, including two Canadians, Alexandre Paul and Paul Ruzycki, for attempting to hang a banner off the side of an oil rig in Arctic waters. They were peacefully protesting Russian company Gazprom's plans to drill for oil in one of the most ecologically sensitive regions of the planet, and raising awareness of the consequences of climate change. For speaking out in defence of the Arctic, they were imprisoned for two months under difficult conditions and all but one were only recently released on bail. They now face the possibility of long, harsh, jail sentences if found guilty on trumped-up charges of piracy and hooliganism.

Although leaders of the Netherlands, Brazil and Germany called for release of their nationals and other members of the "Arctic 30", Prime Minister Steven Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have so far been silent. You can sign letters at Greenpeace.ca asking Baird to bring the Canadians home and Greenpeace.org asking Russian embassies to urge their government to drop the charges.

Too often, governments are quick to use excessive force and even pervert the course of justice to keep oil and gas flowing, forests logged, wild rivers dammed and minerals extracted. As the Global Witness study reveals, citizens are often killed, too -- especially if they're poor and indigenous.

We must remember the sacrifices of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Chico Mendes and hundreds of other advocates and defend people's rights to peacefully speak out for the environment, without fear of intimidation, arrest and violence.

With contributions from from David Suzuki Foundation Ontario and Northern Canada Director-General Faisal Moola.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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  • MANILA, PHILIPPINES - JULY 23: Scientists from the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) along with Greenpeace activists conduct water sampling on Manila Bay July 23, 2013 in Manila, Philippines. Domestic sewage, toxic industrial waste, leachate from garbage dumps, and runoff from chemical agriculture, converge into what Greenpeace describe as a 'hideous cocktail' reducing Manila Bay into one giant waste dump. Overfishing is also prevalent in the bay with commercial fish cages and small fishers competing for dwindling fish and marine resources that scientists claim already contain high levels of heavy metals and toxic substances. (Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)

  • Greenpeace activists swimming in the river Moselle hold a banner reading 'Radioactivity has no borders' as they demonstrate on August 17, 2013 in Trier, southwestern Germany, against the French nuclear power plants Cattenom and Fessenheim. The demonstration was staged one day after an incident at the Cattenom nuclear power plant, in which hydrochloric acid escaped. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN

  • Greenpeace activists swimming in the river Moselle hold a banner reading 'Radioactivity has no borders' as they demonstrate on August 17, 2013 in Trier, southwestern Germany, against the French nuclear power plants Cattenom and Fessenheim. The demonstration was staged one day after an incident at the Cattenom nuclear power plant, in which hydrochloric acid escaped. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN

  • French gendarmes arrest Greenpeace campaigners at the Tricastin Areva's nuclear power plant in the French southeastern town of Pierrelatte, some 200 kilometres (120 miles) north of Marseille, southern France, after around two dozen activists of the environmental anti-nuclear group snuck into the site on July 15, 2013. Twelve of the activists were arrested more than two hours later, according to the EDF energy giant that runs the country's atomic power plants. Greenpeace members have staged several break-ins at French nuclear plants in recent years in an effort to highlight what they say are dangers of atomic power and to expose security problems at the power stations. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES

  • LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 11: A member of Greenpeace displays a banner which reads 'Save The Arctic' to a news media helicopter while scaling The Shard, the tallest building in western Europe, on July 11, 2013, in London, England. The six female protesters began their unauthorised ascent of the 310 metre high skyscraper shortly after 4am with the intention of highlighting the environmental damage caused by drilling for oil in the Arctic by Shell. (Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)

  • LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: Protesters from the environmental charity Greenpeace attempt to scale the tallest building in western Europe, The Shard, in a bid to unveil a giant banner from the top on July 11, 2013 in London, England. The six female protesters began their unauthorised ascent of the 310 metre high skyscraper shortly after 4am with the intention of highlighting the environmental damage caused by drilling for oil in the Arctic by Shell. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

  • A Greenpeace protester climbs to the top of The Shard, the tallest building in western Europe, during a protest against the oil company Shell's drilling in the Arctic, Thursday, July 11, 2013. Six environmental activists scaled Western Europe's tallest building on Thursday to protest drilling in the Arctic by oil companies — and were arrested after reaching the top. It took the female climbers 15 hours to reach the top of the 310-meter (1,017-foot) tower on the south bank of the River Thames in London. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

  • BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 26: Activists from the environmental group Greenpeace stage a mock funeral for three dead harbour porpoises, victims of Danish fishing nets on the Baltic sea, in front of a sign reading in German, 'Finally, protect our whales!' during a mock funeral in front of the German federal Agricultural Ministry on June 26, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. According to the group, the harbour porpoise, smaller than most dolphins is the only whale native to Germany's coasts and is threatened by poisonous waters, noise pollution and most importantly Danish fishing nets. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

  • BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 26: Activists from the environmental group Greenpeace bury one of three dead harbour porpoises, victims of Danish fishing nets on the Baltic sea, during a mock funeral in front of the German federal Agricultural Ministry on June 26, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. According to the group, the harbour porpoise, smaller than most dolphins is the only whale native to Germany's coasts and is threatened by poisonous waters, noise pollution and most importantly Danish fishing nets. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

  • BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 26: Activists from the environmental group Greenpeace bury one of three dead harbour porpoises, victims of Danish fishing nets on the Baltic sea, during a mock funeral in front of the German federal Agricultural Ministry on June 26, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. According to the group, the harbour porpoise, smaller than most dolphins is the only whale native to Germany's coasts and is threatened by poisonous waters, noise pollution and most importantly Danish fishing nets. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

  • Greenpeace ship The Rainbow Warrior is seen docked in Hong Kong on June 21, 2013. The boat is on a two day stop in the former British colony and is opened to the public. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez

  • Kumi Naidoo, of south Africa and international executive director of Greenpeace, smile during an interview with AFP in Manila on June 3, 2013. A billion-dollar-deal to save Indonesia's rainforests has slowed a 'tidal wave' of logging destruction, Greenpeace's global chief said Monday, but he warned much more needed to be done. AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE

  • A Balinese priest throws flowers as he prays after Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior campaigning ship arrived at Benoa port in Denpasar on Indonesia's island resort of Bali on May 31, 2013. The Rainbow Warrior tour of Indonesia is part of the Greenpeace 'Ocean Defender' tour of Southeast Asia. AFP PHOTO / SONNY TUMBELAKA

  • In this Oct. 15, 2010 file photo, the Greenpeace ship 'Arctic Sunrise' is seen in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

  • A member of the environmental group Greenpeace holds a banner that reads "We have no appetite for Genetically Modified Organisms or for your stories" as they stage a protest ouside Agriculture Ministry in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, May 9, 2013. They were protesting the government's policy on GMOs. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

  • A greenpeace activist dressed as a polar bear stands on a wooden block of ice on the Moskva River protesting against plans of oil companies's drilling in the Arctic, with the Kremlin wall in the background, in Moscow , Russia, Monday, April 1, 2013. The placard at left reads: "Save Arctic." (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

  • An Ultra Orthodox Jewish youth looks at Greenpeace activists as they place a large banner on a rail bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem, Thursday, March 21, 2013. Greenpeace activists protested Thursday against arctic drilling during US President Barack Obama's visit to the region. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

  • Greenpeace activists demonstrate at a Shell petrol station in Wolfgang, near Davos Switzerland, where the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, takes place Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)

  • Greenpeace members and small-scale fishermen during a small demonstration against quota, outside the EU Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. The European Union's executive Commission is calling for a new approach to protect dwindling fishery stocks and eliminate a system of setting catch quotas in which scientific advice is widely disregarded. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

  • French activists from the international environmental organization "Greenpeace" demonstrate in front of a fashion store "Zara" in Nice, southeastern France, to protest against hazardous chemicals in clothing, Saturday, Nov.24, 2012. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

  • Members of Greenpeace wear mock hazardous material suits and spray water while demonstrating in front of EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2102. Greenpeace demonstrated on Wednesday regarding the cultivation of new genetically modified crops which they say could increase herbicide use by up to 15 times. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

  • Greenpeace activists hold a large banner on Romania's economy ministry facade in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. Activists staged a protest against government plans to build new, environment damaging, coal fueled power plants. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • A Greenpeace activist, dressed as a polar bear, sits inside a police car after being detained outside Gazprom's headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. Russian and international environmentalists are protesting against Gazprom's plans to pioneer oil drilling in the Arctic. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

  • This image made available by environmental organization Greenpeace shows Greenpeace activists chained to the anchor chain of the Anna Akhmatova, the vessel which was carrying Gazprom's workers to the Prirazlomnaya platform, in the Pechora Sea about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the nearest port, Murmansk, a city on the extreme northwestern edge of the Russian mainland, Monday Aug. 27, 2012. Gazprom is pioneering Russia's oil drilling in the Arctic. The state-owned company installed the platform there last year and is preparing to drill the first well. Environmentalists have warned that drilling in the Russian Arctic could have disastrous consequences because of a lack of technology to deal with a possible spill in this remote region. (AP Photo/Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace, HO)

  • This image made available by environmental organization Greenpeace shows Greenpeace activists chained to the anchor chain of the Anna Akhmatova, the vessel which was carrying Gazprom's workers to the Prirazlomnaya platform, in the Pechora Sea about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the nearest port, Murmansk, a city on the extreme northwestern edge of the Russian mainland, Monday Aug. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace, HO)

  • Greenpeace activists are in a boat in front of energy giant Gazprom's Arctic oil platform Prirazlomnaya in the Pechora Sea on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. Greenpeace activists have stormed a floating oil rig in Russia's Pechora Sea, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the nearest port, to protest oil drilling in the Arctic, the environmental organization said Friday. (AP Photo/Denis Sinyakov, Greenpeace)

  • Indigenous people from Xavante tribe dance as they visit a Greenpeace ship during the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Riocentro, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. The Xavantes are claiming their lands, the Maraiwatsede Reservation, that was awarded to the Indians by a federal government order in 1998. But local farmers and ranchers immediately took possession of large portions of it. A local court order in 2001 allowed the settlers to remain on the reservation. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

  • Lucy Lawless

    In this Feb. 24, 2012 file photo provided by Greenpeace, actress Lucy Lawless joins activists in stopping a Shell-contracted drillship from departing the port of Taranaki, New Zealand. Lawless says she has "no regrets" for boarding a ship in a protest action which on Thursday, June 14, 2012 resulted in her pleading guilty to trespass charges. (AP Photo/Greenpeace, File)

 

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