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Defending Tomorrow: The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders

By staff - Global Witness, July 2020

For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against climate breakdown. Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work. 

The climate crisis is arguably the greatest global and existential threat we face. As it escalates, it serves to exacerbate many of the other serious problems in our world today – from economic inequality to racial injustice and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against the causes and impacts of climate breakdown. Time after time, they have challenged those companies operating recklessly, rampaging unhampered through forests, skies, wetlands, oceans and biodiversity hotspots.

Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play and the dangers they increasingly face, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work. 

Our annual report into the killings of land and environmental defenders in 2019 shows the highest number yet have been murdered in a single year. 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 – an average of more than four people a week.

Read the text (PDF).

The Response: Building Cllective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters (Shareable)

By various - Sharable, 2019

When disasters occur, the majority of news coverage teeters on the edge of “disaster porn” at best, emphasizing the sheer mass of destruction in the affected area while celebrating a few token “heroes.” At its worst, the media perpetuates harmful stereotypes, casting survivors as looters and justifying the extrajudicial murder of people of color by the police and mostly white vigilantes, like what occurred during Hurricane Katrina.

But in both scenarios, news reporting routinely underplays how local communities come together to recover from the immediate devastation and collectively rebuild the community, often on a new foundation of sustainability and justice. It’s a good thing that people collaborate instead of competing during a crisis because all signs point towards an increase in climate change-fueled disasters in the coming years.

This kind of collective response is worth celebrating, but there’s no better way to respond to disasters than to anticipate them happening and prepare before they strike. And there’s no better time than right now to build resilience together. While a little preparation today can save a lot of trouble tomorrow, it can also create immediate benefits like stronger community ties, increased civic capacity, and the joy that comes from accomplishing things together.

Read the report (PDF).

A call for solidarity against forced evictions of MST members in northern Brazil

By staff - La Via Campesina, December 13, 2017

An aggressive attack is being waged against landless farmers in the northern state of Pará, Brazil, according to a statement released by the Landless Workers Movement (MST) on Tuesday.

According to members of Brazil’s largest social movement, large-scale landowners along with local judicial authorities, media outlets and the Brazilian military police are targeting MST encampments throughout the country.

Occupants living in 20 encampments located in the northern State of Pará are preparing for a planned eviction on Wednesday, which activists warn will force more than 2000 families into precarious living conditions.

Meanwhile, leading up to Wednesday’s forced eviction, unarmed families and individuals living in the MST’s Hugo Chavez encampment site, were reportedly shot at on Monday by private security officials.

The recent violence takes place as the Brazilian government continues to peruse regressive land ownership laws, which have resulted in devastating consequences on landless and displaced agricultural workers.

During the administration of the unelected Brazilian President Michel Temer, the MST has witnessed increased levels of state violence and criminalization against members of their movement

In light of the escalating violence and repression, we are issuing a call of international solidarity! So, please feel free to send us a short video or statement in support of the MST!

Building post-capitalist futures

By various - Transnational Institute - June 2018

Over several sunny days in June 2018, a diverse group of 60 activists and researchers from 30 countries convened for a multi-day meeting to discuss the collective building of post-capitalist futures. The meeting provided the opportunity for a rich exchange of perspectives and experiences, as well as deep discussion and debate. The goal of the meeting was not to achieve consensus both an impossible and unnecessary endeavour but rather to stimulate mutual learning, challenge one another and advance analyses.

One session of the meeting – Transformative Cities – was held not as a closed discussion but as a public event attended by 300 people at which prominent activists and academics engaged with municipal leaders and politicians on the role cities can play in building post-capitalist futures.

In line with the meeting, this report does not intend to advance one line of analysis, but rather summarise some of the key ideas and issues discussed and debated (not necessarily in the order they were articulated). To summarise necessarily means to leave things out. It would be impossible to fully capture the incredible richness of the discussion that took place, but hopefully this report provides a valuable sketch.

Read the report (PDF).

The MST and the Fight to Change the Brazilian Power Structure

Gilmar Mauro interviewed by Brian Mier - The Bullet, September 15, 2017

During the 1960s, legend has it that governor José Sarney sat down at a table with a group of cattle-ranching cronies and aerial photographs of Maranhão state, in Northeastern Brazil. They marked boundaries on the photos with pencil and divided up the land. In the decades that followed, these ranchers committed what Brazilians call grilhagem, altering documentation to illegally appropriate land. Sarney and his henchmen fenced off millions of hectares of land, then either kicked out the peasants who were living there, forcing them into mud hut settlements between the road and the fences, or keeping them on as labourers, often paying them with vouchers for use at their own stores and patrolling the grounds with armed guards so that no one can escape. Under Sarney’s control, Maranhão state was deforested, and roughly half of its majority Afro-Brazilian and indigenous population migrated to big cities in the Southeast, some of which, like São Paulo, saw their populations increase fivefold over a period of a few decades.

