In acknowledgement of International Human Rights Day 2021, we are highlighting activists from around the world who are fighting for human rights in their countries.
The manifestations of the climate crisis and associated human rights struggles are deeply contextual, diverse, and multifaceted. These are just some of the human rights issues that are present in each locality; without space to touch on each and every one. In the Brazilian Amazon, we look at the right to land, Indigenous rights, and the right to self-determination and development. In Uganda, we look at the right to free assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought in the context of opposition to deforestation and planned oil projects. In Bangladesh, we look at the right to clean, safe drinking water and sanitation. Finally, in the Philippines, we look at the impact of coal plants on the right to health, the right to livelihood, and the right to a clean and safe environment.
Ninawa is the Chief of the Huni Kui People of the Brazilian Amazon and the elected president of the Huni Kui Federation of the Amazon State of Acre, where he lives. The Federation represents 117 communities and approximately 16,450 people. He is a member of the Alliance of Mother Nature’s Guardians, and participated as a representative of all of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples in the creation of the Declaration of the Alliance of the Guardians and the Children of Mother Earth. He is the founder of the “Forest University” in the Brazilian Amazon and a UBC research partner in a SSHRC Insight project that focuses on decolonial social innovations.
Diana Nabiruma is the Senior Communications Officer for the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), a non-profit institution that undertakes public policy, research, and advocacy with the aim of benefiting people and communities affected by energy policies. Diana is a respected speaker and author who focuses on the impact of oil exploitation in African countries, the environment, community livelihoods, youth employment, and public health, among other issues. In 2018, she was selected by the IUCN NL as the Face of Conservation in Africa.
Jeff is a Grade 10 student in Barangay Lamao, Limay, Bataan, Philippines. He started organizing in the region when he was 14. At a young age, he witnessed plenty of environmental destruction in his province. He made it a personal mission to be involved in causes that advance the protection of the environment and promote solutions that address the climate crisis. He’s now one of the passionate organizers of the Young Bataeńos Environmental Advocacy Network (Young BEAN) and Alternative Politics Movement of Bataan (ALTERPOLBataan), encouraging more youth in the region to know their rights, be involved, and take part in making a better future for everyone.
Sharif Jamil is the Executive Director of the Buriganga Riverkeeper. He is an internationally-known environmental defender, activist, and leader in the global climate justice movement. Through his role in Bangladesh’s largest civil society initiative, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) as member and General Secretary, and his close involvement with the Waterkeeper Alliance and election as the International Regional Representative in the Waterkeeper Council, he works for the preservation of the livelihoods of communities in Bangladesh through negotiating with policymakers, civil society leaders, and on-the-ground activism and peaceful obstruction of harmful developments.
The United Fight for Human Rights, Peace and Climate Justice
Written by Pascale Hunt, 350.org Asia
“Above all, the process of working toward a just world peace involves a struggle to articulate new conceptions of what it can now mean to have solidarity with other human beings” – R. B. J. Walker
Climate change has been described as the “defining moral issue and social justice challenge of the 21st century”. It is arguably the most dramatic manifestation of anthropocentrism, and constitutes the most pressing ecological threat humanity has ever faced, providing the clearest example of the dire social implications of environmental degradation.
The paradigm that prioritizes economic growth, above all else, is the same paradigm that is responsible for creating poverty in both the human and environmental realms. The climate justice movement thus orients climate, ecological degradation, and the fight for human rights as issues that fall under the wider justice umbrella.
These systemic and intersectional manifestations of the climate crisis and associated human rights struggles are deeply contextual, diverse, and multifaceted: the human-driven loss of biodiversity, the depletion of clean freshwater, land and soil degradation, deforestation, chemical and radioactive contamination, climate change, displacement, forced migration, conflicts over natural resources, impediments on self-determination, and increasing material and economic inequality, are affecting the Global South disproportionately.
While human rights mechanisms and frameworks have been relatively successful in addressing the prevention of direct violence and discrimination, — structural conditions of inequality remain. The attainment of human rights for all, like the pursuit of climate justice, will require structural transformation.
To bring about this change, activists around the world are calling for a just transition to community-led, decarbonized, renewable energy-based grids; self-determination for communities and states; peaceful resistance to climate-threatening development; for banks and financial institutions to cut off financing for fossil fuels; and for governments to support a just recovery from the Covid-19 health crisis. Here, we’ll highlight activists from around the world who are fighting for human rights in their countries.
