Environmentalists are victors, not victims

Environment
Climate
Cambodia
Activism

In Pará, Brazil, environmental and land defenders are being murdered faster than anywhere on earth. So far in 2017, the northern Brazilian state in the arc of deforestation has seen a massacre of 10 people killed at the hands of civil and military police, and eight other murders.

Two weeks ago, an elderly couple were murdered in their home following a land dispute. Maria, the wife, had fallen in the doorway where she was shot, still clasping the padlock. The brutality is sickening.

Last year, 2016, was the deadliest in history for environmental activism, with over two hundred deaths, and according to the Guardian, environmental defenders are being killed in record numbers in 2017.

Five and a half years ago in Cambodia, I was standing next to Chut Wutty, the rainforest activist, trying to film – my hands shaking too much to press the right buttons – as he was grabbed around the neck, and thrown to the ground at gunpoint. Seconds later he was rescued as the community members rushed forward, armed only with sticks, and pulled him out of the hands of the military police. Five months later, Wutty was shot through the door of his car at an illegal logging site, after military personnel blocked the road, turned off the car engine as he tried to leave, turned it off again.

One officer sneered at Wutty’s activism, admonishing his questions about the piles of luxury timber: ‘We’re all slaves here.’ Wutty replied – ‘I am a slave to who?’

Environmentalists Chut Wutty and the Prey Lang Network
Environmentalists Chut Wutty and the Prey Lang Network. ©Last Line Productions / Vanessa de Smet

Dying but winning

You might feel that the murders of environmental defenders is a sure sign that we are losing. But that is a misunderstanding. For that, they aren’t killing us fast enough.

The vision of the murderer claiming his identity, his lack of agency, as a slave – a slave of the system, under orders, a cog in the brutal machine of neoliberal capitalism – depicts the myth we have all been sold.

To destroy, the killers shoot, believing people live and die as individuals. But they fail. These acts of resistance offer another vision – an understanding our actions resonate beyond ourselves.

Three weeks ago, following the Forest Defenders Conference in Oxford, 14 activists and environmentalists gathered on a windy afternoon, under a nut tree surrounded by long grass, to remember friends and family, defenders who we lost. Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of murdered Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, and Claudelice dos Santos from Pará, sister of murdered Brazilian conservationist and environmentalist José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, had their arms around each other, singing quietly. Turkish environmentalist Selen Çatalyürekli was writing the names of defenders murdered in her homeland. Two activists from West Africa lit a candle, sheltering it from the wind.

José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, one of the many environmentalists who died in recent years
José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva. ©Felipe Milanez

We each spoke. Laura told us her mother gave life – how she had saved her daughters from danger, how she gave people hope, her joy was overwhelming.

In the aftermath of Berta’s murder, the streets were filled with people chanting the resounding message, ‘Berta vive!’, ‘Berta no murió, se multiplico’ – Berta lives! Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.

‘I know there’s a risk. I have no doubt of that. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid’ – Maria do Espírito Santo

Claudelice told us that the killers of her brother, José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and sister in law, Maria do Expírito Santo, are still at large. That one of the judges ruled José Claudio and Maria were responsible for their own deaths. She lives with the murderers still seeking to steal their land.

I spoke about Chut Wutty – after he was attacked I asked why he kept going. He said, ‘If I don’t do this, no one will. People are too afraid.’ I said – it was true, but it was also not true: that courage is rare, but many people have it.

I was sitting next to San Mala and Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, founders of Mother Nature Cambodia. Mala spent over ten months in jail in 2015-16, cramped in a cell with up to 20 other prisoners. He was jailed on trumped up charges because he took direct action to challenge the destructive sand-dredging undermining Cambodia’s mangrove forests – the spawning ground for fish and crabs, the source of livelihood for the communities living in the estuaries.

When he was released from jail last summer, Mala went straight back to being an activist, undaunted by the court’s verdict: a criminal conviction, a suspended sentence and the order to pay $25,000 to the very company that he had fought to stop. Mala spoke about the situation in his country – the iron grip of the ruling party.

