Andreas Späth

Eco-activists under fire

2016-05-09 11:08

Andreas Wilson-Späth

When 49-year-old anti-mining activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was gunned down in cold blood on March 22, South Africans were outraged. Sadly, this sort of thing – the assassination of community organisers fighting for environmental justice and human rights – is a growing threat to people all around the world, especially for those who are poor, indigenous and live in remote areas.

For over a decade, Rhadebe and the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), of which he was the chairperson, have resisted the establishment of a titanium mine in the Xolobeni sand dunes on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. The organisation recently filed a legal objection to renewed efforts by Transworld, a local subsidiary of the Australian company Mineral Commodities Limited, to have mining operations authorised in an area of ancestral tribal land.

For years, the ACC has accused the company and its allies of using violence and intimidation to threaten locals into accepting the mining project. Sectors of the local police force are alleged to have participated in these tactics as well. Both Mineral Commodities Limited and the police have denied any involvement. If it becomes a reality, the mine is believed to require the relocation of as many as 1000 people in some 100 households.

On the day of his killing, Rhadebe had called fellow activists, warning them that he had seen their names alongside his own on a “hit list”. A few hours later, two men posing as police officers arrived at his home in a car sporting a roof-mounted, rotating, blue light. They claimed to have come to arrest Rhadebe and proceeded to shoot him eight times in front of his wife and two teenage sons.

Whether they are standing up to miners on the Wild Coast, oil drillers in the Amazon or dam builders in India, activists like Rhadebe are increasingly becoming targets of vicious assault and murder. According to the UK-based organisation Global Witness “on average two people are killed every week defending their land, forests and waterways against the expansion of large-scale agriculture, dams, mining, logging and other threats”.

Just a few weeks prior to Rhadebe’s murder, an assassination happened in Honduras in rather similar circumstances. On March 3, Berta Cáceres, a 44-year-old organiser of indigenous and human rights groups and the 2014 winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, was shot dead in her home after receiving numerous threatening phone calls and text messages.

For ten years, she had been involved in protests against the proposed construction of the large Água Zarca hydroelectric power project on the Gualcarque River, which threatens the livelihood of local indigenous people. Two weeks after Cáceres’ killing, her colleague Nelson García was gunned down as well.

Around the world, similar murders occur with frightening regularity:

- In 2012, an unidentified military police officer killed Cambodian anti-deforestation activist Chut Wutty.

- In 2014, illegal loggers murdered four leaders of the Ashéninka tribe in the Amazon who had tried to eject them from their ancestral territory.

- In April, elephant poachers shot dead three wildlife rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park.

- Also in April, police opened fire on protesters marching against the slated construction of two large coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh, killing at least four and injuring many more.

- Etc, etc, etc

Global Witness reports that between 2002 and 2014, 454 environmental activists were killed in Brazil alone, along with 111 in Honduras, 80 in Colombia, 7 in India, 21 in Thailand, 84 in the Philippines and many others elsewhere.

Their research indicates “that at least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014 – that's almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period” and 20% more than in the previous year. Some 40 % of the victims were indigenous and nearly three-quarters lived in Central and South America.

Depending who you are, where you live and what you’re fighting for, being green can be a deadly passion these days.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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