Sat, Jun 03, 2017 - Page 9 News List

We need an international environmental criminal court

A report by Global Witness said 185 environmental campaigners were killed across 16 countries in 2015 alone, almost double the number of journalists killed the same year

By Phyllis Omido

Illustration: Tania Chou

The announcement of the winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize is an opportunity to celebrate activist leaders.

However, it is also a moment to recognize just how much courage their efforts — and those of a great many others — can demand.

When my dear friend Berta Caceres and I won the prize in 2015, Berta said in her acceptance speech: “I have given my life for the service of mother Earth.”

Not long after, Berta was assassinated in Honduras.

Her story is tragic, but not unique. Indeed, just months later, Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, another Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, was shot dead.

There has never been a more dangerous time to be an environmental activist. Consider the violence unleashed against the environmental defenders protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US. Police were accused of using excessive force to try to disperse members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters, who said that the project would contaminate water and damage sacred burial sites.

Fortunately, no one was killed during the protests, but elsewhere, in more fragile democracies, environmental campaigners who stand up to polluters are paying with their lives.

A Global Witness report documented 185 killings across 16 countries in 2015 alone. That is almost double the number of journalists killed that year.

My own experience highlights the dangers facing environmental crusaders.

For eight years, my community in rural Kenya, Owino Uhuru, has been exposed to toxic lead poisoning caused by the operations of a state-licensed smelter.

The WHO’s measure of lead poisoning is 5 micrograms per deciliter. The highest lead level recorded in Owino Uhuru was 420 micrograms per deciliter. In the highly publicized contamination case in Flint, Michigan, the readings were 35 micrograms per deciliter.

When my community found out that we were being poisoned, we fought back. We wrote letters to the government and organized peaceful protests.

With the support of my community, I founded the Center for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) to hold the state and corporations accountable for ensuring a clean and healthy environment.

In February last year, the CJGEA went to court against six state agencies and two corporate entities. Nothing happened.

One year later, when we published public notices in local newspapers of our intention to sue the two corporations, all hell broke loose.

Despite the murders of Berta and Isidro and so many others, I did not fully recognize the danger of challenging a powerful government-backed operation.

Soon, I received a chilling telephone call warning me to watch over my son carefully. Environmental activists within the community were attacked, their houses surrounded by thugs wielding machetes. The son of a close ally was abducted — and, fortunately, later released — by unidentified men.

You might expect that the state would protect its citizens from such tactics, if not from being poisoned in the first place. We broke no laws; on the contrary, we have been upholding Kenya’s constitution, which guarantees citizens’ rights to a safe and healthy environment.

However, perhaps we should not be surprised by the state’s behavior. After all, in 2015, the Kenyan government voted in the UN General Assembly, along with just 13 others, against a UN resolution calling for the protection of human rights defenders.

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