Defending the land: a dangerous activity

Land rights defenders are “those individuals, groups or institutions who seek to promote and protect land-related human rights, in particular through peacefully confronting adverse impacts of investment projects. Individually or collectively, they stand up against attempts of land grabbing and claim respect for land-related human rights, through peaceful means protected under international law, such as legal actions, public campaigns, protests or demonstrations”.[1]

Recent years have seen an increase in attacks against people who defend their land, territory and environment from economic interests and multinational enterprises.  Approximately 200 land and environmental rights defenders were killed in the world in 2016, which is the year with the highest number of deaths ever recorded.[2] According to Global Witness, the phenomenon of attacks against environmental rights defenders is not only increasing, but also becoming more widespread, with murders being registered in 24 countries in 2016, compared to 16 in 2015.  Most of the killings were related to mining and oil extraction.[3]

Illustration: Maria Fernanda Lessmes

The work of environmental defenders is centred on legal activity that exposes environmental harm and human rights violations caused by large scale economic projects, usually in the mining sector but also with regards to hydroelectric dams, construction, development and agro-industrial projects.  60% of activists who lost their lives in 2016 were Latin Americans, murdered for protecting land, indigenous and environmental rights.[4]

This tendency is particularly alarming in Latin America, which according to Global Witness is the most dangerous region in the world to be a land and environmental rights defender, with Colombia the second most dangerous place to be involved in these activities after Brazil.[5] In 2016, 37 land and environmental rights defenders were killed in Colombia.[6]

46. foto defensores
These are some of the faces of the brave people who continue to defend life and territory. Their resistance and love for their land are an inspiration and a source of motivation to continue the struggle despite the difficulties.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, indicated in his 2016 annual report that the fundamental causes of attacks against environmental rights defenders are exclusion and power imbalance, the “commodification” and “financialization” of the environment, corruption and impunity.[7]

Traditionally, members of social movements in Colombia have been stigmatised as the “political wing” of the guerrilla groups, which in many cases has led to the arrest and detention of social leaders falsely accused of having links to the Farc or the ELN. This stigma has put social leaders and people who defend land rights at risk, and requires a counter-narrative that supports and raises the profile of the work they do in order to protect them.[8] In other contexts around the world we see how environmental rights defenders are often stigmatised as being “anti-development”, and allegedly “anti-progress” in rural territories, especially in relation to extractive industries.[9]

As well as murdering and stigmatising land rights defenders, other tactics have included threats, attacks, sexual violence, baseless prosecutions and the criminalisation of peaceful demonstration to repress activism.[10] In the Colombian context there are laws prohibiting certain activities related to social protest, such as blocking highways, which means that people who take part in these activities can be arrested.[11]

During manifestations, the ESMAD Anti-Riot Squad has often been used to respond to peaceful protests and has done so with the use of violence, to such an extent that the unit is currently under investigation for abuse of power, including the 168 individual complaints arising over its actions during the civic strike in Buenanventura in the middle of 2017.[12]

Guajira, wayuu
“Perpetrators develop a range of actions that often seek to disarticulate collective struggles through “divide and rule” strategies, which can be particularly difficult for indigenous defenders.” United Nations Special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, 2017. Photo: Bianca Bauer

The Colombian Government’s strategy during the “post-agreement” phase is to open up the country even further to business, inviting international investment and promoting the extractive model focused on short term economic gain and benefits for wealthy land owners and large multinationals, over and above the rights of communities to their land and a clean environment.[13]

Most of the land that for decades was under Farc control is now being liberated for investment by transnational corporations.[14]  It is therefore expected that conflicts over land and territory will increase in the months and years to come, which means that attacks against land rights defenders will also increase.[15] Effective investigation and sentencing of the material and intellectual authors of attacks against environmental or land rights defenders are a fundamental safeguard for satisfying the rights of environmental defenders and guarantees of non-repetition.[16]

On the issue of asymmetries between transnational corporations and rural communities, generalised impunity and favourable legislation for large scale projects in the territories aggravates the vulnerability of rural communities even further, and while they continue their work of protecting their land, they run extremely high risks.  In addition, there are difficulties for accessing justice and taking part in the decision making mechanisms of extractive projects, corruption and the absence of civilian State institutions in regions affected by these conflicts.[17]

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) recorded over 400 cases of attacks in Latin America against people who work on corporate accountability in 2015 and 2016 alone.[18] According to its database, the sector with the greatest number of alleged abuses against defenders is the energy sector.[19]

Hannah Matthews


[1] Observatorio para la Protección de los Defensores de Derechos Humanos (Omct-Fidh): “No tenemos miedo”, Defensores del derecho a la tierra: atacados por enfrentarse al desarrollo desenfrenado, Annual Report 2014, p. 8
[2] Global Witness: Defender la Tierra, 13 July 2017
[3] Ibid., Defender la Tierra
[4] Ibid., Defender la Tierra
[5] Ibid., Defender la Tierra
[6] Ibíd., Defender la Tierra
[7] UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst: United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders: they spoke truth to power and were murdered in cold blood, analysis on the situation of environmental human rights defenders and concrete recommendations to better protect them, 2016
[8] Informe De Riesgo No 010-17 A.I
[9]  Op. Cit., Defender la Tierra
[10] PBI: Criminalización de la protesta social, 22 August 2016
[11] Policía Nacional: Código Nacional de Policía y Convivencia, 29 July 2016
[12] Comisión veeduría de Derechos Humanos Paro Cívico: boletín 06, boletín 05, boletín 04, boletín 03, boletín 02, boletín 01; Colombia Plural: La “respuesta militar” del Gobierno a Buenaventura: 300 heridos, 10 con arma de fuego, 1 June 2017
[13] Expansión: “Colombia necesita inversiones para consolidar el proceso de paz”, 25 June 2017
[14]  BBC: Los grupos armados que están ocupando los territorios abandonados por las FARC en Colombia, 20 July 2017
[15] Defensoría del Pueblo: Informe De Riesgo N° 010-17 A.I., 30 March 2017
[16] UNHCHR Annual Report: 2016, p. 11
[17] Puerta giratoria
[18] Centro de Información sobre Empresas y Derechos Humanos (Ciedh): Empresas, Libertades Civiles y Defensores y Defensoras de los Derechos Humanos, 2017
[19]  Centro de Información sobre Empresas y Derechos Humanos (Ciedh): Informe de Latinoamérica. Foco sobre Defensores/as de Derechos Humanos bajo amenazas y ataques, January 2017

*Photo: Caldwell Manners/ECAP

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