Climate activists from around the world currently meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, for the Summer School on Climate Justice have urged governments to protect the lives of environmentalists and climate defenders as any life lost exposes pristine nature to violators.
They were speaking while at the Karura Forest while honouring work by the late Prof Wangari Mathai and Joannah Stutchbury, who was killed near her home after receiving multiple death threats following her campaign against the development of wetlands in a national park.
Augustine Njamnshi, the Chair of Political and Technical Committee and Founder of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), lauded the efforts by the late Prof Wangari in saving the Karura Forest. Most importantly however, Augustine noted the lessons learned from Prof Wangari’s efforts which have roped in Kenyan Communities to participate in forest conservation. He noted that governments alone cannot manage to conserve the environment.
“This is an important lesson worthy to be emulated by other African governments,” he said.
Njamnshi said the Kenyan forest conservation model where communities work hand-in-hand with the government could provide the way for Africa.
“It is different from the model that had been adopted by the colonial masters who had left conservation in the hands of governments while alienating the locals. This disconnect worked to endanger forests as locals did not identify with what was taking place with the natural resources within their areas,” he said.
Mithika Mwenda, the Executive Director of PACJA, said while all people have a stake in protecting the environment and in ensuring respect for environmental rights, a few others have stood out and loudly declared their unwavering support to nature.
He mentioned efforts by the late Prof Wangari Mathai to save the forest, work by the late Stutchbury on wetlands and Robert Chimambo, a Zambian climate defender arrested and jailed by the former President, Edger Lungu, who was recently defeated by Hakainde Hichilema.
According to Mwenda, in many countries where there are competing interests between development and need to conserve the environment, environmental conservationists, activists and movements continue to be viewed as anti-development, receive minimal or no support from their governments and are thus exposed to abuses by powerful forces whose interest lies elsewhere from environmental conservation.
He noted that these rights violation can partly be explained by greater competition for natural resources as population increases, leading to the expropriation of indigenous and local communities’ land by private, business or state actors at times forces these communities into forced migration in search of a better life.
“The disparity in power, resources and information available to powerful commercial enterprises and businesses as opposed to environmental rights defenders further contributes to a culture of indifference and even impunity with regard to environmental harms and the people they affect,” he noted, adding that increasingly, more ordinary people are finding themselves on the frontline of the battle to defend their environmental rights from violations by corporate or state actors, and from unsustainable exploitation.
Around 40-50% of all victims come from indigenous and local communities who are defending their lands, and their access to the natural resources their communities depend on for survival and livelihoods.
According to the UN, women environmental defenders are especially vulnerable. In fact, all forms of discrimination can lead to the targeting or vulnerability to violence of women human rights defenders, who are prone to multiple, aggravated or intersecting forms of discrimination.
UN Environment considers an environmental defender to be anyone (including groups of people and women human rights defenders) who is defending environmental rights, including constitutional rights to a clean and healthy environment, when the exercise of those rights is being threatened.