These are just some of the human rights issues that are present in each locality; without space to touch on each and every one. In the Brazilian Amazon, we look at the right to land, Indigenous rights, and the right to self-determination and development. In Uganda, we look at the right to free assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought in the context of opposition to deforestation and planned oil projects. In Bangladesh, we look at the right to clean, safe drinking water and sanitation. Finally, in the Philippines, we look at the impact of coal plants on the right to health, the right to livelihood, and the right to a clean and safe environment.
The Right to Self-Determination, Development, Land, and Indigenous Rights in the Amazon
Ninawa is a chief of the Huni Kui people of the Brazilian Amazon and the elected president of the Huni Kui Federation of the Amazon State of Acre, where he lives. The Federation represents 117 communities and approximately 16,450 people. He is a member of the Alliance of Mother Nature’s Guardians, and participated as a representative of all of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples in the creation of the Declaration of the Alliance of the Guardians and the Children of Mother Earth.
Ninawa describes the Amazon as “not a natural resource, but a living being that we are also part of”. Spanning over five and a half million square kilometers, the forest is the planet’s most important carbon sink. It holds 10 percent of Earth’s biodiversity, 390 million trees, 2.5 million insect species, and thousands of animal species.
Logging and deforestation for monoculture cultivation constitute some of the primary causes of deforestation in the Amazon today. The Map Biomas Alert report indicates that Brazil lost 1.2 million hectares of native vegetation in 2019, about 60% of which was in the Amazon. According to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), deforestation on Indigenous lands increased by 80% in 2019 carried out through illegal invasions which faced minimal repercussions from the Brazilian government.
Land is cleared primarily for the cultivation of commodities for the global market: soybeans, oil, gas, and cellulose, and raw materials such as copper, iron ore, and gold. While recent data has shown a decline in forest fires in the Amazon in the first three quarters of 2021, and a decline in other deforestation alerts, it’s too early to declare a positive trend. Over the course of his presidency, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has escalated agribusiness development in the Amazon region and weakened environmental regulations.
It’s important to note that some methods to conserve or to offset the devastation of the forest can themselves constitute rights violations and bring about further dispossession. Mechanisms such as REDD+, in which companies’ carbon emissions are priced and they are rewarded for ‘carbon capture’, often take place without free, prior, and informed consent, and in conferences and settings miles away from the Indigenous territories themselves. These processes inhibit Indigenous Peoples’ rights to manage their own lands, enact their own forest management, and exercise their self-determination through autonomous governance.
“The large projects that are carried out are in or around vendors in Indigenous territories, where the government does not apply — for example — the right to free prior informed consultation before undertaking their projects” he said.
In the letter, he wrote: “The current [Brazilian] administration is working to authorize or amnesty the extraction and export of timber, as forest fires devastate flora and fauna, to create fields for monocultures of soybeans and for raising cattle…[and] to legalize and institutionalize the invasion of the territories of the original peoples, considered as an obstacle to agribusiness and to what is wrongly called ‘development’”. He told the Associated Press that the COP 26 climate talks in Glasgow had become “a big fair for multinational business, with governments trading our biodiversity”.
The Huni Kui Federation is currently running the campaign, “Last Warning” — an educational campaign which aims to raise international awareness and support for the struggle for Indigenous rights in Brazil, and around the world. The campaign warns of the threat of ecocide in the Amazon rainforest, the threat of Indigenous genocide in Brazil, and the centrality of Indigenous rights in the global climate movement.
The Indigenous Peoples population in Brazil today only make up 10% of their previous numbers. Ninawa describes how, on top of the violent history of colonial extermination that has led to this sharp decline, his people currently face a new challenge, or an extension of the last: “We face the threat of a far-right government who wants to destroy all our rights: the rights of Indigenous peoples, environmental rights, the right to culture, to religion, women’s rights, children’s rights, labor rights, the rights of all minorities in Brazil”.
“This is a disrespect for the very legislation that they themselves propose to do and also disrespects the original rights of Indigenous peoples over territories traditional knowledge about the relationships in which we have with nature. So it’s these decision-making that mainly affect these Indigenous peoples’ rights”.
There are also widespread attacks against environmental defenders in the Amazon region. In Brazil and Peru, nearly 70% of recorded attacks against ecosystem defenders took place in the Amazon region of each country. Attacks against Indigenous People made up one-third of all attacks against environmental defenders worldwide in 2020, despite them making up only 5% of the world’s population.
