“We are not afraid!”

Land rights defenders: targeted for confronting unbrindled development

Villagers protest against a copper mine project in front of Letpadaung hill during a visit by Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Sarlingyi township March 13, 2013 | Myanmar, 2013 | ©REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun.
All over the world, land rights activists face increasing pressure from governments and economic actors. That pressure has sometimes led to murder. It occurs in a context of total indifference and impunity. Today, more than ever they need to be protected. They need our support!
Rigoberta Menchú (Guatemala), Nobel Peace Prize 1992

Land and people under pressure

Villagers protest against a copper mine project in front of Letpadaung hill during a visit by Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Sarlingyi township March 13, 2013.
Myanmar, 2013 ©REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Land and people under pressure

Today, everything has a price: forests, mountains, rivers.

Today, everything has a price: forests, mountains, rivers. The sale of nature can have devastating consequences for the earth. However, people too are often among the first victims of such deals. On every continent, men, women and children struggle to keep their land, their identity, their way of life, from annihilation. Many pay with their lives. They are not anti-development, but are trying to defend themselves against irresponsible development based on unfair deals between profit-hungry companies and corrupt governments.

These land rights defenders often live in the remote forest, mountain, and river areas they are trying to protect – far from institutions and far from the media. Now, at a time when pressure on land resources is at its most intense, the repression that these people face is unprecedented. Threats, harassment, arbitrary arrest, assault, murder – such acts are targeted at land rights defenders more than any other kind of human rights defender.

Repression of land rights defenders throughout the world (2011-2014) Source: Observatory
Police and municipal forces run towards residents of Borei Keila while a municipal guard throws a stone during clashes in the Borei Keila community on February 14, 2014 in Phnom Penh  | Cambodia, 2014 | ©Getty Images/AFP.

Des personnes qui dérangent

Police and municipal forces run towards residents of Borei Keila while a municipal guard throws a stone during clashes in the Borei Keila community on February 14, 2014 in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia, 2014 ©Getty Images/AFP

Disruptive individuals

Land rights defenders are usually members of rural communities who are directly affected by land exploitation projects.

Land rights defenders are usually members of rural communities who are directly affected by land exploitation projects. Their struggle is therefore often one for survival itself.They mobilise against being forced off of the territory on which their existence and way of life depend, or – where they are left with little other choice – to demand fair compensation and relocation and rehousing that is compatible with the ability to live with dignity. For indigenous peoples in particular, these situations are catastrophic as their strong personal and cultural bond to their ancestral lands is foundational to their identity and existence.

In their peaceful struggle, land rights defenders remind people of the State’s obligation to respect rights under national and international laws, especially the rights to food, water, a reasonable standard of living, and indigenous peoples’ rights. This mobilization can be carried out in various forms, and in different stages. At the outset, before the development of any project thought to disregard the law, defenders inform, alert and try to convince the authorities to enter into negotiations.

Where their voices are unheard and their concerns not taken into account, defenders organise demonstrations to claim their rights and alert the international community. Some demonstrations are violently repressed. Very often, States and developers fear only that the proposed project will be delayed or even halted, occasioning significant financial loss. Some therefore resort to any means to prevent this, even violence.

“ They wanted me to be quiet, so I was sentenced to 3 years in prison. ”
Yorm Bopha, Cambodia
Bloodstains are seen on the shirt of an injured opponent of the Tambor mining project during the eviction of protesters against the project in the community of La Puya, San Jose del Golfo, May 23, 2014 | Guatemala, 2014 | ©REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez.

An engagement violently repressed

Bloodstains are seen on the shirt of an injured opponent of the Tambor mining project during the eviction of protesters against the project in the community of La Puya, San Jose del Golfo, May 23, 2014.
Guatemala, 2014 ©REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

An engagement violently repressed

112 attacks or threats of attack against land rights defenders

The isolation of land rights defenders who often live remotely, far from people of influence, makes them an easy target of violence. Violence proportionate to the huge financial sums at stake has increased dramatically in the last few years.

Perpetrators – police, military, private security agents, corporate “mercenaries” – target demonstration leaders, with the sole purpose of silencing them.

Between 2011 and 2014, the Observatory reported 112 attacks or threats of attack against land rights defenders, 43 of which were murders. This terrible number is nonetheless a small glimpse of the reality on the ground. Asia and Latin America are the most affected continents, where cases of repression are more widely known...

In Bangladesh, , Shahed Kayes, counsellor for the Committee for the Prevention of Illegal Sand Extraction, was attacked by some forty people on 2 July 2013. One of the attackers said: “We lost a lot of money because of your movement. We made the mistake of not killing you earlier. But this time we will kill you. We will slash your veins, tie your hands and throw you in the river”. Shahed Kayes filed a complaint, but there has been no investigation to date.

In Liberia, Alfred Brownell, President of the Green Advocates NGO, was threatened by employees on a palm oil plantation he visited together with representatives of the plantation and a panel of experts. “My boss will drink out of your skull and we’ll eat your heart” said one employee.

43 assassinats

According to the information presented in the report of the Observatory, 43 land rights defenders were assassinated since 2011. This terrible number is nonetheless a small glimpse of the reality on the ground. Asia and Latin America are the most affected continents, where cases of repression are more widely known.

In Mexico, Hector Regalado Jimenez, a member of the Popular Assembly of the Juchiteco People, was murdered on 21 July 2013. He and his organisation had been demonstrating for several weeks against the construction of wind farms on their territories.

In Honduras, Antonio Trejo Cabrera, lawyer for an NGO demanding the return of lands belonging to the Bajo Aguan rural communities, was murdered on 22 September 2012. His brother, who publicly called for an investigation, was murdered the following year.

