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Global Witness report co-author Oliver Courtney discusses the alarming number of murders in South America and how governments and corporations work in unison to subvert indigenous rights

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Environmentalists beware. A new report from the nonprofit Global Witness found that environmentalists are being killed at an alarming rate and only 1 percent of their murderers are even incarcerated.

With us to discuss this new report is our guest, Oliver Courtney. He’s the coauthor of the report and senior campaigner at Global Witness.

Thank you for joining us, Oliver.


DESVARIEUX: So, Oliver, first off, let’s just dig into the specifics of your report. Give us some context. How many murders of environmentalists did we see last year? And what countries are the most dangerous for environmentalists?

COURTNEY: Well, we covered–we looked at the last 12 years, and what we found is 908 killings during that period. We do think–and it’s worth being clear about this–that that’s really just the tip of the iceberg, because information on this issue is extremely hard to find, let alone verify.

Twenty-twelve was the worst year to be an environmental and land defender, with 147 killings. And that’s the highest on record. And it’s a tripling of the rate from 2002 to across those ten years. The rate has gone up threefold. We think it’s very much a global problem, but that there are also some areas of the world which appear particularly badly affected: in Latin America the problem is particularly acute, and Asia Pacific as well. Brazil is the worst affected country, accounting for just under half of the total, so 448 killings in Brazil in the last 12 years. It’s a really quite staggering number.

And as I’ve said, we are concerned that we do think this–that the picture that we’re painting today, which is an already stark and alarming one, is not the full picture. We do think there are many more cases out there and this is happening much more than people are aware of, which is why we’re putting this information into the public domain, because we feel like it’s hidden in plain site and much more needs to be done by governments in the countries affected and by the international community to protect those we should be celebrating as heroes.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk about Brazil specifically and just talk about why we’ve seen just these staggering numbers come out of Brazil. What is the role of the government and corporations in this uptick in figures?

COURTNEY: Well, Brazil in many ways speaks to the wider themes of this problem, in that whilst it’s an increasingly wealthy country with a very export-led economy, it has–a large proportion of its population is still relatively poor and certainly very much reliant on the land for their survival. That goes for local people and indigenous communities. And when you have those two forces at play, you have a large export economy with large amounts of land concentrated in the hands of a few powerful landowners coming into conflict with large groups of indigenous people and local communities, you really need the land and rely on it for everything and have lived on it for generations. Then that sparks conflict. And increasingly we’re seeing those conflicts, and increasingly those conflicts appear to be leading to killings. And that’s something which certainly is a huge problem in Brazil.

DESVARIEUX: Off-camera we were talking a little bit, Oliver, and you mentioned how the face of an environmentalist, it’s not what you typically think of, and you were sort of struck by a lot of times it’s people in these communities that are just so desperate. Can you just talk more about the current state of activism in South America and regarding the rainforest?

COURTNEY: Well, I mean, one of the things which–and one of the kind of flashpoints around which this problem seems to be occurring more and more is in the Brazilian Amazon and the encroachment of large-scale agribusiness and farmland into the Brazilian Amazon, which is bringing those interests into contact with indigenous peoples, as I’ve said, who rely on the forest and the land for their survival. That’s certainly something that we’ve seen a huge amount of in our research, and a vast number or the vast majority of killings related to land disputes are taking place in the area around the Amazon. That seems to be the frontier of this problem.

And as you said, it is very much often ordinary people who find themselves coming into conflict with some very powerful and well-connected business interests. And they find they have very little that they can do but really stand up to them. You know. There’s one particularly striking case in our study of a couple who grew natural oils and nuts on a reserve near the Brazilian Amazon, and they’ve resisted the encroachment of their reserve by logging operations. Now is a time when only the conflict grew worse, and the couple in question were eventually found abducted and murdered by masked gunmen, with José da Silva having his ear ripped out as proof of his execution, which is a really quite horrific case, but sadly not unique in [incompr.]

So that’s the kind of thing which we’re increasingly seeing and which we want to shine a light on, because we do feel this problem needs to be addressed in its own right. It too often falls between the environmental communities and the human rights communities, and really we do think that the linkages need to be made clearer to tackle [incompr.] as the problem that they are.

DESVARIEUX: How do you address this problem? In essence, like, what’s needed to make sure that we are protecting those who are the front lines really fighting for their rights and their voice?

COURTNEY: That’s a very good question. I mean, there are several things which we think can and should be done very urgently. Firstly, we would ask of governments that they do more to protect their citizens, so they should be supporting these people who we feel should be celebrated as heroes, and where they do find cases, they should be monitoring what’s happening, they should be monitoring the threats to environmental and land activists. And if there is violence and there is killings, they should be holding the perpetrators to account.

In our experience, and certainly on the basis of that data set, that simply isn’t happening. One percent–just 1 percent of the cases that we found resulted in a conviction. So, certainly, governments need to do more to protect their citizens and make sure that they’re being held to account.

But you also need to make sure that’s what’s driving this is this problem is tackled. So instead of–we’re seeing a large increase in large-scale deals for land, forest, mines, being done between national governments who are keen to encourage foreign investment and foreign companies [incompr.] deals are being done behind closed doors without the consent of the people who live on the land. And often their land is being taken away from them without any form of consultation. Again, that’s what sparks these conflicts and what’s driving a lot of the unrest and a lot of these fatalities. So we think it needs to be tackled at that level.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Oliver Courtney, senior campaigner at Global Witness, thank you so much for joining us.

COURTNEY: Thank you very much.

DESVARIEUX: And as you know, you can always follow us on Twitter @therealnews, and please send me questions or comments @Jessica_Reports.

Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Oliver Courtney is a Senior Campaigner at Global Witness. He investigates and campaigns against rainforest destruction, land grabs and other environmental and human rights abuses. You can follow him on twitter at @ocourtneygw