NEXT week – specifically on August 9 – the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People will be observed. It’s celebrated each year to “promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population and also recognises the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection”.
Well, you know what? Every year around the world, hundreds of environmental and indigenous rights activists are being killed for their work.
Just a couple of weeks ago Luis Dagua, a peasant leader in Caloto, Colombia was killed and his body dumped by the side of a road, another victim of violence.
Two years ago, I wrote about the murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres, a member of the indigenous Lenca group who campaigned against the Agua Zarca Dam that affected her people.
The history books are full of it. Remember Amazonian activist Chico Mendes or gorilla advocate Dian Fossey? Both were slain, as were countless others.
According to Global Witness, the murder of people defending their land or environment has reached epidemic proportions. The total for 2017 was 197, more than four times the amount when Global Witness began its research in 2002.
That means that four people a week were killed worldwide for their activism against environmental encroachment, poaching and mining.
Latin America has the highest statistics in the world, and guess which region is second? It’s South-East Asia!
Most of the deaths occurred in Philippines and Thailand. West Papua in Indonesia, is also believed to have a high number of similar deaths, but it is very poorly documented due to its enforced isolation and virtual colonisation.
But you know where else this could be happening?
Malaysia. Specifically, the great and beautiful state of Sarawak.
Sarawak is one of those places. Rich with natural resources, it is sparsely populated, with many indigenous groups living in remote locations. Sadly, that makes it ripe for exploitation.
Two of the most famous cases are still a mystery: Bruno Manser and Bill Kayong.
Swiss activist Manser came to Malaysia in the 1980s and became obsessed with the plight of the Penan, the nomadic tribes who live in Eastern Sarawak. They opposed the deforestation of their homeland and were mistreated as a result.
Manser, who lived with them for six years, became an articulate advocate of their struggle and helped call attention to it. For this, he was declared an enemy of the state in 1990 by then chief minister Tun Taib Mahmud.
Despite a restricted access, he continued his fight until May 2000 when he vanished near the Sarawak-Kalimantan border. He was declared legally dead five years later.
Land activist Kayong, a former PKR Miri secretary, was shot dead in a targeted killing at a traffic light in Kuala Baram on June 21, 2016.
Three men initially charged with abetting his murder have already been acquitted. The question remains as to why Bill Kayong was killed, if not for his activism in defending against the all-powerful timber lobby.
Factor in the suicide of whistleblower Ross Boyert in 2010 and it’s clear that for many years, something was rotten in the state of Sarawak. Nor is it the only state where indigenous and land rights activists wage a lonely war against the authority.
For the past two years in Kelantan, the Temiar people in Gua Musang have instituted land blockades to prevent what they feel is illegal deforestation. Time and time again, they have had their rights trampled on by an uncaring administration.
I tried to explain to my children, as we drove down a broad, comfortable road in an affluent suburb of Kuala Lumpur, why it is our duty to care about and highlight these injustices.
Such people are braver than I could ever imagine, to fight an unarmed battle in the jungles. To face the intimidation and harassment of bullies working for big corporations in collusion with local authorities.
Out there, there is no law. These are environmental frontiers, remote and harsh. Yet these activists take up the challenges without fear. Their cowardly killers, on the other hand, have everything on their side – money, guns, power.
It’s criminal. It’s shameful. And it’s our duty as journalists and citizens to speak up about it. To demand answers. To demand justice.
Week in, week out, people are being killed merely for helping to organise peaceful resistance to the exploitation of some of the world’s more remote locations.
They advocate on behalf of those who have little means or knowledge to confront the unscrupulous exploitation of their homes.
Are we going to let their life’s struggles be in vain?
News Editor Martin Vengadesan can’t imagine the sacrifices it takes to be a small activist against a mighty machine.
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