I made a brief presentation on the then concluded Kenya Land Alliance “A status conference on youth & land” on defending the youth land defenders. A few days later the news of the murder of Joanna Stutchbury hit the headlines. She was a renowned environmentalist in Kenya who was short 6 times. Joanna had been fighting to save the Kiambu forest, which she accused developers of trying to illegally excavate. Days following her death brought more concerns and conversations around defending the defenders. I also found myself thinking a lot on the subject.
Joanna’s case is not an isolated one for land and environment rights defenders (LERDS).In Kenya for instance, there is the case(2019) of Esther Mwikali, whose death is associated with land struggles. She was a prominent land rights activist who looked into the abuse of squatters living on land claimed by others. Defenders of land and environment rights of the environment and the land confront increasing dangers all around the world. Defenders are still being criminalized and exposed to violent attacks, including murder, in an environment where civil society’s operational area is decreasing. In 2019 the global witness recorded over 200 deaths of these selfless people in one year.
Despite the great work done by defenders, they are not protected. We fail them! Land and environmental defenders play a vital role in protecting these climate-critical forests and ecosystems. Global indigenous and local communities managing forests that contain carbon equivalent to 33 times our current annual emissions – although even this staggering figure is likely to be an underestimate. What is sad is these groups face the most attacks on their defenders. These attacks are fueled by insecure land tenure systems, extractive driven economies allowed by irresponsible policies and other harmful business practices.
Needless to say, numerous civil society organizations and groups have developed recommendations for protecting the land defenders. Data precedes most of the actions as it informs the situation’s urgency. Data and detailed documentation of the criminalization of activities solidify the legal recommendations. This is me thinking out loud. In pursuit of justice, cases end up unsolved or are disregarded because of a lack of evidence or skewed systems. Legal aid remains a challenging factor for most. There is a crucial need of sharing best practices and knowledge within the defenders. Besides, governments have to be more involved and act on their commitments. A lot of impunity surrounds such cases protecting private investors.
Why am I writing this article? It is cruel and selfish of us to let down the people who put their lives out there for the sake of our land and environment. I might not have the ideal solution for this but advocacy and creating awareness is a step in the right direction. Several times LERDs activities and work is perceived to be against development. However, finding a sustainable co-existence between land-based investments, development and conservation through policy review still offers us a chance. I hope this conversation can continue and we can create safe environments for LERDS without the criminalization of their work.
side note: “This is me getting out of my comfort zone.”