A woman sits in a small boat on a river while wearing a blue and read long-sleeve shirt and a neon green and grey life jacket.

Americas: States must ensure an environment conducive to the work of climate, land defenders

Climate and land defenders are at the forefront of the struggle for climate justice in the Americas, but – due in part to the region’s colonial history, racism and inherent inequality – they are not sufficiently recognized or meaningfully included in decisions on environmental issues, Amnesty International said today as it released a new report in the lead-up to the COP28.

No future without courage: Human rights defenders in the Americas speaking up on climate crisis presents the cases of six activists, justice groups and organizations that are defending human rights in the context of the climate crisis in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Ecuador.

Deadliest region for climate justice activists, land defenders

“The Americas is the world’s deadliest region for those defending land, territory and the environment. We spoke to advocates from several countries in the Americas who, despite the terrifying challenges they face, continue to fight for a healthy environment for all. States must publicly recognize the value of their work and take urgent steps to ensure their safety and end the impunity that their attackers enjoy,” said Graciela Martínez, campaigner for human rights defenders in the Americas at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International interviewed several defenders living in areas rich in natural resources like fossil fuels, natural carbon sinks or key minerals for the energy transition. Extraction of these resources is contributing to the climate crisis and often violating the rights of local populations. Most of these populations are Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants or farming or fishing communities. Many are headed by or consist of girls, young people and women. All six cases featured in the Amnesty International report are collective struggles.

A number of people, groups and organizations have mobilized against large economic interests to wean states off their dependence on energy from fossil fuels. In Ecuador, a group of girls and young people have taken legal action and campaigned against burning off waste natural gas from oil extraction (a practice known as flaring), which increases CO2 emissions and significantly harms the health of local populations. In Canada, the Wet’suwet’en people oppose the construction of a gas pipeline in their ancestral lands without their free, prior and informed consent.

Communities on the forefront of climate change

“Climate change is affecting how our food grows and destroying all our salmon, destroying the forage of elk and deer. Everyone will lose out if we stay quiet and comfortable in our homes, if we carry on as usual…. It’s time for people to join together and force our government and industry to listen,” said Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en chief of the Wet’suwet’en community.

Other people, groups and advocacy organizations are fighting to preserve carbon sinks and biodiversity. In Brazil, Afro-descendant women are offering a sustainable way to preserve the Amazon Forest based on the region’s traditional crops, like Babassu palm. In Colombia, a fishers association has monitored and denounced pollution and destruction in the waters they depend on for their low-impact subsistence.

“Our on-the-ground resistance is a form of environmental protection. No one knows the area better than us because we form part of this place,” said Yuly Velásquez, president of FEDEPESAN, the fishers association that defends the wetlands of the Magdalena Medio region in Colombia.

In Quebec, Canada, the Pessamit Innu Band has been studying the impact of climate change on their ancestral territory for two decades and has proposed ways to adapt and preserve their lands: “We have been suffering the consequences of climate change for years, and we continue suffering them today. We needed to be ready. Worse things are coming, and we have to take care of the environment,” said Adélard Benjamin of the Pessamit Innu Council.

Advocates in the region are also exposing how the transition to a low-carbon economy is being made at the expense of local communities that are already suffering injustice, inequality and discrimination. For example, the Indigenous peoples of northern Argentina are taking action and claiming their right to consultation and free, prior and informed consent, as well as to their livelihoods, in response to lithium mining on their ancestral lands.

Urgent call to leaders at COP28

Amnesty International urges all parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to recognize the legitimate work of people, groups and organizations that defend the environment or contribute to climate justice. It calls on them to ensure a safe environment that provides favourable conditions for defenders’ local and international efforts and for their meaningful engagement on environmental and climate issues. Given their experience and knowledge, it is essential that they participate meaningfully in decisions related to the environment and climate justice without discrimination. These spaces and forms of participation must be adapted to the unique characteristics of girls, youth and women, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, other racialized people and groups, and farming and rural communities, among others. In the case of Indigenous peoples, it is critical to respect their right to consultation and free, prior and informed consent regarding any action related to the environment and climate change on their lands.

“As they make decisions at COP28, world leaders must heed the warnings of those who have struggled for generations to protect life on our planet. In a year that has seen the highest temperatures in history, with devastating consequences for humanity, states must listen to their demands and support their initiatives,” said Graciela Martínez .

“It’s now more urgent than ever that they act decisively to reduce emissions, phase out fossil fuel production and keep the average global temperature increase below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Our survival depends on it.”

On numerous occasions, Amnesty International has documented how environmental defenders often face hostile and dangerous circumstances, especially when their demands run counter to major economic and political interests.

In a study published in September, the organization concluded that the criminalization of protests in Mexico is part of a broad strategy of disincentivizing and dismantling the defence of land, territory and the environment. Amnesty International also concluded in a study published this month that the Colombian state has responded inadequately to the serious risks that environmental defenders face and urged the Colombian authorities to take collective protection measures to address the structural causes of these risks.

Header photo: Yuly Velásquez, President of the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of the Department of Santander – an environmental organization focused on protecting wetlands and rivers in Barrancabermeja, Colombia – has experienced violence first-hand (Óscar Castaño/Amnesty International).