The issues and difficulties faced by social and environmental leaders

Author: Isabella Celis Campos. Artist and activist in the discussion and access to information on socio-environmental issues.

For some years now, the numerous threats against socio-environmental leaders around the world have begun to become visible, a situation that has been drastically escalating without being effectively addressed or addressed by local and national authorities. It is a critical panorama for the fight for a more socially and environmentally just world, a vital practice that takes the lives of numerous people for the interests of a few but that affects all populations and ecosystems around the world. However, a constant for many people is to wonder about the reasons and causes of this problem. Why do they threaten, harass and kill people who defend nature, territories and, essentially, human rights?

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Sometimes it can be difficult to understand the social, political, economic, cultural and environmental situations that exist in peripheral territories and far from urban centers such as capitals  and major cities. It is very likely that you, who are reading this article, find yourself in an urban center far from the jungles, forests, countryside or some reservation or ethnic territory, and possibly you are unaware of the contexts of rural areas: the ways and conditions of life, the needs and problems that exist and therefore, the struggles and the reasons why people speak out and become visible.

Particularly in Latin America, the situation in non-centralized territories has been alarming and devastating for many decades.  From a general perspective, the conflicts that involve land, goods, natural services and human rights are gestated in the conquest and colonization of Latin America by the European crowns. Then, during the independence processes and subsequent decades, the discourse of the ruling political class never represented the cultural and social diversity of the territories, on the contrary, what has prevailed is invisibility.

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Likewise, the processes of capitalist globalization have discriminated the visions of life of multiple non-centralized societies such as ethnic communities and peoples in rural territories. It is precisely in these territories where there is more poverty and less comprehensive state presence. Access to medical services, education, sanitation services and drinking water is almost always nil. Added to this are several interests in the territory on the part of industries and illegal armed actors who discern with the visions of the communities.

With such critical realities, people assume an essential leadership and speak out to make inequalities and vulnerabilities visible, to defend the territories, to demand and claim the human and fundamental rights that states must procure for all citizens, but that many are still denied: the right to live with dignity, the right to  individual and collective property, social security, economic, social and cultural rights essential to their dignity, to an adequate standard of living that ensures food, medical care, education, among many others.

 Environmental leaders and defenders, who from their territories speak out for fairer realities, are persecuted and threatened, many live with constant harassment and are also assassinated.

As documented in the annual “Defend Tomorrow” Report by Global Witness – a renowned international organization that tracks environmental leaders and advocates around the world – 2019 was the year in which the most environmental leaders were killed in the world. world: the sad figure rose to 212 people. Two thirds of these occurred in Latin America and Colombia was the country with the highest number ever recorded, 64 environmental leaders assassinated.   It is an inadmissible and complex world reality, which requires settling our eyes on the social, political, cultural and economic situations that have developed for decades in the territories that the defenders safeguard. Reviewing, studying and understanding these systematic and structural conflicts makes it possible to generate efficient and lasting solutions that solve problems and seek the protection and realization of human rights.

Main factors behind the crimes.

Behind the persecutions and threats against socio-environmental leaders there are multiple actors who have clear interests in the territory and who see the work of the defenders as an impediment to achieving their goals.

A global cause is the change in land use to develop projects for the extraction of natural resources, where companies from the agricultural, mining and hydrocarbon sectors are linked. In this regard, various international and local organizations have warned that both companies and government institutions must carry out due diligence, listen to the populations of the territory and the surrounding area, and make citizen participation mechanisms effective, such as popular votes or consultations. .  In addition to bringing transparent and congruent processes to the context in the delivery of environmental licenses and concessions of resources such as water and where the quality of life of the communities and ecosystems prevails.

The control, hoarding and appropriation of land by actors outside the territory – such as landowners, front men or armed groups – is another of the main reasons that endanger defenders and populations. Having territorial power translates into having a geopolitical domain that can be a generator of forced displacement of populations, human rights violations,  loss of biodiversity and ecological imbalances. As explained in the entry Environmental Leadership: an essential practice, the territories and their geographical characteristics are an indisputable part of the cultural identity of the communities that live there. When their properties are modified or external economic value is added, the integrity of the inhabitants is also harmed.

It is also key to understand that in some regions drug trafficking plays a dominant role that creates complex networks and chains to follow where business actors, organized crime, government institutions, and the civilian population are interconnected.

Here it is necessary to understand that in illicit crops are the most vulnerable people in the chain and those who bear the worst part, since they are the peasants, who are forced to plant coca, poppy or marijuana as the only form of income to survive. , those who end up completely affected due to forced eradication programs and forced displacement if they oppose planting or eradication.

Drug trafficking is one of the most complex problems that exist and the lens through which the problem has been seen has not been adequate, it is necessary to reconsider the comprehensive understanding of the problem by the leaders in order to agree on adequate solutions with their own communities.

Lastly, the serious problem of corruption resonates in every issue. The misuse of the powers and faculties of officials – both in the private and public sectors – makes it easier for these crimes to continue to be perpetuated and hinders their clarification processes. Negatively feeds back conflicts, favors and hides the culprits.

The fight for more socially and environmentally just realities cannot continue if those who defend and lead it continue to be killed and reduced. States, through their governments, must protect the right to security of defenders and address legal insecurity, as well as strengthen their institutions to prevent corruption and to render due legal justice to those responsible.

Companies must also develop and enforce policies against all types of threats against leaders and defenders and must cooperate in investigations. It is time to understand that environmental issues are not only the responsibility of environmental leaders or governments in power. It is necessary that we all adopt a critical position in the face of rights violations, that we listen to the demands and help make them visible and amplify them. At this time, regional solutions are in sight, such as the Escazú Agreement, which will enable, among various things, access to information and guarantees to exercise defense and social and environmental leadership.

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