Environmental activists under attack: India records highest incidences in Asia

Globally, 10 people were attacked every week of 2022 for pushing back against irresponsible business practices. One third of attacks occurred in Asia Pacific. India is Asia’s riskiest nation, but Cambodia recorded more assaults per capita.

Villagers protesting against a proposed steel plant in the Indian state of Odisha were attacked by thugs believed to have been hired by a steel company.
Villagers protesting against a proposed steel plant in the Indian state of Odisha were attacked by thugs believed to have been hired by a steel company. India was second only to Bolsanaro-led Brazil as the most dangerous country in the world for environment defenders in 2022. Image: Countercurrents.org

On 14 March 2022, 53 year-old farmer and land rights activist Arpudhakani was beaten and stabbed by a group of assailants near the main gate of Chemfab Alkalis, a chemicals company in southern India. 

Arpudhakani, an active member of agricultural land protection group Maan Meetpu Kulu, had voiced concern over the release of toxic waste by the Puducherry-headquartered company, which makes caustic soda, hydrochloric acid and liquid chlorine among other chemicals.

Arpudhakani is one of 54 reported cases of attacks on human rights and environment defenders in India last year, according to data from Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), a United Kingdom-based non-profit that has monitored the abuse of people who oppose irresponsible business practices since 2015.

More attacks were reported on activists in India than in any other country in Asia Pacific in 2022.

The violence and intimidation against Indian activists follows the introduction of a law that restricts civic society groups and coincides with sharp declines in freedom of expression and press freedom in the world’s largest democracy.

At the centre of the crackdown in India was steel firm JSW Steel, which was linked to more assaults on human rights defenders than any other company globally in 2022. Sixty people were arrested in the month of October for protesting against a steel works planned by the company, which is part of US$22 billion-valued conglomerate JSW Group, in Odisha state. Demonstrators fear the project will displace up to 40,000 people from their land and devastate the local environment.

JSW Steel has said in response to BHRRC‘s report that it was granted permission by local landowners to build the plant, will provide jobs to local communities and has a policy in place to compensate displaced Indigenous peoples fairly.

As a percentage of the population, Cambodia was the region’s riskiest country for activists, with 40 reported infringements.

The most culpable company is Phnom Penh-headquartered casino firm NagaCorp, which filed a lawsuit against four female workers who have been on strike since December 2021, protesting against mass layoffs. The women could face up to 10 years in prison for alleged charges of breaking and entering, property damage and unlawful confinement. NagaWorld union leader Chhim Sithar was also arrested and detained for her part in the protests.

Attacks on environment defenders in Asia-Pacific in 2022

India – 54 reported attacks

Cambodia – 40

The Philippines – 32

Indonesia  – 13

Nepal – 10

Myanmar – 8

Vietnam – 5

Bangladesh – 4

Thailand – 3

Kyrgyzstan – 3

Sri Lanka – 2

Pakistan – 2

Kazakhstan – 2

Malaysia – 2

Timor-Leste – 1

Mongolia – 1

South Korea – 1

Source: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Legislation lacking to protect defenders

Asia Pacific (183 reported attacks) was second only to Latin America (227) as the most perilous region for environmental activists in 2022, a trend the Centre has observed since 2015.

Brazil – which last year was being run by Jair Bolsonaro, a president nicknamed “Mr Chainsaw” for his policies that laid siege to the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous peoples – was the riskiest country globally for activists.

There were only five attacks on human rights and environment defenders in North America and 11 in Western and Central Europe.

Globally, there were 555 attacks on activists in 2022, a drop compared to the previous year, when 615 infringements were recorded.

Attacks have also declined overall in Asia Pacific. There was a total of 247 last year.

BHRRC noted that it only tracks publicly available information and many non-lethal attacks including death threats and judicial harassment go unreported, so the problem is likely to be more severe than the data shows.

BHRRC’s senior programme manager Christen Dobson said the scale of attacks against environmental defenders shows that governments are failing in their duty to protect human rights and that voluntary action by companies to prevent harm is falling short.

“There is an urgent need for robust mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation, which is grounded in safe and effective stakeholder engagement. Crucially, this legislation must contain strong safeguards for human rights defenders,” she said.

Other studies of assault on environmental defenders have shown different results. Global Witness, another non-profit that monitors the persecution of activists, found that the Philippines is the region’s deadliest country for environmental activists, with 19 Filipinos killed defending their land against corporate interests in 2021 and 14 murdered in India.

Climate activists under fire

People on the frontline of the climate movement came under attack more than any other kind of activist in 2022, the data showed. This has “severe” implications for the just transition, the BHRRC report’s authors said.

Three-quarters of attacks were against climate, land and environmental defenders and over a fifth of attacks (23 per cent) were against Indigenous peoples, who are widely regarded as the most effective guardians of the world’s natural spaces.

Nearly one-quarter of attacks were against female human rights defenders. The study found that women tend to be targeted with harassment of a sexualised nature and smear campaigns that criticise women for spending time on activism rather than taking care of the home.

Mining is the most dangerous sector for activists, with nearly 30 per cent of attacks on people pushing back against resource extraction last year.

The report emerges as activism against the mining of nickel – a mineral used in electric car batteries and solar panels – intensifies in the biodiversity hotspot of Palawan in the Philippines.

Last month, a group of demonstrators campaigning against Ipilan Nickel Mining Corp (INC) in Brooke’s Point, Palawan, were rounded up and handed over to the police. A number of were injured, including senior citizens, according to a local non-profit. 

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