Environmental activism is too often dangerous work. That needs to change.

International institutions have a crucial role to play in safeguarding local and indigenous communities. At the United Nations Environment Programme, we’re helping to enhance protections for environmental defenders and, through technical and legal assistance, making it easier for them to lobby for change. We’re doing this in collaboration with civil society organizations, networks of environmental defenders, and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This work is especially important amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Worryingly, some countries have announced plans to lower environmental standards, suspend environmental monitoring requirements and restrict public participation in development decisions.

Here are some examples from Latin America emphasizing why this is critical, as described in a recent report from Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization working on these issues.

In October of 2019, after reportedly being stopped at a community checkpoint, gunmen in Colombia’s mountainous southwest opened fire on members of the Nasa indigenous community.

When the shooting ended, five Nasa were dead. One of the victims was Cristina Bautista Taquinas, a local governor and environmental activist. The others were community guards, part of a volunteer unit that reportedly shuns firearms and carries only traditional staffs for protection.

The massacre shocked Colombia and sparked international condemnation.

But, sadly, it was far from the last atrocity of its kind in Latin America.

Today, the region’s indigenous peoples are still routinely killed, beaten and criminalized for defending their lands from exploitative development.

In 2019 alone, 148 environmental activists in Latin America, including 64 in Colombia, were murdered, according to Global Witness. “Countless” others, the watchdog group says, were muzzled by threats, arrests and sexual violence. Many hailed from local and indigenous communities.

This violence is not new.

At least one-quarter of the land on earth is owned, managed or used by indigenous peoples and local communities. In Latin America, outsiders have for decades been invading tribal realms in a mad dash for lumber, gold and other natural resources, in some cases waging outright war against indigenous communities.

In many remote areas, the absence of the state has created a power vacuum filled by everyone from rebels to drug traffickers, many largely intent on plunder. In other places, governments have failed to recognize or enforce customary land rights, throwing open indigenous territories to the highest bidder and pitting local communities against unscrupulous developers.

In the face of these threats, many groups, like the Nasa, are pushing back, forming self-defence forces to safeguard their families, their homes and their lands.

Along with keeping their communities safe and informed, these groups are often stewards of nature, using what is in some cases centuries of traditional knowledge to protect forests, wetlands and oceans. In a world increasingly under threat from climate change and biodiversity loss, many indigenous communities are on the frontlines of the battle to save the planet.

And make no mistake, in Latin America it is often a battle. In the last year, indigenous people have lost their lives trying to stop mining projects, protect Amazonian rainforests and reclaim tribal lands, according to Global Witness. The situation has become even more dire since the outbreak of COVID-19, with armed groups reportedly attacking communities buckling under the weight of the pandemic.

But there are signs of hope for indigenous peoples.

In July, Colombia began the ratification process of the Escazú Agreement. This international treaty would enshrine the rights of indigenous communities to participate in environmental decision making and offer unprecedented protections to environmental defenders. Colombia is poised to be the 10th country in Latin America and the Caribbean to pass the accord; 11 are needed for it to come into force.

The law will give many vulnerable communities the legal ammunition they’ll need to defend their homes and protect their lands from exploitation.

But the treaty cannot just be words on a paper. Once it’s ratified, its signatories will need to forge ahead with the work of updating local laws and training the police, prosecutors and judges responsible for enforcing the legislation.

Sunday (9 August) marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, an important time to reflect on the damage that discrimination and unsustainable consumption have done to indigenous communities. But it’s also an opportunity for us to think about how we can rectify the mistakes of the past, enshrine both environmental sustainability and human rights in decision making, and to amplify the voices of indigenous communities when it comes to development on their lands.

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