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Politics of Death: Body count mounts in worldwide wars over land

Tuesday 20 June 2017, by Comité Cerezo México

Comité Cerezo México reported 30 killings between January and May 31, Karapatan in the Philippines documented 26 deaths between January and March, and Somos Defensores registered 32, also to May.

By Paola Totaro and Matthew Ponsford
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Each week, at least four men and women vanish without trace or are found dead, cut down in a hail of gunfire.

In Cambodia, a single mother is separated from her two children, arrested and locked up in prison.

On the dry savannahs of Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul, farmers shoot dead a 26-year-old indigenous man in broad daylight.

In Bangladesh, a university professor receives death threats from an al Qaeda-inspired militant group.

Mysterious disappearances, political murders, the killing of women, gangland hits: thousands of cases, seemingly unrelated, are reported every year from all corners of the globe.

Evidence suggests the number of dead is soaring - and political scholars and activists believe they are connected.

They say people are dying protecting their land and homes from global industry’s relentless push to develop the natural resources beneath their feet with the bloodshed a direct product of a phenomenon dubbed ’necropolitics’ or ’politics of death’.


According to global watchdogs, resource-rich Honduras and Nicaragua are the world’s deadliest countries for land deaths per capita, while Brazil tops the list in sheer numbers.

And women - often at the frontline of conflict defending home and children - accounted for more than half of the dead.

Subhabrata ’Bobby’ Banerjee, professor of management at the University of London’s Cass Business School, has studied global development projects and the people who resist them for more than 15 years.

He says academic colleagues have built the Environmental Justice Atlas, a global database of conflicts over natural resources and development, which shows numbers climbing.

"Right now there are more than 2,000 reported hot spots around the world," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The reality is that there are probably three times that number which are not reported because they are not sexy and don’t make TV news."


During an interview in his office among the glass towers of London’s financial heart, Banerjee said much of this violence unfolds in the former colonies of sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Asia, where the law has ceased to function.

Criminal gangs, mercenaries and extremist groups step in to this vacuum of law and order, he says, creating a kind of "death world" by deciding who will live and who will die - and entire communities can be forcibly removed.

Banerjee says in many parts of the world, the dual roles of the state - to encourage economic development and protect citizens - can become "schizophrenic".

"If a state is in a joint venture with a mine which involves dispossession or forcible displacement, what are the conflicting interests?" he said.

"At one level you have to create jobs, collect taxes, while at another you have to kill your citizens to make that happen."

Watchdog groups, including Front Line Defenders (FLD), Global Witness, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, say last year was easily the deadliest on record for activists trying to defend their homes and environment.

This year is on track to be much worse.

More than 1,000 citizens in 25 countries were murdered, harassed, imprisoned or intimidated while fighting for their community’s rights in 2016, according to FLD. Of 281 recorded deaths, half were attempting to defend their homes and land.

Global Witness researchers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that its newest report, due for release next month, will reveal another climb in the death toll and is expected to eclipse the dramatic 59 percent rise seen between 2015 and 2016.

Andrew Anderson, executive director of FLD, said a global project - HRD Memorial - was launched this year to document violence that often unfolds in remote areas so goes unrecorded.

The partnership of 20 organizations - including national rights monitors from countries including Brazil, Uganda and the Philippines – will also examine deaths that had been officially attributed to crime so as to identify which ones were, in fact, the slaying of human rights defenders over land.

The coalition hopes this exercise will provide a more realistic picture of the extent of violence related to land.

"We know that the scale of the problem is immense, despite severe barriers to documentation. Access to remote areas, lack of adequate police documentation at the local level, and fear of reprisals all make reporting difficult for local communities," Anderson said.

"In the vast majority of cases documented in 2016, killings were preceded by warnings, death threats and intimidation which, when reported to police, were routinely ignored."


So far this year, monitoring groups in Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines have verified the murder of 88 land rights defenders - more than four a week - in just three countries.

Comité Cerezo México reported 30 killings between January and May 31, Karapatan in the Philippines documented 26 deaths between January and March, and Somos Defensores registered 32, also to May.

