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OP-ED: Environmental defenders are fighting for humanity - we must fight for them, too

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By Leo Heileman, UN Environment Regional Director.

2016 was the deadliest year ever for environmental activists: 200 defenders were killed in 24 countries and 60 percent of these murders happened in Latin America, according to the watchdog group Global Witness.

Though unnoticed by many, this type of crime can likely affect every inhabitant of the world:  if we cannot secure a healthy and safe environment, none of us will fully enjoy human rights. 

People who fight for our well-being continue to fall on a battlefield that tragically expands to more countries in Latin America and the Caribbean –a region internationally known to posses the largest proportion of natural protected areas in the planet. We need to stop this.

If we fail to support the efforts of conserving the environment and protecting the defenders, it will be impossible for us to fully enjoy human rights, as well as to achieve Sustainable Development Goals. 

The Brazilian ecologist Chico Mendes (1944-1988), who was murdered because of his struggle, said more than 20 years ago: “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees. Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rain forest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

The majority of conflicts that threaten the life of environmental defenders have its root cause in “extractivism”, major infrastructure projects and the expansion of the agricultural frontier. There is a lot we can do to tackle this issues.

The people have the right to be listened to and to see their communities strive in a sustainable manner, with total respect for human rights. The mechanisms of prior consultation and public participation already in place in several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean must be fully implemented. Legislation, policies and specific actions are required to guarantee the exercise of those rights. 

But we can go even further and become pioneers in the road to a greater and better environmental democracy: currently, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are negotiating a regional binding instrument on access to information, public participation and justice on environmental matters, derived from Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. We must support this process.

More than 80 per cent of the region’s population lives in cities, where natural resources are wasted as if they were infinite. From a city´s perspective, the fight of people dispossessed of their natural resources and ancestral homes might appear distant. But it is not. We must carefully listen to environmental defenders. Their struggle is also ours.