The repression of environmental activists fuels climate change

As global greenhouse gas emissions rise, government attempts to thwart climate defenders should worry us all.

Non-profit activists have largely taken the lead when it comes to influencing climate action. Image: Alan Trotter , CC BY 2.0

Coal enthusiast Poland hosted COP24, the annual United Nations’ climate summit, last December. The summit’s outcomes were widely criticised for being too little too late. But Poland’s actions also drew attention to another alarming global trend: repression of environmental and climate defenders.

This worrying development finds its roots in the global and local conflict between the haves and have-nots. The ‘natural commons’ such as forests, jungles, mountains, rivers, oceans, and clean air, which should be shared by all of us, are increasingly cordoned off, extracted, and profited from by the wealthy few.

Politicians who feed on global uncertainty, our precarious livelihoods and racism use their powers to support their allies to profit from destroying the natural world. This is not a new story, but it is one of heightened global relevance.

The people themselves might not characterise their struggle as directly ‘climate’ related, instead focusing on the protection of local land, livelihoods, and the natural world. But the opposition to these extractive and destructive projects takes on global significance because the U.N.’s climate science panel in its latest report has warned the world that we cannot build any new fossil fuel projects. It shows that we must drastically reverse deforestation.

Every effort to stop new fossil fuel extraction or to resist the expansion of agro-business into forests is an effort of global importance. Governments that support corporations in this extraction risk local lives and communities, but also our global ecosystem. This represents one of the greatest political challenges of our times.

Depressingly, the Polish government turned away 13 people who were accredited civil society observers to the U.N. Summit, proving that being an endorsed host by the U.N. does not necessarily guarantee the respect of human rights.

In that case, Poland used a new “national security” law to detain and deny entry, but it was not the first time that a government has taken advantage of its role as a host of a U.N. climate summit to enact draconian security laws and silence critical activists. Both the 2009 (Copenhagen) and 2015 (Paris) summits saw large-scale abusive arrests and detentions.

Beyond U.N. summits, we can see examples globally of governments being heavy-handed with activists, such as the military in Kenya harassing activists while in Southeast Asia a coalition of civil society groups  launched an “Environmental Defenders” declaration to protect themselves.

Almost 60 percent of the recorded murders of community environmental activists across the globe occurred in South America. 

As plans begin for the 25th annual U.N. climate summit, this time to be held in Chile in 2019, attention is turning to Latin America and its chequered history and febrile present when it comes to the rights of civil society.

Across the continent there has been an ongoing rise of political repression and use of violence by the state and by forces aligned with corporate interests that harass and terrorise voices in the community that stand-up to extractive industries like mining and agro-business.

Almost 60 percent of the recorded murders of community environmental activists across the globe occurred in South America. The new Bolsonaro government in Brazil is going out of its way to weaken the rights of indigenous communities, shrink democratic spaces for NGOs, and dismantle Brazil’s climate and environmental protection policies and agencies.

Recently, the horrific Vale mine disaster shows the tragic environmental and human cost of a political project that prioritises corporate prosperity through deregulation and weak enforcement systems, while failing to protect life.

Chile, as the host of the next U.N. climate conference, must publicly and clearly commit to its obligations under the Pact of San Jose of Costa Rica, to ensure that the human rights to freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association are protected in the region.

Similarly, Chile must ensure access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters. To do so it should ratify the new the Escazu Agreement, a regional legally binding treaty on rights in public decision-making on environmental issues and apply its rules to the 2019 U.N. climate summit.

Although the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed her concern about the situation in Poland last December, the U.N. climate secretariat (UNFCCC) is yet to respond to calls for higher standards of democracy, human rights and participation from its host countries.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the UNFCCC to ensure host governments respect national and international human rights commitments and put the protection of environmental and climate defenders at the heart of its agenda. We expect to see this through transparent and accountable processes.

Climate defenders should be welcomed, acclaimed, and protected, not only because these people act as whistle-blowers, and remind us of our responsibilities—but also because they hold most of the answers to the climate crisis.

Amelie Canonne is 350.Org’s global campaigner on iconic projects and Rubens Born is 350.Org’s interim Latin America team leader. This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit to see more stories.


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