Inspiring, multiplying

I remembered how Wutty had felt that he was alone – that he couldn’t give up, even knowing that he could be killed. In the aftermath of his murder in 2012, the fear was paralysing. But courage is just as infectious, and it began to spread.

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson said, ‘It was Chut Wutty’s story that made me decide to become an environmental activist.’ In 2013-2014, Alex led and won the campaign to save Areng Valley from a hydropower dam – a place not far from where Wutty was shot. The valley is cloaked with pristine forest, home to indigenous communities, rare Siamese crocodiles, clear rivers, birds, wild cats and dragon fish – that are all alive and well because of that campaign. And it struck me again – what we gained.

It is not just words, when we say you live, you did not die, you multiplied.

‘When we think of those who died, we should think of ourselves too,’ said one of the activists. ‘Because one day we could meet the same fate.’ A few years ago he fled his country due to death threats from loggers. I could see the determination in his face, an intimacy with fear.

‘When we think of those who died, we should think of ourselves too. Because one day we could meet the same fate’

During the conference he made it clear that there has been no help. The emergency funding he applied for never arrived, and was awarded too late. The UN gave no support, although they had taken the critical information he collected on the timber trade.

The investigation agencies that have employed him offer no financial security and limited training. In some cases, NGO staff are given Hostile Environment and First Aid Training – and then spend the majority of their time in an office writing up information collected at great risk by grassroots activists and investigators – who have had no such support.

These deaths run to the heart of the inequality in the environmental movement, in ‘development’, in global economics, in our minds.

We cannot fight for the environment without also reaching for each other.

Living with danger

This week, following the brutal violence in Pará, Claudelice wrote ‘We all have a responsibility to stay alive in the fight, and hopefully we will. Unfortunately it seems that everything conspires against us; it is the conditions that we do not have, personal and safety equipment is expensive.’

Even without sufficient support, even without being paid, sacrificing a career and the chance to live a comfortable life, sometimes damaging their personal relationships to work away from home or under great stress, even knowing that they could be killed – environmentalists are still choosing to continue.

In Pará, Claudelice’s brother, José Claudio said in 2010, ‘I live off the forest. I protect it in every way I can. Because of that I live expecting a bullet in my head at any time. I am here talking to you today, but in a month you may get news that I am gone.’

Maria do Espírito Santo, environmentalist and José Claudio’s wife, said, ‘I know there’s a risk. I have no doubt of that. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid.

‘There are people saying it’s not worth it. To me it is worth it.’

I imagine, and at moments I have tasted, what it is to know that sick fear, that realistic fear – that is not imagination or wild surmise, but experience – and still to keep going. To choose, as Chut Wutty, and Maria do Espírito Santo, and Berta Cáceres and José Claudio da Silva and as hundreds of others do – to stay, to continue, to speak, even in the face of that fear. To say it is worth it.

On 12 July, the sand exports that Mala and Alex campaigned to stop was officially banned by the Cambodian government. The mangroves standing on the firm sand are sheltering tiny crabs and fish and spawn. If we speak only of Chut Wutty’s death, of Mala’s incarceration, we will misunderstand what is happening. They are victors, not victims.

 a view of the Lovers' Island, Mangrove Festival
A win of environmentalists': an aerial view of Mangrove Festival – Lovers' Island. ©Mother Nature Cambodia

We are winning important battles in a war that is yet to be turned around. We are haemorrhaging species, the forests are disappearing faster than we can learn their secrets, faster than children learn the names of the trees.

But Areng Valley lives. The mangroves live. The Río Blanco that Berta died defending, lives. The great tree, ‘Majesty’, that José Claudio loved, lives, in a forest that is still vast. Because we are winning. That is why they kill us. That is why we will not be silenced.

Fran Lambrick is co-founder of Not1More (N1M), a network campaigning against the ongoing murders of environmental defenders. In June 2017, N1M held the first international Forest Defenders Conference dedicated to establishing strategies to meet frontline defenders' security needs. Fran directed the documentary film I Am Chut Wutty, about the life and work of the Cambodian forest activist.  

Top image: Chut Wutty attacked in Prey Lang, Cambodia. ©​ Last Line Productions/Allan Michaud