The case of José Sarney, who would become the president of Brazil (1985-90) and three-time Senate President, is just one chapter in the 500-year-old story of how large rural landholders dominate Brazilian political and economic life, which is represented today in the largest political caucus in the Brazilian Congress, the ruralistas, whose majority recently voted to throw out massive corruption charges against current President Michel Temer.[1]

Unlike other former European colonies in the Americas, Brazil has never implemented agrarian reform. With the world’s most unequal land division, three per cent of the population owns approximately 2/3 of the arable land.[2] When former president João Goulart attempted to enact agrarian reform in 1964, he was thrown out of office in a U.S.-backed military coup.[3] As the resultant dictatorship approached its end in the early 1980s, a new peasant-based social movement arose in Rio Grande do Sul state, called the Movimento de Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Rural Worker’s Movement, MST). Incorporating theories from liberation theology and intellectuals like Paulo Freire, Karl Marx, and Antonio Gramsci into practice, landless rural workers organized in groups to occupy fields of stolen land, resist eviction (sometimes fatally), and farm.[4] Using an innovative organizational structure of upwards and downwards democratic accountability through voluntary assemblies at the family, village, regional, state and national levels, the MST quickly spread across the country and now operates in all 26 Brazilian states, with “Friends of the MST” groups operating worldwide.

Although it has yet to reach its goal of enacting agrarian reform and building a socialist society, there are currently 400,000 families living and farming in MST agrarian reform villages across the county and the movement has successfully pressured the government to create a series of innovative policies, such as the Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos (Food Acquisition Program/PAA), ratified by former President Lula, which requires all public schools and hospitals in rural areas to purchase all food for their meal programs at subsidized prices from local family farmers.

The MST has a gender-balanced national directorate of 52 individuals, with two people elected periodically in each of its 26 state assemblies. Gilmar Mauro is a member of the national directorate, representing the state of São Paulo. I caught up with him at the MST national secretariat in São Paulo on August 25th, 2017, to talk about the current political context and its ramifications for small farmers.

Transforming Society as Capitalism Crumbles: Lessons from Brazil’s Peasant Movement

By Rafael Soriano and Débora Nunes - In These Times, September 14, 2017

Brazil is facing a profound political and economic crisis since a coup d’etat overturned Dilma Roussef’s government in March of 2016. The new government is unrolling austerity policies that are eroding working families’ political gains by dismantling labor protections and social services and unleashing human rights abuses, including escalating assassinations of peasants and indigenous people. This political context—which shares characteristics with the U.S. climate under Donald Trump—is defined by a crisis of capitalism that resurfaced with the economic meltdown in the Global North that was initiated in 2008. 

Rafael Soriano, a member of MST’s Communications Collective, discussed this political climate with Débora Nunes, member of the National Directory of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, or Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, widely known by its Portuguese acronym MST. This social movement of peasants, rural workers and landless families reclaims land rights and struggles for a genuine agrarian reform that would benefit all Brazilians—and strives for deep social and political transformation.

In this interview, Nunes reflects on the danger and potential of this current moment, highlighting opportunities to build alternatives to capitalism as the current economic system flounders. Nunes underscores that people in Brazil “have great challenges to face the coup and its consequences,” and it is necessary to “better communicate and organize the masses."

Xapuri Declaration: “We reject any form of climate colonialism”

By Chris Lang - Redd Monitor, June 20, 2017

From 26 to 28 May 2017, a meeting took place in Xapuri, in the state of Acre, Brazil. The meeting brought together Apurinã, Huni Kui, Jaminawa, Manchineri and Shawadawa indigenous peoples, representatives of traditional communities, rubber tappers, academics and supporting organisations. The meeting’s theme was, “The effects of environmental / climatic policies on traditional populations”.

The meeting was supported by Friends of the Earth International, the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the World Rainforest Movement.

In a short report about the meeting, Daniel Santini of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, writes that the participants reject the term “carbon credits”, because they are actually “pollution credits”. Trading pollution makes the climate problem worse by giving the illusion that something is being done, when in fact it allows pollution to continue.

Santini writes,

Instead of policies based on restrictions on the way of life of traditional peoples, the participants argued that the political-economic model of occupation of the region should be changed, with the suspension of generous public financing for agricultural expansion, industrial logging, and monoculture tree plantations.

Days before the meeting, in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, corporate and state government representatives met to discuss the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). This is the aviation industry’s disastrous proposal to continue polluting, while using carbon credits to “offset” its emissions.

The World Bank is in talks with the International Civil Aviation Organization about using REDD credits in CORSIA.

Acre is one of the states from which California is looking to buy REDD credits as part of its cap-and-trade scheme. In April 2016, Dave Clegern, a Public Information Officer at the California Air Resources Board, said that,

“The projects that we’re looking at are supported by the locals. They are what is known as sector-based projects, which means that they would be run in conjunction with the government of that country which would provide the opportunity for regular monitoring, verification of the quality of the offsets.”