This trend shows that despite increased attention on human rights defenders (HRDs), there remains almost blanket impunity for the "masterminds of these assassinations" and their hired guns, said Adam Shapiro, FLD’s head of campaigns.

Shapiro said increasing numbers weren’t surprising but 88 murders in less than six months should not only be a cause for extreme alarm but should compel authorities to act.

"In health terms we would be referring to this as a pandemic, but, unlike a virus, the killing of HRDs is intentional and criminal," he said.

Speaking from Paris this month after field trips in South East Asia, Michel Forst, the United Nations rapporteur on human rights defenders, said he believes the numbers represent "the tip of the iceberg".

"The attacks are becoming stronger: this is not random violence but deliberate attacks to eliminate those who are trying to protect their land and their traditions. In some countries it is a war, collusion between powerful interests, corruption and organized crime and companies," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Many communities, including indigenous communities, are affected around the world but we don’t know exact numbers because information comes through NGOs and so many are alone, working unprotected."

With violence escalating, the global corporate world is also becoming acutely and increasingly aware of the reputational – and economic risks – if they are linked with the abuses.

In April, an analysis by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), which monitors 7,000 companies in 180 countries, found "clean" energy projects are battling with the industry’s unforeseen toll of human rights conflicts.

The sector - which includes growing markets in solar and wind energy generation - is struggling with legal costs and reputational risks incurred by companies’ needs to accumulate large areas of land, said BHRRC.

Researchers questioned 50 companies in a report that revealed only 10 percent of companies referred to U.N. standards on free, prior and informed consent when negotiating with communities whose land they want.

Experts say the cost - in both dollars and lives - is encouraging renewable energy companies to learn from the mistakes made by their predecessors in fossil fuels and mining.

A study by Harvard’s Kennedy School and Australia’s University of Queensland examined conflict between mining firms and communities in 2014, finding companies wrote off up to $379 million in assets and $1.33 billion in projected reserves.

Forst said his report, due to be released later this year, will focus on business and on identifying ways to ensure the defenders are protected.

He said some corporations, including the U.S. jeweler Tiffany and the Italian energy giant ENEL, are already doing some pioneering work in this area.

"ENEL has a policy which recognizes the role of defenders," he said. "If they feel that a group of defenders or indigenous communities don’t want to talk to them or refuse to consult, they will simply stop immediately."

"Many others are very aware of the problem and, if not trying to solve it, are at least participating in discussion."

Gregory Regaignon, Research Director at BHRRC, said there is a chasm between a few leading companies taking meaningful steps and the much larger group of laggards.

"These companies treat social impacts as a voluntary menu, picking and choosing issues where they can undertake corporate philanthropy and, at worst, think these actions somehow diminish their responsibility to do no harm."


Nor is the world’s media much help, according to Ariadna Estevez, professor at the Centre for Research on North America at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Its "obsession" with framing violence through a lens of organized crime, gangs and drugs means the public and policymakers are misled, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Analyses of migration patterns from countries such as Honduras reveal a clustering of criminal, misogynistic and political violence which can be directly linked to forced migration and displacement from resource-rich areas.

Estevez argued this cannot be coincidence and asks why, if gang violence is the chief driver of migration across Central America, the number of Honduran displaced persons increased nearly 600 percent in 2015, while gang-related murders fell, according to a 2016 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that development projects are historically among the greatest drivers of displacement, with an estimated 15 million people pushed off their land a year since the mid-2000s, according to the most figures cited by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

"Criminal violence, while potent, is just part of a dangerous cocktail that serves to ’cleanse’ places where local communities are defending their home territory," Estevez said.

And this failure to grasp the true causes means government policy on migration is often doomed to fail, Estevez added.

U.S. investment in projects designed to discourage migration by stimulating the ’Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, may well have the opposite effect, she added.

By financing one-off infrastructure, rather than creating sustainable local projects, investors may in fact further spur land grabs that in turn accelerate migration, she said.


Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty says global leaders are dismantling legal protections for land defenders to organize and stand up for communities’ rights.

"What we are witnessing today is a full frontal assault by governments, armed groups, corporations and others on the right to defend human rights," he said in a statement last month.

