For much of this summer, the topics of environmental crisis and climate change have exploded into the news cycles of the developed world with the same frightening alacrity as the floods and wildfires forcing the headlines.
Storms and rain at the weekend have broken a historic heat wave in the United Kingdom, and Sweden at last sees guarded optimism as it battles wildfires burning in the Arctic Circle. Greece remains stunned at the wind-driven fire destruction that swept its shores east of Athens. Japan coped anew with Typhoon Jongdari, the next in a series of disasters that have included widespread fatal floods and life-threatening heat. Multiple wildfires across the western United States had impacts far from the immediate evacuation zones in California or Colorado, with poor air quality for hundreds of miles.
The Financial Times on Sunday was the latest to call attention to a shift beyond the distancing and scientific caution when discussing discrete weather events in the context of climate. “Now the evidence is strong enough for scientists to state clearly that global warming is directly making episodes such as this summer’s heatwaves more severe — and that things will become much worse in the decades ahead as fossil fuels pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” an FT column said.
Yet for all of the experts rightly raising the alarm in the developed world, there are other voices. Last week also saw a sobering account of environmental activists primarily in the Global South whose own voices have been silenced, many of whom didn’t live to see the West seemingly wake up to their own environmental crises.
The “At What Cost?” report
At least 207 people died last year directly because they were environmental defenders, nearly all of them in developing nations where multinational corporations – particularly in agribusiness – have operations damaging their communities and negatively impacting their health, homes and livelihoods. Their stories are told in the “At What Cost?” report issued by Global Witness. The environmental protection and corruption watchdog organization, based in London and Washington D.C., releases the report on environmental activists annually, and calls to account those corporations and governments complicit in their harassment, repression and death. This year, they’ve called to account global consumers too.
“Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life,” said Ben Leather, a senior Global Witness campaigner. “Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. Yet as brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced.”
The actual 2017 total of murdered environmental defenders is likely much higher, particularly in countries across Africa where reporting is more difficult. Yet it includes 13 people from Democratic Republic of Congo, two in Kenya, and one each in Liberia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Most of them died while fighting poachers and illegal wildlife trafficking, with a few related to illegal mining.
The Unheard Voices of Africa
In its “Unheard Voices” section, the report focuses on the unique challenges of African environmental activists and the difficulty of understanding the scope of Africa’s problem because of data challenges. Fatalities at Virunga National Park – the world’s most dangerous for rangers – are well documented, but less accessible are the names and stories of Ethiopian deforestation protesters or Sudanese gold miners.
“There are fewer civil society organizations and journalists documenting attacks against land and environmental defenders specifically, and they may feel less free to speak out without fear of reprisals,” the authors said. “There may also be less information and reporting from isolated rural areas where killings may take place, compared to other regions.”
That didn’t prevent Global Witness from amplifying the voices of African environmental defenders, notably women. They include Nonhle Mbuthuma, right, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where she is founder of the five-village Amadiba Crisis Committee and leads efforts to prevent environmental degradation from mining projects. Her colleague was killed in 2016; Nonhle has been warned she is next on the hit list.
Elsewhere, Winnet Shamuyarira describes the death threats and sexual violence in Zimbabwe, where the military and police protect extraction-industry companies but not protesters on their ancestral lands. Angeline Leguuto of Kenya describes a culture that excludes women from decisions about critical resources.
So far, their names are not on a list that includes elephant conservationist Wayne Lotter – fatally shot in Tanzania – or Liberian ranger Friday Pyne, who was tortured and killed by a mob of angry miners operating illegally in Sapo National Park.
Climate and environment in a connected world
In telling their stories, this year’s Global Witness report holds developed-world consumers as well as corporations responsible for the deaths of those fighting to save fragile ecosystems on an endangered planet. Yet the losses don’t end there: When agribusiness destroys tropical forests, that capacity to capture carbon emissions is lost in an ever-warming world. When mining scars landscapes, water and soil resources are poisoned. When companies and governments ignore abuses to deliver on profits, real communities pay the price of their priorities. All communities.
“The food on our plates, the rings on our fingers and the wooden furniture in our homes: all too often there is a violent reality behind household items we use every day,” the 2018 report says. “Ultimately, attacks against land and environmental defenders stem from our voracious appetite for agricultural goods like palm oil and coffee, and for fossil fuels, minerals and timber.”
So do climate costs. In the West, these rapid-fire and escalating environmental impacts still seem a shock – their causes subject to theoretical arguments and semantics and sophistry – as the illusion of modernity no longer protects one from the obvious consequences. These aren’t two different stories. The collective terror of Sweden, Japan, Greece, the United States and Britain stepping onto unfamiliar environmental terrain, is connected to the fear and fatality that aren’t new experiences across the Global South at all.
People are dying, it’s time to see their lives in the context of a global challenge, and it’s critical that we hear these voices.
Images: United Nations, Krisanne Johnson/Yale E360 file