Young climate activists from across the world are calling on leaders to urgently act on the killing and harassment of environmental defenders.
A record 212 environmental activists were murdered in 2019, with preliminary analysis suggesting the situation has worsened since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last month, a prominent environmental activist was shot dead in Kenya after campaigning against the development of a forest. No arrests have been made.
The group, led by Kenyan environmentalist and climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti, says UN chief Antonio Guterres and UK minister Alok Sharma, who is president-designate of the Cop26 climate conference, must use all the tools at their disposal to protect environmentalists from harm.
“Environmental defenders are in greater danger than ever,” the group said in an open letter shared with The Independent.
“We are being killed, threatened, harassed, criminalised and silenced for peacefully protecting the basis of life that all of us depend on.
“As young activists from around the globe, we come armed with nothing more than courage. Many of us feel unsafe in our own countries due to killings like Joannah’s.”
Joannah Stutchbury, 67, was killed in July as she returned to her home on the outskirts of Nairobi. She had vocally opposed plans to build in the country’s Kiambu forest and had reportedly received death threats in the past.
Ms Wathuti, of the Daima coalition and the Wangari Maathai Foundation, told The Independent: “As a young activist from Kenya, seeing what happened to Joannah in my country, it hurt me to the core.
“Nobody deserves to be murdered for standing up for nature. If anything, we need to be protected.”
The letter urges both Mr Guterres and Mr Sharma “to condemn the killing and harassment of land and environmental defenders in the strongest possible terms” and “to call for countries to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice”.
It adds that Mr Sharma should use “the significant diplomatic resources at his disposal” to work with government leaders to strengthen protections for environmental defenders.
The letter also asks Mr Guterres to push the UN to do more, including by supporting the global implementation of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
“We must defend the defenders,” the letter continues. “There is little hope for our species if we allow the killing of the very people who stand up to protect us.”
Ms Wathuti added: “We’re trying to seek justice, whatever it takes.
“We want everyone to recognise that this is not just something that is happening in Kenya, this is something that is affecting people globally.”
The letter is signed by Vanessa Nakate in Uganda, Ridhima Pandey in India, Ayakha Melithafa in South Africa, Litokne Kabua in the Marshall Islands, Olumide Idowu in Nigeria, Laura Verónica Muñoz in Colombia and Xiye Bastida, an indigenous Mexican-Chilean activist based in New York.
A Cop26 spokesperson said: “No one should face violence or harassment for peacefully standing up for our planet.
“Cop26 will ensure the voices of all are heard in the fight against climate change, which is why the Cop26 president-designate has prioritised meeting people on the front line of climate change.”
The Independent also approached a representative of the UN secretary-general for comment.
The letter in full:
Environmental defenders are in greater danger than ever. We are being killed, threatened, harassed, criminalised and silenced for peacefully protecting the basis of life that all of us depend on. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in December 2015, at least four environmental defenders have been killed every week – these are just the deaths that have been registered. The violence has only increased since the onset of Covid-19.
It has been a month since environmental activist Joannah Stutchbury, 67, was killed near her home in Nairobi, Kenya. No arrests have been made so far – justice for Joannah is yet to be served. Joannah died because of her tireless fight to protect green spaces. She stood up to developers who were eyeing Kiambu Forest in Kenya. Like Wangari Maathai, she put the protection of Kiambu Forest ahead of her personal comfort – and, in the end, survival.
As young activists from around the globe, we come armed with nothing more than courage. But many of us feel unsafe in our own countries due to killings like Joannah’s. Both climate impacts and legal protections are unevenly distributed – some of us are much more unsafe than others. Today we stand together in solidarity; demanding justice for Joannah and asking leaders – everywhere – to protect us, especially those most at risk.
Environmentalists are the first line of defense against socio-ecological collapse and the climate crisis. We need them. Instead, we allow them to be silenced through violent attacks, death threats, or murder by those who refuse to act responsibly and continue to devastate nature. Defenders need and deserve to feel safe in their own countries. Nobody should be threatened or killed for standing up for life, speaking truth to power, or for choosing to be a part of the solution to address global environmental challenges. We must defend the defenders. There is little hope for our species if we allow the killing of the very people who stand up to protect us.
This situation cannot continue. Today we call on:
- The UN secretary-general and the Cop26 president-designate to condemn the killing and harassment of land and environmental defenders in the strongest possible terms, and to call for countries to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
- The UN secretary-general to utilise all tools available to the UN to ensure the protection of environmental defenders, including by supporting the global implementation of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
- The Cop26 president-designate to use the significant diplomatic resources at his disposal – through UK embassies and High Commissions around the world – to make this a top priority in his discussions with Government leaders, working with them to strengthen protections for environmental defenders in-country.
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