This Thanksgiving, let’s thank the land defenders who gave their lives for our future
by Jeff Conant, senior international forests program manager
When I learned in early October that the Indonesian environmental lawyer Golfrid Siragar had been found dead on a highway overpass in Sumatra, I knew right away that it was murder. Golfrid had been leading the litigation against a proposed dam in North Sumatra that the Indonesia government was dead-set on building, despite the extraordinary damage it will do to a fragile ecosystem, home to the world’s rarest species of orangutan. Golfrid’s death fit a pattern that has become all-too-familiar.
Later that month, journalists Maraden Sianipar and Martua Siregar were found dead on palm oil plantations in the same Indonesian province. And on November 1, indigenous forest guardian Paulo Paulino Guajajara was killed in an ambush by loggers in the Brazilian Amazon, as part of that country’s wholesale assault on indigenous peoples and the lands they defend.
Terrible as it is to say, in 2019, these killings represent business as usual. According to records that almost certainly underestimate the numbers, 1,738 environmental defenders were killed between 2002 and 2018, across 50 countries. In 2018 alone, at least 164 men and women lost their lives defending land and environmental rights, according to widely circulated report by Global Witness. That’s an average of three per week.
Pause for a moment and let that sink in.
And then pause for another moment, and thank them for their service and the incredible sacrifice they made. While many of us give a lot to defend the earth and all of her inhabitants, some of us give everything.
In my experience working with the people who have given their lives defending the earth — and I’ve known several — they always know sooner or later corporations and governments will align against them and put them in grave danger. The beloved Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres said as much in 2013, three years before she was murdered. A Q’eqchi’ Mayan man I worked with closely to fight the abuses of palm oil plantations in Guatemala said as much when I brought him to Washington in 2016. “If they want to kill me, they will kill me. I will not stop defending my land.” Last year, 18 land defenders, including several Q’eqchi Mayans, were killed in Guatemala.
There’s another pattern there: of the land defenders being killed around the world, a disproportionate percentage — about 40% in 2015 and 2016, and about 30% in 2017 — were indigenous people.
Almost always, the underlying cause of such violence against environmental defenders is conflict over natural resources — fossil fuels, minerals, timber — and to the land or water from where these resources can be extracted. Almost always, resource extraction is carried out by companies or groups without legitimate rights to that resource, often with the tacit or explicit support of multinational companies.
More often than not, the people with the legitimate claim to these lands and resources are indigenous. Indigenous people manage or have tenure over about a quarter of the world’s surface (about 38 million square kilometers.) These deadly disputes over natural resources often arise because governments and corporations refuse to recognize these indigenous land rights.
As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s an apt time to reflect on this — and to really understand this awful trend in its historic context: since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the violent theft of native lands has been the underlying foundation of the modern world.
While the conventional narrative of Thanksgiving tells of a harvest celebration where the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down to feast together, the story is a myth — one of those convenient foundational myths designed to erase the violent truth of this nation’s founding. Quite to the contrary, one possible origin of Thanksgiving may have been a hasty mutual defense pact made in 1621 between the Wampanoags and the first settlers at Plymouth. Another possibility: a celebration of the 1637 massacre of Pequot people by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Following that massacre, William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”
Nearly 400 years later, the treatment of the water protectors fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline shows that this history of violence and repression and theft of land continues today. The uprising of water protectors fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, led by the Standing Rock Sioux, reminded us that indigenous communities are on the frontlines fighting to protect our lands and waters. The repression and violent reprisals against the water protectors at Standing Rock is just one example of our own government’s role in the global fight against land defenders.
If we are to succeed in our efforts to protect people and the planet, we need to reckon with this history, past and present. In the words of Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, “Human Rights Defenders are not an enemy of development nor are they a threat to national stability: they are the voice and the face of hundreds of thousands of communities worldwide who believe in a future where all of us can live in dignity.”
This was as true in 1620, when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, as it is today, 399 years later, when we reflect on the resistance at Standing Rock, or in the jungles of Guatemala, Brazil, or Indonesia. And this is why, going forward, Friends of the Earth’s campaign on Land Grabbing, Forests and Finance will be taking part in the newly formed Zero Tolerance Initiative, which seeks to address violence, intimidation and killings of indigenous people and other human rights defenders in global supply chains.
This Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks to those who’ve given their lives for a future where all of us — all of us — can live in dignity. Even a small gesture of thanks to indigenous land defenders — followed by action to hold their killers to account — are important steps towards ending the violence that ultimately puts us all at risk.