Yet the murder of activists represents only the most direct outcome of state policies designed to clear resource-rich lands of populations to make way for development, said Estevez.

"Deadly situations" can arise alongside murder, she said.

Denying access to the lands that have fed communities for generations threatens lives as does the forced transfer of local populations to new and often dangerous workplaces, such as mines or mega construction sites.

The murder of women - who often choose to spearhead high profile campaigns to protect their communities - should also not be written off as a "private" crime, unconnected to government or gang violence, Estevez says.

In Latin America, for example, data from Front Line Defenders and Global Witness shows the region now accounts for half the world’s deaths. And more than half of last year’s global roll call of the dead were women.


From diamonds, gold and silver in Africa to precious woods in Latin America to the fertile farmland of Southeast Asia or the coal mines of India and Bangladesh, the modern world’s demand for natural resources is insatiable.

It is often in the most remote frontiers, areas that are poorly understood, where development mega-projects - many financed by western financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund - deliver the greatest danger to local communities.

The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to "life, liberty and security" and that nobody can be arbitrarily deprived of their property.

Worldwide, experts estimate about one billion people live and work land without secure property rights. Without legal protection, communities are vulnerable and live with the constant risk of wrongful eviction or forced displacement.

Banerjee said the vacuum of law and order created in these so-called "states of exception" can also unfold in big cities, for example in the sweatshops of New Delhi or migrant-dominated industries and illegal sweatshops of New York, London and Paris.

Increasingly, clashes are also erupting over urban land needed for residential growth in the world’s developing cities. In some global cities like Lagos, valuable city center and waterfront land has become a war zone.

Banerjee insisted it was too easy to blame globalised capitalism, adding that in socialist-led economies of countries such as Venezuela or Bolivia – which is now headed by the indigenous politician and activist Evo Morales – people are also being forced off land and killed to make way for development.

"The model is the same but instead of the capitalist killing people, you have socialist governments which have made dissent illegal," he said.

"Instead of the money going to multinationals, these nations are using it to build roads, hospitals, schools," he said, but wealth accumulation by dispossession was "pretty much the same".

Experts said the lightning rod for clashes is increasingly reserves of as yet untapped ’tech metals’, including lithium, cobalt, cadmium and rhodium.

Generally rare, the metals are needed to make miniaturized computer equipment, advanced weapons systems and clean and renewable energy storage, such as solar panels and batteries.

The market is growing every year.

In the first months of 2016, lithium prices trebled after electric car maker Tesla announced plans for a $5 billion lithium ion battery plant in Nevada known as a "gigafactory".

The new plant will produce more lithium ion batteries each year than were produced worldwide in 2013, massively boosting demand for the light metal.

The price spike for lithium also sparked a battle between Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – known as the ’lithium triangle’ – to prove who could offer the most business-friendly environment.


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The stampede of corporations vying for a stake in the market spans from North America to Europe, Latin America to Australia.

The dark side of the lithium boom: a race to exploit the world’s biggest reserves, which lie beneath the Bolivian salt flat of Salar de Uyuni, and could end traditional salt mining.

Cobalt is another tech metal which is found 10,000 miles across the equator in the impoverished Democratic Republic of Congo where 60 percent of the world’s cobalt lies buried.

Cobalt is needed in energy storage and is integral to the green technology revolution but its extraction has sparked fears of violence in a nation with a history of weak governance and bloody conflict over resources.

In September, a Washington Post investigation revealed more than 100,000 men work underground, using just their hands and simple tools, to produce the metal needed for products such as Apple’s Iphones. It said deaths and injuries were common.

All the global watchdog organizations agreed that the fight against mining projects is now the most dangerous form of activism, although the newest figures also suggest a marked upturn in killings related to forestry and logging.

More than 20 Park rangers and forest guards were murdered last year alone, according to Global Witness and signal a dangerous new front to watch.


Academics and activists said in many parts of the world, violence has flourished due to a blurring of responsibilities between the state and corporate sector.

This is best exemplified by an increasing reliance on private security forces to maintain law and order.

Half the world lives in countries that employ more private security workers than public police officers, according to research funded by the Washington-based Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting. Their analysis covered 40 countries, including China and the United States.

