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Challenges faced by environmental rights defenders in the world

Sakharov Prize

Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic, the Greens/EFA candidate to the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, is a Guatemalan environmental human rights defender.

The protection and promotion of human rights also involves the rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna. However, environmental human rights defenders are threatened all over the world. The figures are spine-chilling. Only in 2016, Global Witness registered 200 murders - that’s close to 4 defenders killed per week around the world! They are usually targeted when the interests of corporations and governments clash with their demands. The sectors most affected by violence are extractive industries, agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and logging.

Like Lolita, who is a Maya Quiché leader, many environmental human rights defenders belong to indigenous peoples as their struggle for the right to land and the right to environment is intrinsically linked. The Maya Quiché people give a prominent role to the idea of living in harmony with the planet, as Lolita puts it, “not because it belongs to them, but because they are part of it”. Indigenous peoples defend their rights against external actors that bring dispossession, plundering, death and destruction to them. According to Global Witness 40% of murdered environmental rights defenders in 2016 belonged to indigenous peoples.

Moreover, Latin America is the deadliest region for environmental human rights defenders, accounting for 60% of the recorded killings of 2016. According to the UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst, “[i]n almost every affected Latin American country, government and corporate actors are involved in the murders of environmental human rights defenders”. In this context, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of killings. Only in 2016, 263 aggressions against human rights defenders were registered in Guatemala by NGO UDEGA (Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders). In 2016, 6 environmental rights defenders were killed in the country. The Maya Quiché people face intimidation, death threats, stigmatisation and lack of protection from government authorities because they oppose invasive corporate projects and the privatisation of seeds in Guatemala.

In a context of worsening man-made climate change and shrinking space for civil society, the Greens/EFA Group wants to stand up for those who defend environmental human rights around the world despite the risks they face. Lolita’s candidature symbolizes the importance of environment in human rights protection and promotion but it also raises the alarm for the harsh persecution against environmental human rights defenders in today’s world.


Lolita Chávez


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