Men and women protecting land, water and livelihoods around the world are being killed for standing up in defence of life, writes YLNM Regional Coordinator Hannibal Rhoades in this opinion piece. They are, ultimately, victims of a development paradigm that justifies ecological destruction and neo-colonial exploitation.
Originally published by Eco-Instigator. November 2016.
Berta Caceres and Nelson Garcia of Honduras; Tendy Salamat, Nestor Lubas and Teresita Navacilla of the Philippines; Sikosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Radebe of South Africa; Walter Méndez Barrios of Guatemala…
Each one of these brave individuals stood opposed to powerful, extractive economic and political forces seeking to exploit their lands and waters by digging mines, building dams and razing forests to plant palm oil.
Each of them was also murdered this year, forming part of a global pattern of violence in which the individuals and communities standing on the front lines of the struggle to protect our planet are cut down.
According to advocacy group Global Witness, on average three Earth Defenders were killed every week in 2015. And between 2002-2013 the perpetrators of similar killings were brought to justice in less than 1% of cases.
The shocking rate of these murders- committed by state and non-state actors- and the impunity with which they continue to happen, indicates that they have their roots in complex webs of vested interests.
These interests include the mining, oil palm or dam building companies who employ divide and conquer tactics to split communities; the local elites and governments that turn a blind eye to or actively participate in oppression in return for a cut of the profits and (geo)political gains; the banks and aid agencies who give or invest money into destructive projects and more.
As players in a system that maintains itself through ecological violence, economic growth and military might, these groups often benefit, directly and indirectly, from the murder of activists who stand in the way of financial or political ambitions that hinge on access to land, water, minerals, metals and fossil fuels.
These same groups also play a diffuse and often invisible role in shielding the perpetrators of activist killings, because, by the logic of this system, an activist is an obstacle to be overcome, by hook or by crook.
This system of violence that lies tangled behind activist killings goes by many names. Neoliberal capitalism and the military industrial complex are two of the better known ones, each suggesting their own critiques. But perhaps the most troubling term applied to this system, its products and its trajectory by those seeking to justify it is ‘development’.
Destruction Dressed as Development
“They told us we are poor and said that they would bring jobs, money and development to our community.”
This statement will be familiar to anyone who belongs to or has walked alongside communities who have encountered large destructive projects, such as opencast mines.
This is because the extractive industries and their supporters today frame their activities as developmental projects. They claim that bringing their activities to a region will ‘add value’ to local communities, as well as boosting GDP and delivering nationwide development benefits for all.
There is ample evidence that such projects rarely deliver anything like the supposedly sustainable benefits they promise, especially if all the damage they cause is accounted for. They are the archetypal wolf in sheep’s clothing.
But despite the facts, many of the world’s governments have bought into an extractive vision of development. This allows them to spin a status quo of ecological destruction, displacement and often growing inequality as part of a beneficial social quest, pulling the wool over their own eyes in the process.
With this development spin in place, it is all too easy for Governments to frame those communities and individuals who oppose destructive projects as ‘anti-development’ extremists and turn public opinion against them.
But far from being ‘anti-development’ these communities and individuals are keeping the door open to a more socially just, ecologically sane future.
Our dominant system of development, whether or not you put the word sustainable in front of it, is predicated on the achievement of linear material and economic growth through extractivism- the intensive destruction and appropriation of nature and its sale on global markets to create economic growth and feed industrialisation.
Though it may be capable of sustaining economic growth for a time, extractivism is incapable of delivering sustainable, equitable, culturally and ecologically sensitive development.
In fact, our current extractivist developmental pathway is doomed to failure because it operates according to inherently anthropocentric un-truths that refuse to abide by ecological limits.
We live on a planet of finite resources, so the idea of basing our present and future development on resource extraction and increased consumption for all- the current trend- is inherently unsustainable.
As the economist E.F. Schumacher astutely observed several decades ago:
“Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either mad or an economist.”
We are in deep denial about this truism. Global North nations continue to neo-colonially exploit other nations in the South and consume far more than their fair share of resources at vastly unsustainable rates. Meanwhile, Global South nations and so-called emerging economies are putting in place grand development plans based on extraction and industrialisation, continuing to benchmark against ‘the West’. The African Mining Vision and the huge industrial development corridors in development worldwide are just a few examples.
The reality is that our planet simply cannot sustain this kind of ‘development’. If everyone consumed the same amount as the average American citizen, we would need 3-5 planet Earth’s to sustain us. Every year we overshoot the limits of what Earth can sustain earlier than the last.
Our current development model sacrifices the tomorrows of countless future generations for our todays. What benefits it does deliver are largely captured by existing elites.
A Radical Realignment
At a deep level, our current dominant system of development and progress is based on a belief that humanity can transcend earthly limits through science and technology; that we are destined to become boundless.
This diseased belief, rooted in Western Judaeo-Christian salvation myths onto which later scientific paradigms have been transposed, tacitly justifies the ecological exploitation and deep social injustices that characterise ‘development’ today as regrettable but inevitable costs on the path to humanity’s emancipation.
Too many of the self-proclaimed agents of ‘development’, divorced from the reality of life at the sharp edge of environmental and social upheaval and blinded by privilege, remain committed to the belief that, one day- through our extraction, our industrialisation, our technological and material advancement- we will attain a utopia in which everyone can live well and satisfy all their wants and desires.
When we understand this it becomes clear that struggles between communities, states and the extractive industries are about more than land and water- they are battles between two different notions of what it means to be human.
Using both their bodies and their voices, the brave individuals standing up to destructive development are mounting a radical critique of the world’s dominant developmental cosmology.
Their alternatives- Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay, Ubuntu- call on us to accept our place on Earth and live well within her limits rather than straining against them for an impossible release. To recognise that human well-being- surely the end of any so-called development- can only be achieved by supporting the well-being of and achieving justice for the whole Earth community.
Stopping the killings of Earth’s defenders and diverting our path away from multi-dimensional disaster requires nothing less than systemic change to equitably realign our societies and dreams of development with ecological realities.
This change gains power and momentum when we sit with, listen to, learn from and stand in solidarity with those individuals and communities who have not forgotten how to live in balance with their places; the same individuals and communities too-often silenced by the weapons of ‘progress’.