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Environment and climate change

defending the Earth, defending human rights

Environmental protection and human rights have long been considered as two distinct sets of issues. In the past decade, the urge has increased to recognize the link between them, despite the lack of a legislation – also at the UN level – which officially codifies environmental rights.

In spite of this, there are people who struggle to safeguard the Earth and its ecosystems. Who are these defenders? They are people who, through a peaceful action, are in the first line in the protection of ecosystems. Ordinary people, who would probably never call themselves “defenders”. Among them we find indigenous people living in the mountains or forests, who want to protect the lands and traditions of their ancestors from multinational firms or luxury hotels, or rangers who try to counter poaching, or also lawyers, journalists or members of NGOs who report abuse and illegality. 60% of the crimes perpetrated against them occur in Latin America, in particular in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Peru. The extractive industry is the major cause of protests, and so also of deaths, in India and Turkey, too. In Mexico and the Philippines, environmental activists are murdered at the hands of criminal gangs, while in Africa the worse threat to their lives is poaching.

The frequent involvement of the Governments in these economic interests – and the fact that the holders of political power are often involved in the affairs of big private companies – thus does not work in favour of the activists, instead it makes them “criminal” in the eyes of those who should protect them. As well as the situations of economic crisis provide an occasion for multinational firms to profit – with the clearance of the most powerful countries, quite the same way environmental disasters also become an excuse to implement less restrictive measures and laws, and thus allow big companies a wider range of intervention, which often is exerted as a form of exploitation.

40% of the murdered activists are indigenous people, the weakest category because it is formed by people deprived of their lands, on whom above all the multinational companies impose plans to exploit their environments. Often, such plans put the populations at major life risks, and the only weapon available to defend one’s land is protest.
Many murders are never exposed, as well as the threats, beatings and forms of harassment. According to the Environmental Justice Atlas, in the world there are currently over 2.335 cases of tensions concerning water, territory, pollution or resources, and the numbers are going to increase because of the effects of climate change.

Precisely for the more and more apparent effects of such change, however, the international awareness about these figures of environmental defenders has grown. This is one of the reasons why, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, said that the moment for the United Nations had come to formally recognize the right to a healthy environment, through a United Nations resolution, which may increase the pressure on governments to pass laws and policies to support the environmental defenders. This document, according to Knox, should absolutely not miss two fundamental principles that clearly weave the person’s wellbeing with the ecological one: “States must ensure a safe, healthy, clean and sustainable environment to respect, protect and apply human rights” and “States must respect, protect and implement human rights to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment”.

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