Asked about what development means to him and his constituency, Ninawa responds “Development means death. Development means land grabbing, means persecution of leaders, means the criminalization of indigenous communities and leaders”
“To be able to make the economic development of the companies, the economic development of the banks … [they] need to create roads that directly impact communities, need to create dams and hydroelectric, need to increase monoculture plantations that murder and take the leadership of its territory. It needs to contaminate rivers with oil exploration. It needs to create many buildings for companies, for industries, for governments”.
Emblematic of this tension between individual and collective rights is the proposed ‘Right to Development’. The Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the General Assembly in 1986 in Resolution 41/128, includes positive and collective rights such as full sovereignty over natural resources, self-determination, popular participation in development, equality of opportunity, and the creation of favorable conditions for the enjoyment of other civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Here, development is seen as an essential component of achieving social justice and human rights obligations through the transformation of deep structures.
In correspondence with embracing the collective nature of human rights issues, a structural and cultural transformation, which necessitates the equal participation of Indigenous Peoples is required in the pursuit of climate justice and the attainment of these collective rights.
The Right to Assemble, Freedom of Thought, and Freedom of Speech in Uganda
Diana Nabiruma is the Senior Communications Officer at the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO). AFIEGO, which is based in Kampala-Uganda, is a nonprofit company that undertakes public policy research and advocacy with the aim of benefiting people and the environment.
Specifically, AFIEGO works alongside communities and community leaders to undertake advocacy, research and community education to enable citizen access to clean energy as well as to protect environmental resources and human rights from the threats posed by energy projects. AFIEGO’s mission is to promote a society that equitably uses clean energy resources for sustainable socio-economic development that benefits poor and vulnerable communities.
For over ten years, AFIEGO has worked with communities whose land is acquired for oil projects in Uganda to ensure that the communities’ land and other rights are protected. AFIEGO also works with local communities as well as national, regional and international actors to defend environmental resources from the threats posed by Uganda’s oil projects in the sensitive ecosystem of Albertine Graben. Among the resources that AFIEGO is working to protect are Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Lake Albert, Lake Edward, Lake Victoria, over five Ramsar wetlands, Wambabya forest, Budongo forest and Bugoma forest.
Notably, AFIEGO currently chairs the Save the Bugoma Forest Campaign (SBFC), which aims to stop the destruction of one of Uganda’s last remaining tropical rainforests, Bugoma Central Forest Reserve (CFR). Bugoma Forest is an over 411 square kilometer protected area which is home to about 10% of the remaining Ugandan chimpanzee population, as well as to the endemic Ugandan mangabeys and 221 bird species.
Deforestation over the last 30 years has resulted in the loss of 63% of Uganda’s forested area, with the Bugoma forest as the latest casualty of deforestation in Uganda. Huge swathes of the forest are being destroyed for the establishment of a sugarcane plantation, and oil activities under the Tilenga, Kingfisher and East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) oil projects in the Albertine Graben where Bugoma forest is located have put pressure on land. This has resulted in the grabbing of not only community land but natural and protected areas such as the Bugoma forest where the land is grabbed to tap into the perceived benefits of living near oil production areas.
One of Uganda’s flagship oil projects is EACOP, a planned 1,443 kilometer pipeline that will run from oil fields in Western Uganda to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. The pipeline is set to be developed by France’s TotalEnergies, China’s China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the Uganda National Oil Company (UNOC) and the Tanzanian government.
If constructed, EACOP would be the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world, resulting in the large-scale displacement of communities. The construction of EACOP would also destroy nearly 2,000 sq. km of protected areas, water sources, and wetlands in Uganda and Tanzania. Notably, nearly a third of the pipeline is set to be constructed in the Lake Victoria basin, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world on which up to 40 million people in East Africa rely to access water. Further, when used, the oil transported by EACOP is expected to result in the production of over 34.3 million metric tons of carbon per year.
Currently, the Ugandan parliament is considering passing the EACOP (Special Provisions) Bill, 2021 to enable the EACOP project to move forward. To ensure that the EACOP project does not negatively affect community livelihoods and the environment, AFIEGO and its partners have undertaken various initiatives including community sensitisation on the risks of the project, engaging banks on the dangers of the project and filing court cases to stop the project’s risks among others. Notably, AFIEGO is one of four non-profits that filed a court case against Total’s mega-oil project. On October 22, 2021, the non-profit experienced a troubling period when six of its staff, including the company’s CEO and a breastfeeding mother, were arrested by Ugandan police and detained for over 72 hours, contrary to Uganda’s laws.
