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December 1999 Planet Main
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Environmentalists Under Fire
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The Planet

Human Rights and the Environment
Fight Pollution, Go to Jail

When Activism Is a Crime

Defending those who give the Earth a voice -- that's the mission of the Sierra Club's Human Rights and the Environment Campaign.

It became clear to Chico Mendes in the early 1980s that his livelihood was threatened.

Mendes, who made his living collecting rubber sap from trees in the rainforest of southern Brazil, saw that local ranchers and foreign speculators were clearing giant swaths of forest to make way for cattle grazing.

So Mendes helped found a union, the National Council of Rubber Tappers. He led protests against the beef industry that gained national and international attention and contributed to the establishment of Brazil's first rainforest reserve in 1988.

A few months later, Mendes was murdered by the son of a cattle rancher.

Unfortunately, his story is not an isolated one. It seems to repeat itself wherever there are powerful economic interests at odds with citizens trying to defend their land and their rights.

"His struggle to defend the earth's largest rainforest and its inhabitants' way of life showed us the inextricable link between environmental issues and human rights," said Alejandro Queral, associate representative of the Sierra Club's Human Rights and the Environment Campaign. "Areas threatened by logging, oil or development projects are often in remote places, far from public scrutiny. Sadly, we're seeing that environmentalists who oppose these projects are becoming the victims of human-rights abuses. These people need the support of organizations like the Sierra Club."

Kenya's Wangari Maathai, India's Medha Patkar, Russia's Alexandr Nikitin and many others have been beaten, tortured or arrested for their willingness to speak out against environmentally destructive practices by their governments. Others like Mendes and Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria were murdered for successfully organizing their fellow citizens against powerful logging and oil interests.

To hold those in power accountable for their actions, environmental and human-rights activists need basic civil and political freedoms -- freedom of speech, freedom to organize, freedom to vote and access to information through a free press. Unfortunately, these rights that many Americans take for granted are not always guaranteed in other countries.

Many of the environmental problems that humans face today -- including the destruction of pristine forests, loss of biodiversity, global warming and nuclear-waste disposal -- are exacerbated by a worldwide economic system that ignores the importance of a strong civil society and undermines environmental protection.

"In an increasing number of cases where multinational corporations are operating in developing countries, the governments of these countries are willing to turn a blind eye to human-rights violations and environmental destruction when millions of dollars are at stake," said Stephen Mills, director of the Club's International Program.

Such has been the case in Nigeria, said Mills, where deals between corporations and a former military regime have resulted in the increased destruction of natural resources and the lives of people who depend on them. Shell installed a pipeline through farmlands and fisheries in Ogoni land, and has failed to adequately clean up oil spills that have contaminated rivers and forests, destroyed fish habitats and made the water undrinkable and the soil infertile.

Queral warns that a similar fate awaits villages in Chad and Cameroon. Development of oil fields in Chad and a connecting pipeline to Cameroon could displace hundreds of families and cut through fragile rainforest habitats.

Of course, the United States is not without blame.

"Over the past several years we've seen public officials willingly cast aside human-rights and environmental concerns whenever trade issues are involved," Queral said. "U.S. foreign policy should reflect American values -- not just corporate values. Instead, we've seen a slide toward a 'see no evil' foreign policy, and our lawmakers appear to be driven by the interests of multinational corporations."

The Sierra Club is working in partnership with Amnesty International to "defend the environmental defenders" -- to fight for the rights of citizens worldwide who risk their lives by organizing to protect the environment.

"Now is the time for the human-rights and environmental movements to speak out on behalf of the heroes who are battling dictators, misguided politicians and environmental destruction in their homeland," said Queral. "Our strategy is to focus on nations where human-rights abuses are being committed against environmental activists and to inform the public about these abuses in order to expose the guilty parties. Human-rights violations are less likely to occur in the broad daylight of international attention."

Sierra Club, Amnesty Team Up To Defend Human Rights

The Sierra Club's Human Rights and the Environment Campaign was established in 1993 following the harassment and arrest of prominent Kenyan environmental advocate Prof. Wangari Maathai. Maathai's grassroots organizing skills have mobilized thousands of people to oppose the destruction of Kenya's forests.

Activists have since waged vocal protests on behalf of the Ogoni people of Nigeria, including a Club-sanctioned boycott of Royal/Dutch Shell. They've also been mobilizing on behalf of former Soviet submarine captain Alexandr Nikitin, who has been charged with espionage by Russian authorities for exposing illegal nuclear waste dumping in the Arctic. I

n November 1998, the Sierra Club and Amnesty International received three-year grants from the San Francisco-based Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to support their work on human rights and the environment.

"In our joint campaign we pressure U.S. political leaders to recognize the role that environmentalists have in promoting democracy abroad," said Stephen Mills, Sierra Club's International Program director. "We also provide direct support for activists who are threatened because of their environmental advocacy."

This month, the two organizations will release a joint report, "Environmentalists Under Fire: 10 Urgent Cases of Human Rights Abuses," which features case studies of environmental activists and communities around the world that are the targets of civil and human-rights violations. The report details the human rights abuses suffered in the wake of environmental destruction and tells activists what they can do to help save lives and break the pattern of abuse and destruction. (See inside for summaries of these 10 cases. 


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