Photo: Greenpeace arrests show attempts to silence environmentalists continue

Arctic 30 Greenpeace International activist Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel (from Brazil) at a detention hearing at Primorskiy Court in St. Petersburg. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ontario and Northern Canada Director-General Faisal Moola

Early November marked the 18th anniversary of the tragic murder of outspoken writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight colleagues by the Nigerian government. Saro-Wiwa and the others had waged a long campaign to stop multinational oil company Royal Dutch Shell from drilling in the lands of the Ogoni people in the Niger delta.

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Nigerian military harassed and intimidated members of the Ogoni community for years because they opposed Shell's drilling program. Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues defended their communities and local environment from a notoriously toxic industry. In November 1995, a special court established by the military government illegally detained and tried them on spurious charges. Convicted without due process, they were executed 10 days later, despite enormous international outcry.

Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. A recent report by human rights organization Global Witness documents the murders of more than 700 environmental and indigenous-rights activists over the past decade — more than one killing a week, on average. They reviewed databases, academic studies and news reports, and consulted with the United Nations and other international agencies. They found citizens are often harassed, intimidated, beaten up, sexually assaulted and sometimes killed for opposing endangered wildlife poaching, illegal logging, dams and activities of foreign mining companies — including some Canadian firms.

I experienced this reality in 1988 when we interviewed rubber tapper Chico Mendes about his battle to save the Amazon rainforest in Brazil for The Nature of Things. He was assassinated two weeks later. The following year, Kaiapo Chief Paiakan asked me to help stop a dam proposed for Altamira, Brazil. My wife, Tara, and I helped raise $70,000 for a demonstration, and the World Bank was persuaded to withdraw its project loan. Paiakan was then subjected to death threats. We brought him and his family to Vancouver until the danger subsided.

Many instances of persecution and killing have occurred in countries with atrocious human rights records, such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet surprisingly, most attacks on environmentalists have been in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines, with democratically elected governments, independent judiciaries and other institutions intended to protect their citizens' rights to voice concerns about the environment without facing harassment, intimidation and violence. These countries have also signed international agreements to protect human rights, like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As the recent incarceration of 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists by Russian authorities clearly demonstrates, human rights are vulnerable at a time when governments aggressively promote the interests of corporations over a healthy environment, and are willing to use heavy-handed tactics to ensure people who disagree don't stand in the way.

In this latest case, Russian special operations forces arrested the Greenpeace International activists, including two Canadians, Alexandre Paul and Paul Ruzycki, for attempting to hang a banner off the side of an oil rig in Arctic waters. They were peacefully protesting Russian company Gazprom's plans to drill for oil in one of the most ecologically sensitive regions of the planet, and raising awareness of the consequences of climate change. For speaking out in defence of the Arctic, they were imprisoned for two months under difficult conditions and all but one were only recently released on bail. They now face the possibility of long, harsh jail sentences if found guilty on trumped-up charges of piracy and hooliganism.

Although leaders of the Netherlands, Brazil and Germany called for release of their nationals and other members of the 'Arctic 30', Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have so far been silent. You can sign letters at asking Baird to bring the Canadians home and asking Russian embassies to urge their government to drop the charges.

Too often, governments are quick to use excessive force and even pervert the course of justice to keep oil and gas flowing, forests logged, wild rivers dammed and minerals extracted. As the Global Witness study reveals, citizens are often killed, too — especially if they're poor and indigenous.

We must remember the sacrifices of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Chico Mendes and hundreds of other advocates and defend people's rights to peacefully speak out for the environment, without fear of intimidation, arrest and violence.

November 28, 2013

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Dec 05, 2013
8:01 AM

There should be an international day of remembrance for activists known to have fallen while defending good causes (If one doesn’t exist).

Dec 02, 2013
8:14 AM

Elected democracies seem to outnumber functional democracies and the independence of judiciaries is either threatened or completely compromised in many jurisdictions. What we really seem to have in place of these institutions are oligarchies with far reaching powers, clearly interfering with the fair and good governance needed to protect the environment while advancing the economic interests of all of society.

Nov 29, 2013
7:32 AM

It appears to me that the world’s population is becoming even less tolerant of people who in stand up in plain view for our and Mother Earth’s survival. They are called activists (bad word?) in some countries, rebels in others and criminals in some. This environmental neglect and damage is driven by greed and ignorance, fear and denial. How many seemingly intelligent people deny the existence of global warming? How many times have you heard some people actually say that groups like Green Peace deserve what they get? This clearly shows just how misinformed and lacking in understanding as well as compassion they are. Canada is comprised of a majority of ultra conservative people who are so complacent with what the world’s leaders, politicians in general, religious extremists (not religions) and so on are doing. You can disagree and say no we are not…we write in, we voice it with our families and best friends….heck I even filled out Greenpeace’s petition to free them. Yes that is a start but let’s face it. If we did not have organizations such as Green Peace to do more than what we are willing to do then just where would we be then. I guess it is analogous to saying we can settle all the environmental as well as human injustices taking place in the world as well as in our own country over the internet! Lines like “Well what can we do” or “It’s not up to me” and every other excuse in the book. What drives this behavior…Canadians fear of public involvement is in part due to fear of losing their jobs if they do so, being labelled by government and others as activists, fear of public ( not just on internet), family and even friend criticism. Why? Just so we are clear on this, we need activists for disease, starvation, war, politics, education, inequality, child and female abuse, bullying, development and so on. Do we not need someone to be active for Mother Earth as well? Please think wisely and consider contributing in some valuable way before dismissing such organizations as Green Peace.

Nov 28, 2013
5:46 PM

I guess I won’t be eating anymore canned salmon.

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