Cape Town, South Africa — During the Covid-19 pandemic, when a series of lockdowns around the world forced countless people indoors, most people craved outdoor spaces. And these imposed restrictions on our freedom of movement have reawakened many people’s appreciation for their own homes, community gardens, and public open spaces.
Fear of running out of food and losing their jobs compelled many people to dig their hands into the soil for the first time. Plus, having time to spend in green spaces after workplaces have closed except for essential services.
But how many people actually have access to safe and clean spaces where they live or in their communities? Africa has countless examples of environmental abuses – from illegal logging and mining to the displacement of indigenous people. Some of the most high profile is the environmental damage caused by oil spills in Nigeria, more specifically the Niger Delta, and the impact on the livelihoods and movement of the people.
In Zambia, communities – especially children – have been suffering the effects of lead poisoning on their bodies due to a long-closed mine that continues to pollute the soil and water. An August 2019 report by Human Rights Watch saying that “more than one third of the population of Kabwe – over 76,000 people – live in lead-contaminated townships. Studies estimate that half of the children in these areas have elevated blood lead levels that warrant medical treatment”.
“The consequences for children who are exposed to high levels of lead and are not treated include reading and learning barriers or disabilities; behavioral problems; impaired growth; anaemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and death. After prolonged exposure, the effects are irreversible. Lead also increases the risk of miscarriage and can be transmitted through both the placenta and breastmilk.”
The UN Human Rights Council last week “recognised for the first time that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is indeed a human right”.
In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet went as far to say that the threats of climate change, pollution and nature loss are the single greatest human rights challenge of our era. This is because of the cascading effects of changes in climate on access to food and shelter, health and education and a host of other spheres. Bachelet also said that the rights to participation, access to information and access to justice are needed in order to attain the human right to a healthy environment. She also said that an unprecedented number of environmental human rights defenders were reported to be killed last year, as pointed out by a recent Global Witness report.
Last Line of Defence, The Industries Causing the Climate Crisis and Attacks Against Land and Environmental Defenders shows that 227 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2020 – an average of more than four people a week. These attacks are taking place amid wider threats against defenders – including arrests, smear campaigns and non-lethal attacks.
On the continent 18 killings were recorded in 2020, compared to 7 in 2019. The Democratic Republic of Congo tops the list of defenders who have been killed with 12 park rangers and a driver killed in an attack by militia groups in the Virunga National Park. Two were killed in South Africa and one in Uganda. It did also point out that verifying attacks on African defenders is difficult and cases are possibly widely under-reported.
A case that drew much attention both in South Africa and globally was the killing of environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase, who was gunned down in her home in Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal province, after raising concerns about a coal mine in the area. No arrests have been made just under a year later.
Ntshangase’s daughter Malungelo Xhakaza continues her mother’s work. “People sometimes ask me what I’m going to do, whether I’m going to stay here and keep my mother’s fight alive. I’m too proud of her to let it die. I know the dangers – we all know the dangers. But I’ve decided to stay. I’m going to join the fight”.
“If I could say one thing to all those concerned, it would be this: it’s not worth it. Whatever money you’re getting from the land, it’s not worth families being torn apart, or the blood and tears. Come to the table and listen. You’re going to need to, because when Fikile gave her life for her people, she kick-started a movement that will stand up for what’s right. Her struggle lives on.”
On March 3, the UN expert on human rights defenders used the murdered activist’s story to begin a new report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that highlights the risks many environmental defenders operate under, and the widespread attempts to silence their voices, reports Human Rights Watch.
What can be done?
The Global Witness report lists a number of recommendations.
It calls on the UN to ensure that the commitments that governments make at the at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow to implement the Paris Agreement align with existing international human rights obligations and standards applicable to business operations, defenders, and indigenous and other communities”
Governments should “protect land and environmental defenders in the context of business by ensuring effective and robust regulatory protection of the environment, labour rights, land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, livelihoods and cultures, including to free, prior and informed consent. Any legislation used to criminalise defenders should be declared null and void”
Businesses should “adopt and implement a zero-tolerance stance on reprisals and attacks on land and environmental defenders in their global operations, supply chains and business relationships, illegal land acquisition and violations of the right of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for affected communities.