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COMMENT: Time for environmental criminal court

A Global Witness report documented 185 killings across 16 countries in the year 2015 alone

 By Phyllis Omido

 The announcement of the winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize is an opportunity to celebrate activist leaders. But it is also a moment to recognise just how much courage their efforts (and those of a great many others) can demand.

When my dear friend Berta Cáceres and I won the prize in 2015, Berta said in her acceptance speech, “I have given my life for the service of mother earth.” Not long after, Berta was assassinated in Honduras. Her story is tragic, but not unique. Indeed, just months later, Isidro Baldenegro López, another Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, was shot dead.

There has never been a more dangerous time to be an environmental activist. Consider the violence unleashed against the environmental defenders protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Police were accused of using excessive force to try to disperse members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters, who argued that the project would contaminate water and damage sacred burial sites.

Fortunately, no one was killed during those protests. But elsewhere, in more fragile democracies, environmental campaigners who stand up to polluters are paying with their lives. A Global Witness report documented 185 killings across 16 countries in 2015 alone. That is almost double the number of journalists killed that year.

My own experience highlights the dangers facing environmental crusaders. For eight years, my community in rural Kenya, Owino Uhuru, has been exposed to toxic lead poisoning caused by the operations of a state-licensed smelter. The World Health Organisation’s measure of lead poisoning is five micrograms per deciliter. The highest lead level recorded in Owino Uhuru was 420 micrograms per deciliter. In the highly publicised contamination case in Flint, Michigan, the readings were 35 micrograms per deciliter.

When my community found out that we were being poisoned, we fought back. We wrote letters to the government and organised peaceful protests. With the support of my community, I founded the Center for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) to hold the state and corporations accountable for ensuring a clean and healthy environment.

In February 2016, the CJGEA went to court against six state agencies and two corporate entities. Nothing happened. One year later, when we published public notices in local newspapers of our intention to sue the two corporations, all hell broke loose.

Despite the murders of Berta and Isidro and so many others, I did not fully recognise the danger of challenging a powerful government-backed operation. Soon, I received a chilling phone call warning me to watch over my son carefully. Environmental activists within the community were attacked, their houses surrounded by thugs wielding machetes. The son of a close ally was abducted – and, fortunately, later released – by unidentified men.

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