Tensions began earlier in mid-October when police raided AFIEGO’s Kampala office and arrested staff who were later released on bond. The ostensible reason for the first arrest was for operating without a permit — a charge which AFIEGO deems irregular and illegal, due to their status as a nonprofit company.
“For a decade or so, we’ve been very vocal in advocating for the protection of the environment and communities’ rights amidst oil projects in Uganda … Because of that, of our never giving up, — we are in the spotlight and have been harassed by the Ugandan authorities,” said Diana.
Freedom of expression has been described as critical to the function of the entire human rights system, making possible meaningful participation in social, political, economic, and cultural spheres of human life. For this reason it can be seen as the ‘touchstone of all rights’, inextricable from the pursuit of justice. Diana explains how some of Uganda’s laws and regulations contain several provisions which allow Ugandan authorities to hinder individuals and organizations from exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, expression and association.
Using the 2016 Ugandan Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Act for instance, in August 2021, Uganda’s NGO Bureau suspended or halted the work of 54 organizations — including AFIEGO. AFIEGO is registered as a nonprofit company and not as an NGO. As such, the non-profit is not regulated by the NGO Bureau.
“The NGO Law was put in place to regulate activities of NGOs in Uganda. I always say that regulation is very very important: whether it is state, or self-regulation. … While I maintain that regulation is important, you find that the 2016 NGO Act, which was ostensibly put in place to regulate NGOs, plays a stifling role. The law increases the administrative burden on NGOs and makes it difficult to operate in many districts due to many requirements. Overall, the law has regressive provisions that undermine freedom of association and assembly.”
Due to the strong national, regional, and global environmental and human rights networks that AFIEGO is a part of, their staff were released on October 25, 2021, three days after they had been arrested on October 22, 2021. The networks valiantly campaigned for the release of the AFIEGO staff.
“I would say a lot of rights are very important. But freedom of thought, expression and assembly are critical to the environmental and climate justice movements,” Diana says.
“We need to express ourselves, we need to be able to assemble, to ensure that we speak to the powers that be and inform them, and dialogue, and engage, and tell them that we need this and this forest, or this and this river to be protected for current generations, and for posterity.
Without freedom of expression, assembly and thought, the national, regional and global climate change and environmental movements would be dead.
Therefore, those freedoms ought to be protected and guarded tirelessly.”
The Right to Water and Sanitation in Bangladesh
Sharif Jamil is the Buriganga Riverkeeper, an internationally known environmental defender, activist, and leader in the global climate justice movement. Through his role in Bangladesh’s largest civil society initiative, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) as member and General Secretary, and his close involvement with the Waterkeeper Alliance and election as the International Regional Representative in the Waterkeeper Council, he works for the preservation of the livelihoods of communities in Bangladesh through negotiating with policymakers, civil society leaders, and on-the-ground activism and peaceful obstruction of harmful developments.
“We protect the water bodies that we all need and use, but that cannot speak for themselves. We call for people to respect water bodies and defend their rights, so when a waterkeeper speaks it is as if a water body spoke” Sharif told Civicus.
In Bangladesh, while an increasing number of people are able to access water sources, access to safe drinking water is still extremely low, and there is a high proportion of people exposed to arsenic contamination in water, with UNICEF reporting only 34.6 percent of the population in 2019 with access to clean and safe drinking water.
“When BAPA started, we prioritised the issues directly affecting the environment in Bangladesh, but as rivers do not follow political boundaries, we realised that protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations” he continued.
The Buriganga river flows through Bangladesh’s biggest city Dhaka, which is experiencing exponential development and industrialization, alongside a dependency on coal-fired power. Its exploding population — it is estimated that one to two thousand people migrate to Dhaka every day — has meant that the Buriganga riverbank has become overpopulated, threatening the integrity of the banks, and resulting in significant waste entering the river. The river also suffers significant levels of effluent from the city’s garment industries and untreated sewage.
Speaking of the work of the Waterkeeper Alliance, Sharif says “we focus on water, but we don’t work only on water, because if there is no rainforest there is no water, if there are no mountains there is no water”.
The Waterkeeper Alliance organized a conference in 2015; ‘Coal energy in Bangladesh: impact on water and climate’. The organization has protested against the Rampal and Orion coal fired power plant projects in the Sundarbans. “We are inviting global investors like China, Japan, and the UK to review their strategies,” he says.
The Right to Health, Livelihood, and a Clean and Safe Environment in the Philippines
Jeffrey Reyes is a 17-year-old school student and environmental activist from Lamao who spends his time out of school advocating for the rights of people in his community through Y-BEAN, or Young Bataeños for Environmental Advocacy Network — a youth-led volunteer organization operating in Bataan.
