Campaigners call for more protection to stop killings over land

Rina Chandran, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Mar 27 2018 01:07 AM

BANGKOK - Governments in Asia are not doing enough to stop conflicts over land and resources getting increasingly bloody, according to activists who are calling for a regional pact to protect people from violence in land disputes.

Violent confrontations, from Pakistan to the Philippines, have risen sharply in recent years amidst crackdowns on rural communities, making up a significant share of the nearly 200 people killed over land globally last year.

Campaigners are pushing for a regional treaty similar to one agreed earlier this month by 24 Latin American countries and Caribbean states to protect activists from threats or attack, and investigate and punish attackers.

"There is a reduction of civil society space, an increased crackdown on (environmental) defenders, as well as a strengthening of legislation favoring businesses," said Jiten Yumnam of the Center for Research and Advocacy in India.

"Armed forces and the military are also being given special powers to free up land for business," he said at a forum for environment campaigners in Bangkok on the weekend.

Activists say communities around the world are struggling against governments, companies and criminal gangs that exploit resources including timber, minerals and palm oil.

In Indonesia, the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations has led to nearly 800 conflicts since 2015 with 10 people killed, said campaigner Magrina Rahayu, and the toll seen rising as plantations expand further.

In the Philippines, the government is under fire for filing a court petition seeking the declaration of more than 600 people, including activists and a United Nations special rapporteur, as "terrorists".

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, has denied this and said she feared for her safety and that of other activists.

"National policies are weakening the civil and political rights of the people," said Clemente Bautista at rights group Kalikasan, pointing to the extension of martial law in resource-rich Mindanao where thousands have been forced from their homes.

A United Nations official said a legally binding treaty to protect campaigners in the Asia Pacific region would be "challenging" because of the differences in culture, politics, legal systems and development.

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights - comprising officials from the 10 southeast Asian nations - has endorsed such a pact, but talks are at an early stage, said Andrew Raine, a regional coordinator at UN Environment.

"Unless countries have robust environmental and social safeguards, we are going to see some very bad outcomes," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.