REDD-Monitor asked Clegern some questions about this statement, including whether a process of free, prior, and informed consent had been carried out about REDD in Acre. And if not, which “locals” was Clegern talking about?

REDD-Monitor is still waiting for Clegern’s reply.

A Deadly Shade of Green: Threats to Environmental Human Rights Defenders in Latin America

By staff - Center for International Environmental Law, et. al., Summer 2016

On 3 March 2016, a wave of indignation and repudiation swept the world, condemning the brutal and cowardly assassination of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental activist and community leader who inspired thousands of people through her work promoting the rights of the Lenca people.

Her death came amid a growing number of attacks against human rights defenders, particularly campaigners peacefully defending the environment, the right to land and the rights of indigenous peoples. This situation is not limited to Honduras, but can be seen throughout the continent, in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador. This long list is being added to by an increasing number of countries that seem willing to put economic interests before those of people and territories. Reports from numerous organizations confirm a steady deterioration of the situation, highlighting the fact that Latin America has become the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists.

Various types of attack have been committed against campaigners and their organizations. They range from surveillance campaigns, harassment, and being discredited in the media and social networks, to physical assaults, acts of torture, enforced disappearances and assassinations. In addition, there is widespread corruption and impunity in many countries where relations between state and non-state actors are often ambiguous. We should note, in particular, the attacks against female human rights defenders, who face threats of sexual violence and smear campaigns based on their gender. All of this is exacerbated by the context of increasing criminalization of social protest, and use of the law to suppress dissent in Latin American and Caribbean societies.

Despite the grim outlook, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Civil society has never looked so strong, organized and determined. International solidarity strengthened by the globalization of exchanges between people and organizations makes it possible to bring these struggles out of isolation, and demand accountability to ensure the effective implementation of human rights commitments.

Read the report (EN PDF) | (ES PDF).

Brazilian Petrobras Oil Workers Strike Against Privatization and Union Busting

By Steve Zeltser - Labor Video Project, November 14, 2015

Eighty thousand workers at the Brazilian Petrobras oil company are striking against further privatization and union busting. The strike started on September 24, 2015 and the PT Workers Party government is selling off shares of the companies to multi-national oil companies and the banks and outsourcing more and more of the work creating serious health and safety problems.

Striking Petrobras oil workers talk about their strike and the role of the Dilma Rousseff Workers Party government in dismembering the national oil company. They also discuss the role of the CUT union leaders who opposed the oil workers striking since they are supporting the Dilma government.

This interview was done on November 6, 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil at a meeting of the Conlutas union federation.

For more information on the strike visit this page.

Testimony of unsustainability: The experience of the International Articulation of those affected by Vale

By Maíra Sertã Mansur and Gabriel Strautman - World Rainforest Movement, July 10, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Currently, the mining sector is one of the main engines of the world´s economic system. In several countries, expropriation cases from native populations are recurrent, including loss of territory, disintegration of community solidarity bonds, pollution of territories and water sources, exploitation of workers, and criminalization of groups who dare to withstand large corporations.

One of the largest icons of this expropriating model in mining is the Brazilian company Vale S.A., previously Vale do Rio Doce and privatized in 1997 (1). Vale S.A. is the largest mining company in Brazil and comes  third in the global ranking of mining industries. Vale is the world leader in iron ore production and the second largest producer of nickel, but also plays a crucial role in the production of manganese, copper, coal, iron “pellets”, ferroalloys and some fertilizers. With activities in about 30 countries on the five continents, the multinational operates an integrated chain from mining, logistics (ore transportation through railways to ports), energy (production to meet its own energy demand that is enormous) and steel production (transformation of iron ore into steel). Each stage of this chain causes severe social and environmental impacts.

In the face of this context of global action by a large multinational, a global articulation of people affected by Vale was needed to ensure and strengthen resistance to the violation of their rights. Therefore, the International Articulation of those affected by Vale was born in 2010, bringing together diverse groups such as trade unionists, environmentalists, NGOs, community-based associations, religious groups and academics from eight countries where the company operates. The main objective is to contribute to strengthening community alliances, promoting strategies to address the social and environmental impacts related to the extractive mining industry, especially those related to Vale S.A.

Over recent decades, criticism of the social and environmental impacts of the mining industry has secured an important space in the international political debate. Countless facts and data submitted by civil society in many countries helped to consolidate the fact that there is no mining without disaster and, from the companies point of view, this meant not only a risk to their reputation and business, but also to the survival of the mining sector as a whole. To anticipate such risk, Vale, as well as major companies in the sector, strive to convey to the public an image of being companies that respect the environment and affected communities,  and presenting this image under the name of sustainability strategy.

Nevertheless, arrogantly, Vale has become used to ignoring or giving no satisfactory answers when accused and sued by residents of affected communities, social movements and trade union representatives around the world, and avoids taking responsibility by resorting to legal, economic and political trickery to evade requirements and demands of impacted groups.

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