The community (Barangay) of Lamao, in Limay, Bataan, the Philippines, is located on the cusp of the development of coal-fired power plants that present severe health risks and harmful conditions for its 18,000 residents. Petron Corporation as well as San Miguel Corporation (SMC) have constructed coal plants that emit toxic chemicals and particles that can cause cancer, respiratory disease, neurological damage and developmental problems. The developments have poisoned soil and water resources and resulted in the displacement of families in order to clear the way for coal expansion. Those who attempt to resist the developments have faced red-tagging, discrimination, and violence on behalf of authorities.
“Here in our town, where a large coal-fired power plant is located, the first effect it will have is on children and the elderly who have weak resistance. The number of respiratory diseases and skin diseases in our community has increased because of the plant” Jeff said.
The San Miguel Consolidated’s 600-megawatt coal plant is located on the very edges of the community of fishermen, who not only are faced with severe health risks, but whose livelihoods have been put in jeopardy due to runoff and contamination from the plant into the surrounding waters. The Petron refinery has been operational since 2013, and as is also the case with the SMC plant, the residents of Bataan do not reap any of the power produced by the plants — they are directed back to the national grid, with the community of Bataan left only to absorb the negative externalities.
Jeff continues: “when it comes to the climate crisis, it affects our health. This aggravation of air pollution and water pollution. We are really experiencing air pollution here in our community. That includes the flying bottom-ash that goes to the community and they get skin diseases. And when it comes to water pollution, here in our province it always turns into a red tide.”
In June this year, a coalition of fishermen and youth from Bataan called on the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to defend the human rights of the area’s fishing communities. On June 8th, World Oceans Day, letters from the fishing community were collected and sent to the CHR outlining the impact that the polluting coal plants are having on their human rights — their rights to health, rights to a livelihood, and rights to a clean and safe environment.
“Here in our organization at Y-BEAN, we have been red-tagged despite knowing our rights to protest. We are just defending our nature” said Jeff. “We had a partner from the Coal Free Bataan Movement, she is Ka Gloria Capitan from Mariveles. She was fighting for her grandchildren who got sick because of the coal plant next to where they live. Her life was taken for fighting for their rights. She was killed and shot by two men.” he continued.
The latest Global Witness report emphasized the deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines, where deadly attacks against environmental defenders opposing mining, logging, and dam development made up half of violent crackdowns from authorities. From when President Duterte took office in 2016, until the end of 2020, there were 166 recorded killings of environmental defenders.
A future-oriented and collaborative approach to addressing human rights issues as well as contingent histories, needs, and interests, is undoubtedly essential to overcome the multiplicity of human rights issues faced today including Indigenous Peoples rights, rights to land and self-determination, freedom of expression, access to food and water, ecological degradation, and health inequality.
Social and environmental activists have argued the climate crisis in particular, and its looming disastrous human effects, is an opportunity to unify human rights, peace and justice through political and economic paradigm shift, along with cultural and structural transformation. Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate:
“Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature”.
To solve the climate crisis, we need to organise for a Fossil Free world. Sign up here and 350.org will send information on how to take action where you live, support national and global campaigns online, along with the latest climate movement news.
The Japanese Government must immediately stop the Japan International Cooperation Agency from investing in the 1320MW Matarbari Phase 2 coal plant in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is reeling from the impacts of the climate crisis; building a coal plant would bring more misery than development.
French oil giant Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation are on the cusp of building a massive crude oil pipeline right through the heart of Africa – displacing communities, endangering wildlife and tipping the world closer to full-blown climate catastrophe.
Say no to oil exploration in Virunga! We are calling on the Congolese government to immediately stop the process of granting exploration licenses in these sensitive ecosystems, in particular, the project to decommission part of the Virunga Park.
While governments around the world are switching to more clean, efficient, and sustainable energy solutions, there is no valid argument to explore coal options. Nigeria is now in a position to switch to more viable forms of energy instead of relying on fossil fuels that cause irreversible harm to the eco-system.
The communities of San Pedro, local and global environmental civil society, who have been fighting for years for the cancelation of that controversial project are demanding an official statement from the government to confirm its abandonment.
The Network of Associations for the Protection of the Environment and Nature exists because Africa is seriously threatened by climate change; it is heating up faster than the rest of the world, which has become fragile and needs actions and solutions to reduce carbon production.