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Saving the planet comes at a cost: four environmental activists murdered each week

Ari Kelo

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Extinction Rebellion organizes environmental advocacy.

Between 2002 and 2017, an average of four environmental activists were murdered each week. This number doubled during that 15 year period, amounting to 1,558 people from 50 countries. To put it into perspective, fatalities equal almost half the number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. And it’s over double the number of soldiers from the United Kingdom and Australia combined who have died on active duty during the same period. So why is it so dangerous to advocate for the environment? Corruption and weak rule of law may be the culprits, according to a recent study.

Who is in danger?

While these murders occur across the globe, Central and South America are the most dangerous regions for environmental activists. According to a study published by Nature Sustainability, 68% of these deaths happened in Central and South America. Another 31% occurred in Asia.

These deaths include environmental defenders of any kind — community advocates, lawyers, journalists, indigenous people, park rangers, agrarian reformers, and more.

While activists protesting mining and agribusiness account for the most deaths, protesting anything from poaching to water dams can put you at risk.

But disregarding all other factors, indigenous peoples die in the highest numbers. They account for up to 40% of overall murders, depending on the year. For indigenous peoples, the two most deadly countries are the Philippines and Colombia.

What’s more? Only 10% of these murders lead to a conviction.

This number is alarmingly low, compared to 43% of all global homicides. So with little judicial consequences, justice rarely comes for perpetrators of these murders.

Why are environmental activists at risk?

Overall, the source of these murders often comes down to conflict over resources. For example, indigenous peoples manage or have the tenure right for about a quarter of the Earth’s land surface. But a refusal to respect these land rights and poor governmental protection cause violence against these communities. Instead of consulting with local indigenous groups and environmental activists, governments and corporations tend to violently silence them, criminalize them, and even send death threats.

These risks are only compounded in countries with high levels of corruption and weak rule of law.

A case from Pará, a northern Brazilian state, exemplifies the issue at hand. In 2011, the environmental activist, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva (nicknamed Zé Cláudio), and his wife were killed in an ambush attack. Zé Cláudio had fought against log-cutting and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. For this work, he received countless death threats. Ultimately, the threats followed through.

Cláudio’s name had been on a death threat watch list for a decade before his murder. Despite this, the Pará government insisted they knew nothing about the threats. “How could we? The police are neither omnipresent nor omniscient,” said the official conducting the investigation, José Humberto Melo.

“In Brazil, given the current political circumstances, many Indigenous people feel that the government has put a target on their heads,” one of the study’s authors, Mary Menton said. She added that “[the government] created an atmosphere where people feel free to kill, threaten, or otherwise harm Indigenous peoples.”

Without governmental protection, cases such as Zé Cláudio’s are scarily common.

In Peru, a criminal gang shot dead six farmers in an attempt to seize their farms for a palm oil trade deal. Indeed, weak rule of law makes it even more dangerous. 32 deaths occurred in Colombia following a 2015 peace deal that led to the destruction of lands previously protected by the left-wing guerrilla opposition. And when Rodrigo Duterte — who doesn’t hesitate to kill indigenous environmental defenders — became the President of the Philippines in 2016, the death rate rose 71%.

An NPR interview with Leon Dulce, a leading environmental activist from the Philippines, reveals the sad truth. “Safety is no longer in the vocabulary of environmental defenders,” he said, referring to the grave threat activists faces under Duterte’s rule.

“It’s a situation where you can always – you will always fear for your life,” he continued. Yet despite the risks, to Dulce the work is necessary. “If you’re not going to do the work you do, who else will do it?”

Sustainability

Nine countries in Latin America make a major push for renewable energy

Chris Chen

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Latin America

Latin America has seen a promising rise in climate leadership. This week, nine countries collectively announced an ambitious goal: by 2030, renewable energy should account for at least 70% of all energy sources. Comparatively, that is double the EU’s target of 32%.

The undertaking was presented by Colombian energy minister Maria Fernanda Suarez during this past week’s UN Climate Action Summit, with Colombian President Iván Duque also present. 

“We’ve brought meetings forward and coordinated with countries including Chile, Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Haiti,” Duque said.

Colombia is one of the world’s leading coal exporters, but in recent years, it has taken large strides to implement wind and solar technology in an attempt to diversify its energy sector. More than a third of the nation’s energy already comes from renewable sources like hydroelectric power. Not to mention, a massive solar project—which could help save Colombia two hundred million tons of carbon emissions—was recently approved by a government agency. 

The pledge is part of a growing trend on the continent to push for renewable alternatives, though countries like Panama and Brazil are still considering whether to commit to the ambitious plan. Public bids for renewable sources are on the table for several Latin countries.

All of this is ahead of the upcoming annual UN Climate Change Conference which will be hosted by Chile in December. 

Chile has also been at the forefront of combating climate change. Since the start of his second term in December 2017, President Sebastián Piñera has placed climate change at the top of his agenda. Significant legislative actions have taken place and dozens of coal factories are expected to close. In the big picture, Chile is aiming to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. 

At a time where firm global leadership has largely been stalled, leaders in Colombia and Chile are spurring initiatives in the rest of Latin America, which, in turn, is creating a model for the rest of the world. 



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Greta Thunberg and fellow youth climate activists testify to Congress

Ari Kelo

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greta thunberg

This week, Greta Thunberg is making a case on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, the 16-year old climate activist met with the Senate climate crisis task force, where she testified alongside young climate activists from across the U.S.

And on Wednesday morning, the group testified before Congress again. This time, they spoke at a hearing on Climate Change Leadership, organized by the House Climate Crisis Committee and a Foreign Affairs subcommittee.

Their goal? To demand the U.S. government finally stand up against the climate crisis.

Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin urge politicians to unite behind science

Rather than giving prepared remarks, Thunberg kept her statement short and sweet. In under a minute, she submitted the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming to serve as her testimony.

“I don’t want you to listen to me,” she explained. “I want you to listen to the scientists.”

The report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, discusses the increasing threats of global warming. It warns that, without drastic change, the global temperature will rise 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030. And the consequences of that rise in temperature are dire.

By submitting the report to Congress, Thunberg made a simple statement ⁠— there’s no time to waste. “I want you to unite behind science, and then I want you to take real action.”

At her meeting on Tuesday with the Senate climate crisis task force, Thunberg made a similar demand. Speaking to Congress as a whole, she said, “I know you are trying but just not hard enough. Sorry.”

Her fellow activists agree.

Jamie Margolin, the 17-year-old co-founder of the Zero Hour movement, urged Congress to forge a path to climate recovery. To her, there’s still a chance to solve the climate crisis. “But this must start today,” she said. “In fact, it should’ve started yesterday.”

And Vic Barrett, the 20-year-old member of the Alliance of Climate Education, continued the call to action. He pointed out his greatest fears about imminent climate change. How marginalized communities are the most at risk. How, for him and his friends, climate change has become a source of serious mental and physical stress.

“My culture and inheritance are slipping into the sea,” he went on, discussing the threat of rising water levels on the Caribbeans. “My people are going extinct.”

Youth take charge in climate movement

Following their statements, House Speakers commended the young activists for their leadership in the movement against climate change.

But recognition is not what they need from Congress. “We need your leadership,” said the 21-year-old conservationist Benji Backer. “You have remarkable power.”

“The fact that you are staring at a panel of young people testifying before you today pleading for a livable earth should not fill you with pride. It should fill you with shame,” said Margolin.

These testimonials are part of a greater movement initiated by young people across the globe to combat climate change.  The face of the movement, Greta Thunberg will continue her efforts to incite policy change this Saturday at the first ever UN Youth Climate Summit in New York.

And on Friday, she will join thousands of other concerned young people as they march against climate change during the Global Climate Strike.



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Sustainability

An Environmental Crisis is Looming Over the Horizon in Yemen

Chris Chen

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The civil war in Yemen has been raging on, with the UN calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

The conflict between the internationally-recognized government of Yemen and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has led to disease outbreaks, widespread famine, and water scarcity, all of which threaten the livelihoods of millions across the country. On top of this, it now seems to be in a time of environmental crisis.

A large portion of the death toll, which has exceeded 91,600 fatalities since fighting broke out in 2015, can be attributed to civilian deaths from extensive bombing campaigns. Countless bombs have left chemical residue which can attach to particles in the air, seep into the soil, and traverse across vast distances via wind and rain.

In the coming years, climate change and sea level rise will strike Yemen hard. This has been illustrated in the past decade by an unprecedented amount of hurricanes and back-to-back cyclones in a region where tropical storms rarely occur. 

Extreme heat is affecting most of the country and will enable tropical diseases like malaria to easily spread. Biodiversity loss is also accelerating across many ecosystems.

The war has undermined critical action in few ways. First, issues like the environment have not received proper attention due to humanitarian aid being the number one priority for most international organizations. 

Second, the government has been caught in a fiscal bind in recent years. It has poured all of its resources into pushing back the Houthi resistance. In August, for example, violence escalated when separatists took over the port city of Aden. Mainstream coverage of the war hasn’t helped either; despite the toll the environment is taking, it has largely ignored these issues.

“It’s certain that Yemen is one of the countries most affected by climate change,” Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi, the Yemeni Deputy Water and Environment Minister.

Solar power could help mitigate the environmental crisis

One solution that could alleviate some of Yemen’s problems is solar power. Countries that support the Yemeni government’s efforts, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been developing alternative energy which could prop up Yemen’s energy sector and save billions of dollars in the process.

International organizations have also stepped up. The World Bank is working with local communities to install solar applications in schools and other public facilities. It aims to bring electricity into the lives of over 1.3 million people while also helping Yemen meet its Paris Agreement goals by reducing carbon emissions by as much as 430,000 tons.

On the other hand, as The Cairo Review points out, the drawbacks of solar alternatives may also just push civilians back to traditional fuel sources once they are available again. 

A ticking time bomb with global implications

Though many problems manifest on land, issues could soon arise in the seas. In July, the UN warned that the Safer FSO, an oil tanker abandoned in 2015, could explode from a buildup of volatile gases and leak over 1 million barrels of oil. 

Safer FSO anchored 30 miles off the coast of Al Hudaydah. Photo: SEPOC

To put that into perspective, experts warn that it could result in a spill four times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It would devastate the Red Sea and surrounding bodies of water, reaching as far as Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and even the coast of Egypt.

A spill of this magnitude would effectively block commerce from reaching international destinations through the Red Sea, which accounts for 10% of global trade. Furthermore, it would wreak havoc on marine life for hundreds of miles around and further exacerbate Yemen’s water crisis. 

The trouble stems from Houthi control over the tanker, which has prevented maintenance from outside groups. Fortunately, a UN team was recently dispatched to assess the situation after complicated negotiations with the rebel group. Other than that, not much progress has been made.

“The danger increases with every day that goes by,” Doug Weir, policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, told CNBC.

Conclusions

Yemen’s environmental crisis is quickly deteriorating but the country’s conflict has halted important preventative measures from being enacted—the government faces countless issues of its own. Its lack of financial flexibility means that these problems will likely persist into the near future.

Bringing solar technology into the country is a worthy initiative, but it is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Securing the Safer FSO will also require substantial effort. 

Yemen needs a coordinated global response to tackle this dilemma. However, given the complexities of international diplomacy, its environmental pleas will likely yield little to no response.



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