The global market for private security services, including private guarding, surveillance and armed transport, is now worth an estimated $180 billion, forecast to hit $240 billion by 2020.

Speaking in his London office in front of an Australian Aboriginal flag, Banerjee said private armies are no longer the exception, but the norm. Increasingly the security personnel used by big corporations are better funded and resourced than traditional police forces or national military, he said.

However unlike their publicly funded counterparts, private armies are not accountable to the state or international law, leaving victims of violence vulnerable to injustice.


The concept of necropolitics - the politics of death - was coined by a Cameroonian philosopher, Achille Mbembe, in 2003.

Mbembe argued that while in many western nations, the state alone has the right to kill - and only to safeguard life and maintain law and order - in other regions, particularly developing, post-colonial nations, the state is not the only purveyor of violence.

In Africa, states use the fear of death to maintain control, often through private militias whose power can be bought and sold in the market place, Mbembe wrote.

His ’politics of death’ also encompassed social death, including racial or gender exclusion, persecution, apartheid, slavery or political violence.

Other scholars - from Mexico to Slovenia - have adopted and adapted it to shine light on their own cultures.

Students are now taking this approach to Peru, Chile, Brazil and India, as well as Eastern Europe, said Banerjee.

In many parts of the world where natural resources are fuelling developing economies, indigenous communities are hamstrung because they do not have the legal right to refuse proposed developments, according to environmental lawyers.

Both Forst and Banerjee said in most places they have studied - particularly Australia and India – negotiation between developers and indigenous communities focus on conditions under which the mining proceeds, not on whether it should ever happen.

"It is always about ‘how many jobs, how many hospitals, how many schools, how much tax, how much royalties’," he said. "The question has never been ’can mining proceed at all?’"

Until they have a veto option, he says, communities will not be able to decide whether to allow exploitation of their resources, let alone organize a resistance to unwanted projects.

Big money, however, is beginning to talk, according to Anne Simpson, a director of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which manages $300 billion in assets.

She said that for her long-term U.S. investors, human rights in the renewable energy sector is now fundamental to what projects they back - for both moral and financial reasons.

"More community engagement must be fostered to ensure that the transition to renewable energy truly benefits communities and does not create undue risk for investors," she said in a speech in April.

Estevez, Banerjee and Forst all believe the system of self-regulated corporate social responsibility (CSR) needs a rethink.

They argue there is more than an echo of old colonial trade arrangements when big companies in powerful cities stepped in to take on state responsibilities offering healthcare, education, sanitation and infrastructure in return for access to resources.

"For the well-meaning liberals in the West, it’s all about ’inclusion’. The communities I speak with, they don’t want to be included. They want to be left alone," Banerjee said.

"The violence of the last 50 years has clearly shown who bears the brunt of development and who does not. So I think the discourse has to change from CSR and inclusion in development, to the right to say ’no’ to development."

Regaignon, of BHRRC, said many companies tried to assess and respect the human impact of their investments.

"The best companies include intense stakeholder engagement based on respect for communities’ rights through the entire life of the project, from planning to end use," said Regaignon.

"However, one of the most alarming things we found was that even companies with strong commitments on paper, face serious allegations of harms to communities on the ground."

Ultimately, the option for communities to veto development must always be on the table, he said, and companies must "respect their decision if they do not grant their consent."

In the 2014 Harvard report examining the cost of land conflicts to the mining industry, lost staff time managing such clashes was cited as the most overlooked corporate bill.

"Such conflicts can easily escalate - and then come the major advocacy campaigns and law suits which certainly do show up on the corporate ledger," wrote Professor John Ruggie.

Conflict and bloodshed over resources in new frontiers, concluded Banerjee, is not new to human history. The difference between the past and the 21st century is the advent of corporate social responsibility CSR programs, he says.

"The mining industry is a good example: if you look at these conflicts, every single company involved in these conflicts has won awards in CSR, have published sustainability reports, these companies tick all the boxes for good practice," he said.

"Then the question is why are people being killed on their mining sites? Something is obviously flawed."

(Reporting by Paola Totaro and Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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