Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All | On Human Rights Day 2022 We Reflect on our Fallen Heroes

Bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries on environmental issues dating back to the 1800s. Previously, they focused primarily on the protection of fisheries and the conservation of flora and fauna. 

However, these agreements also needed to evolve with the evolution of technology, population growth, and the interconnectedness of people within their natural environment.  These agreements needed to include the protection of individual lives and communities vulnerable to the present environmental catastrophes.

On the 28th of July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly declared that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment. This landmark decision is the result of decades of mobilization of various players.

This Human Rights Day, we recount some of the tragic events that befell activists that fought a perilous fight for their environment and communities.

Ken Saro Wiwa

Nigerian environment and political activist Ken Saro Wiwa’s story is still a torch of light for environmental justice. As a martyr of his people, ‘the Ogoni’ of the Niger Delta, Ken Saro Wiwa fought against the oppressive regime of General Sani Obacha to protect his land that was exposed to petroleum waste dumping because it is an area picked out for crude oil extraction since the 1950s.

One of the critical highlights of Ken Saro Wiwa’s work was the non-violence strategy and what it achieved. He employed a non-violent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland, putting to play the media as an integral partner for change. He was executed along with his fellow activists in 1995. 

Today the fight still continues in the Niger Delta. Watch this 2008 documentary titled ‘Poison Fire’, which follows a team of local activists as they gather video testimonies from communities on the impacts of oil spills and gas flaring. Produced with the support of local member Environmental Action Network/FOEN. 

Link: https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/poison-fire/ 

You can also check out Break Free From Plastic’s toxic tour in Odimodi, Nigeria: https://toxictours.org/nigeria-odimodi/ 

Fikile Ntshangasa 

Fikile Ntshangase, 65, was involved in a legal dispute over the extension of an opencast mine operated by Tendele Coal near Somkhele, close to Hluhluwe–Imfolozi park, the oldest nature reserve in Africa. In 2020, she was gunned down by four men, in her home, in front of her 13-year-old nephew, and her killers still have not been arrested. She was killed while opposing the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine, owned by Petmin (Pty) Ltd, and probably because of her steadfast opposition to this expansion.

Read groundWork in South Africa’s special report on Fikile Ntshangase: https://old.groundwork.org.za/specialreports/Warnings_not_heeded-death_of_an_activist.pdf 

You can also check out this latest update from South African activists calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to protect human rights defenders: https://groundwork.org.za/fikile-ntshangase-justice-delayed-yet-more-denials/ 

Joanna Stutchbury

Joanna Stutchbury was a land and environmental rights defender (LED) who worked tirelessly to defend the Kiambu forest and protect and conserve Kenya’s natural resources. For many years she had spoken out against land-grabbers and well-known private developers who had excised part of the Kiambu Forest. Because of this work to protect the forest from encroachment, she received multiple death threats. She was fatally shot as she returned to her home on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya 2021.

Read more about Joanna in this statement from Frontline Defenders: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/statement-report/statement-killing-land-and-environment-defender-joanna-stutchbury 

The society we live in today places more emphasis on the profits of multinational corporations rather than respecting the livelihoods of local communities safeguarding their indigenous land and access to their natural resources. The continued threats to environmental defenders is a further indication of the power this capitalist system takes away from local people.  We must prioritise the health and well-being of our local people above everything else. If we live in a way that respects the environment, we live in a way where people will not be exploited.

Across the African continent, our activists are being imprisoned or receiving death threats for speaking out against injustice. We demand that environmental defenders in Africa and across the world be protected for protecting what’s theirs. 

We demand that we protect those, protecting the environment.