By Shannon Peters [*]
According to Global Witness, 2019 recorded the greatest number of killings on record of environmental defenders. To bring attention to this issue, on October 12, the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University conferred the Elisabeth Haub Award for Environmental Law and Diplomacy in memoriam to environmental defenders who had lost their lives defending their land and the environment from destructive industries. October 12 was chosen for the event as it is increasingly commemorated as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in lieu of celebrating Columbus Day. The event included a panel discussion featuring environmental advocates from Colombia and the Philippines, two countries in which environmental defenders are particularly susceptible to attack, and from the United States, highlighting that impacts on environmental defenders is also a domestic issue. The panel discussion was followed by the award ceremony and silent screening of the names of all of the defenders who had lost their lives in 2019.
Attorney Robert Chan, Executive Director of the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) in the Philippines, was first on the panel to discuss his experiences. Attorney Chan highlighted that despite the Philippines having many environmental protection laws, enforcement of these laws is often deficient. This deficiency has resulted in much of the Philippines’ natural resources being overexploited. In response, PNNI uses a citizen’s arrest law to confiscates items that are being used for such exploitation, including items like chainsaws, illegal fishing boats and mining equipment. PNNI has even created the Palawan Environmental Enforcement Museum out of the abundance of items it has confiscated since its inception. Attorney Chan shared with the audience that some of his colleagues had been killed as a result of their efforts to stop the overexploitation of their lands. Attorney Chan lamented the loss of his fallen colleagues and commented that these defenders were ordinary people doing extraordinary work to protect the environment.
Next up was Carlos Alfonso Negret. Mr Negret spoke about his role as Ombudsman of the Republic of Colombia, a position he held during the constitutional period of September 1, 2016 to August 31, 2020. During his time as Ombudsman, part of Mr. Negret’s mandate was to investigate dozens of murders of Colombian environmental defenders. He observed that as protection of the environment has been increasing globally through international and domestic laws, there has also been an increase in crimes against environmental defenders resulting in a global paradox developing in environmental protection. In order to preserve the environment sustainably, he stated that greater action at the national level was needed to both extirpate illegal environmental activities and protect environmental defenders.
Krystal Two Bulls, an Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne organizer from Lame Deer, Montana was next on the panel. Ms Two Bulls shared her experience on the frontlines of resistance at the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016. Ms. Two Bulls led the NoDAPL Solidarity Movement which sought to pressure banks and financial institutions to divest from the pipeline. Following the events of Standing Rock, Energy Transfer Partners, the owner of the pipeline, unsuccessfully sued Ms Two Bulls under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Ms. Two Bulls expressed that such spurious lawsuits have an overwhelming physical and mental cost for activists. She also credited getting through the experience to having the support of pro bono lawyers. Ms. Two Bulls also announced, in her capacity as director, the launch of NDN Collective’s LANDBACK Campaign. The LANDBACK Campaign calls for the return of Indigenous Peoples’ lands into Indigenous Peoples’ hands. This Campaign is the next step forward for Indigenous rights protection as not even the landmark United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for a return of Indigenous lands.
The panel finished with Julie Anne Miranda-Brobeck, Head of U.S. Communications & Global Partnerships for Global Witness. Ms. Miranda-Brobeck shared with the audience that Global Witness began tracking and recording the killings of environmental defenders globally after Mr. Chut Wutty, an environmental defender from Cambodia, was murdered in 2012 at the hands of the military police. Ms. Miranda-Brobeck then outlined the key findings of the 2020 Global Witness Report, ‘Defending Tomorrow’. The Report found that environmental defenders were most likely to be persecuted by mining, agribusiness and logging industries. The Report also found that governments, companies and criminal gangs were complicit and/or involved in the killings. Ms. Miranda-Brobeck also highlighted the impact COVID-19 was having on environmental defenders as some States are using the pandemic to strengthen oppressive anti-protest laws and weaken environmental regulations.
After the panel discussion the award ceremony took place. To honor the deceased environmental defenders panelists lit candles as the names of the 212 environmental defenders who had been killed in 2019 scrolled in silence on the screen. The event closed with an emphatic call for protection of environmental defenders as well as the accountability of parties responsible for the violence and environmental destruction they cause.
[*] Shannon Peters is an LLM candidate at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, specializing in Global Environmental Law and is currently the Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies Graduate Fellow. Prior to Pace, she worked at a number of environmental and planning firms and clerked for a Judge in her home state of NSW in Australia. She obtained her LLB and BA-Media from Macquarie University in 2018.
 Global Witness recorded 212 killings. Global Witness, Defending Tomorrow Report (July 2020). See Report at https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/defending-tomorrow/