32 cases of judicial harassment against 123 land rights defenders

Many States also use judicial harassment and arbitrary detention to intimidate the human rights defenders. People deemed troublesome by the State are imprisoned on the basis of repressive legislation and subjected to endless abusive charges, like “false propaganda”, “threatening state security”, “disturbing law and order”, that can carry lengthy prison sentences.

Since January 2011, the Observatory has recorded 32 cases of judicial harassment against 123 land rights defenders., d’après l’Observatoire.

In Vietnam, many bloggers working on land confiscation issues have been arrested under Article 88 of the Criminal Code for “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.

In Indonesia, Anwar Sadat and Dede Chaniago, who run WALHI, an Indonesian environmental NGO, were beaten and arrested by police during a peaceful demonstration calling for the return of lands confiscated in the south of Sumatra in January 2013. The Court of Appeal sentenced them to five months in prison without parole for “organising provocative action”.

Handcuffed peasants of Bajo Aguan are escorted by policemen as they are transferred in Tegucigalpa on August 22, 2012 | Honduras, 2012 | ©AFP/Orlando Sierra.

Justice denied

Handcuffed peasants of Bajo Aguan are escorted by policemen as they are transferred in Tegucigalpa on August 22, 2012.
Honduras, 2012 ©AFP/Orlando Sierra

Justice denied

Land rights defenders are often powerless to react to physical attacks and arbitrary arrests.

Land rights defenders are often powerless to react to physical attacks and arbitrary arrests. The legal authorities in the countries where these violations occur often lack independence, resources and expertise. Few investigations are opened and aggressors are rarely prosecuted. This is particularly so in cases where States themselves initiate such attacks.

There are regional and international mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders that intervene when the national judicial system fails (UN special procedures, human rights treaty bodies, and regional human rights commissions and courts). However, most of these mechanisms are not legally binding, though they keep States and the international community informed of the situation of defenders at risk.

Prosecuting companies responsible for human rights violations – if it is even possible – entails a long, hazardous, costly legal battle. Companies have human and financial resources that are difficult to compete with.

Belongings of a Palestinian family after Jerusalem municipality workers had used bulldozers to demolish a residential building in an East Jerusalem neighborhood on October 29, 2013 of Beit Hanina, West Bank | West Bank, 2013 | ©Oren Ziv/Getty Images Andean people protest against Newmont Mining’s Conga gold project during a march near the Cortada lagoon in Peru’s region of Cajamarca November 24, 2011 | Peru, 2011 | ©REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivi. Prey Lang, primary forest in central Cambodia was badly cut | Cambodia, 2013 | ©ADHOC Des membres du Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguan (MUCA) manifestent à Tegucigalpa en portant des cercueils symbolisant leurs camarades assassinés | Honduras, 2012 | © AFP/Orlando SIERRA Paysanne opposée au projet minier Conga qui a déclaré que “L’or ne se mange pas” | Peru, 2013 | © Jacob Holdt. Des paysans brésiliens manifestent devant les locaux de l’entreprise minière Vale à Rio de Janeiro contre les dégâts causés sur l’environment | Brésil, 2012 | © AFP/Antonio Scorza.

Reversing the trend

Belongings of a Palestinian family after Jerusalem municipality workers had used bulldozers to demolish a residential building in an East Jerusalem neighborhood on October 29, 2013 of Beit Hanina, West Bank.
West Bank, 2013 ©Oren Ziv/Getty Images
Andean people protest against Newmont Mining’s Conga gold project during a march near the Cortada lagoon in Peru’s region of Cajamarca November 24, 2011.
Peru, 2011 ©REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivi
Prey Lang, primary forest in central Cambodia was badly cut.
Cambodia, 2013 ©ADHOC
Members of the Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguan (MUCA) demonstrate in Tegucigalpa carrying coffins symbolizing their comrades killed.
Honduras, 2012 © AFP/Orlando SIERRA
Farmer opposed to the Conga mining project who said “You can not eat Gold.”
Peru, 2013 © Jacob Holdt
Brazilian farmers protest against damage on the environment, outside the building of the mining company Vale in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazil, 2012 © AFP/Antonio Scorza

Reversing the trend

States, and the economic and international community must garner the resources needed to prevent conflicts over land rights and violations of human rights.

States, and the economic and international community must garner the resources needed to prevent conflicts over land rights and violations of human rights. States are obliged to protect defenders’ rights and have the duty to inform and consult the people affected by development projects. This obligation must be enhanced and cannot be ignored. Lack of consultation and free prior and informed consent can degenerate into serious, even lethal, conflict.

Similarly, business enterprises should respect human rights at all times. This means engaging in due diligence and ensuring the effective participation of people affected, in particular through the systematic conduct of pre-project impact studies on human rights and the environment.

But prevention is not enough. The capacity and independence of national judicial systems need to be developed in a manner that allows human rights defenders to have recourse to the judiciary and to obtain reparation when their rights are violated. Strengthening regional and international human rights mechanisms is essential to protecting defenders’ actions. It is also important to empower international legislation to fully engage the responsibility of enterprises for committing human rights violations.

The international community must recognise the importance and fragility of land rights defenders.

The international community must recognise the importance and fragility of land rights defenders. UN mechanisms should systematically include the question of land rights defenders in their activities, and the legal framework must provide a clear, precise definition of who they are.

The urgency of this issue makes it imperative that it be put on the agenda of forthcoming international meetings, especially the 2015 climate conference and the new intergovernmental group of the UN Human Rights Council. In doing so, it must be considered with a view to developing an International Treaty on Business and Human Rights.

This must stop!

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