05 Mar 2018 Story Environmental rights and governance

Environmental Defenders at UNEA 3

According to the latest data from Global Witness, at least 4 environmental defenders are killed every week

On the 4th of December 2017 at the third UN Environment Assembly, UN Environment held a media talk to discuss the escalating threats facing environmental defenders today. The panel included Phyllis Omido, Co-Founder and Executive Director at the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action, who fought to close a lead smelting plant that poisoned her community in Mombasa, Kenya; Julius Opiyo, a miner campaigning for better environmental protections his artisanal and small-scale gold mining community in Migori, Kenya; and Joan Carling, an indigenous activist from the Philippines and former Secretary-General of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP). Professor John Knox, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Irene Akinyi Odinga, a victim of lead poisoning, and Dr. Joe Digangi from IPEN also participated.

The panellists agreed that estimations of the murders of defenders is likely underestimated. To underscore this point, members of civil society organizations in the Philippines reported that three defenders had been killed that week in their country alone. Those who kill, largely do so without fear of prosecution. Global Witness reporting that of the few cases that were opened over a 12 year period, under 1 percent had convictions. John Knox added, that for every defender killed, there are 20 to 100 others harassed, unlawfully and lawfully arrested, and sued for defamation. The panellists called on the media to give more coverage to not just the murder of environmental defenders, but also to the wider issues of harassment, intimidation and the violation of environmental and human rights.

The Defenders

Julius Opiyo lost a cousin to mercury poisoning in 1991, and a five year old boy died just two weeks before the environment assembly due to cyanide poisoning - a product used in ASGM. Lack of environmental protections have created a culture of impunity in his mining community. Joan Carling described how her colleagues have been killed and how she has faced serious threats in her work protesting against mines and dams that threaten the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities in the Philippines.

Due to lack of economic opportunities, some communities find themselves engaged in unsustainable economic activities, and many lack information about the health impacts of their livelihoods. Despite this, these same communities are often held solely accountable for the environmental degradations, letting businesses and government off the hook. In many instances, the economic activities of these communities are either classified as illegal, hindering the activities of environmental defenders and stifling community space for dialogue on environmental rights issues.

Other challenges facing environmental defenders include weak legislation, lack of enforcement, and intimidation of the press. Dr. Joe Digangi of IPEN described the findings a new IPEN study of women workers at two large Samsung factories in Vietnam. The study revealed higher than average incidents of miscarriage, as well as fainting and dizziness reportedly experienced by all female workers. “The response of the company to these reports was actually to launch a smear campaign against our colleagues in Vietnam and also against IPEN,” said Dr. Digangi. The company threatened a lawsuit and to fire anyone from the factory who spoke to the media.


Numerous panelists described how corruption enables businesses and governments to collude in degrading environments and damaging communities without fear of consequence. Phyllis Omido said, “If we are serious about dealing with our environment, we must deal with corruption.” Phyllis’ community were denied justice when the report produced by the Kenyan Senate, documenting the lead poisoning inflicted upon the Owino-Uhuru community by a battery recycling factory, substituted the name of the factory and its directors with false names. Phyllis and her community continue to pursue justice for the 28 community members who have thus far died from lead poisoning, and for those who cannot afford medical treatment.

Irene Odinga has 420 micrograms per decilitre of lead in her blood - over 250 times the safe level. She needs chelation therapy to treat her life-threatening condition, but Kenyan hospitals do not provide this service. The cost of remediating Owino-Uhuru, which has been declared a toxic site, has been estimated at US$38,800,000. Additionally, 90 percent of those tested within the 3000 strong community have tested positive for lead.

To address the violation of environmental rights, many communities vulnerable to rights violations need more information on the impacts of certain activities on their health and their environments. Laws must be enforced and human rights obligations fulfilled. Communities also require space and protection to engage in decision making concerning economic activities that affect their resources, livelihoods and health.