Young climate activists urge leaders to act on environmental defender murders

Young climate activists urge leaders to act on environmental defender murders
Exclusive: Activists urge Alok Sharma and Antonio Guterres to do more after a prominent environmentalist is shot dead in Kenya

Young climate activists from across the world are calling on leaders to urgently act on the killing and harassment of environmental defenders.

A record 212 environmental activists were murdered in 2019 – with preliminary analysis suggesting the situation has worsened since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last month, a prominent environmental activist was shot dead in Kenya after campaigning against the development of a forest. No arrests have been made.

The group, led by Kenyan environmentalist and climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti, says UN chief Antonio Guterres and UK minister Alok Sharma, who is president-designate of the Cop26 climate conference, must use all the tools at their disposal to protect environmentalists from harm.

“Environmental defenders are in greater danger than ever,” the group said in an open letter shared with The Independent.

“We are being killed, threatened, harassed, criminalised and silenced for peacefully protecting the basis of life that all of us depend on.”

“As young activists from around the globe, we come armed with nothing more than courage. Many of us feel unsafe in our own countries due to killings like Joannah’s.”

Joannah Stutchbury, 67, was killed in July as she returned to her home on the outskirts of Nairobi. She had vocally opposed plans to build in the country’s Kiambu forest and had reportedly received death threats in the past.

Joannah Stutchbury, 67, was killed in Kenya in July after campaigning to stop the development of a forest

Ms Wathuti told The Independent: “As a young activist from Kenya, seeing what happened to Joannah in my country, it hurt me to the core.

“Nobody deserves to be murdered for standing up for nature. If anything, we need to be protected.”

The letter urges both Mr Guterres and Mr Sharma “to condemn the killing and harassment of land and environmental defenders in the strongest possible terms” and “to call for countries to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice”.

It adds that Mr Sharma should use “the significant diplomatic resources at his disposal” to work with government leaders to strengthen protections for environmental defenders.

The letter also asks Mr Guterres to push the UN to do more, including by supporting the global implementation of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

“We must defend the defenders,” the letter continues. “There is little hope for our species if we allow the killing of the very people who stand up to protect us.”

“We’re trying to seek justice, whatever it takes,” Ms Wathuti added.

“We want everyone to recognise that this is not just something that is happening in Kenya, this is something that is affecting people globally.”

The letter is signed by Vanessa Nakate in Uganda, Ridhima Pandey in India, Ayakha Melithafa in South Africa, Litokne Kabua in the Marshall Islands, Olumide Idowu in Nigeria, Laura Verónica Muñoz in Colombia and Xiye Bastida, an indigenous Mexican-Chilean activist based in New York.

A Cop26 spokesperson said: “No one should face violence or harassment for peacefully standing up for our planet.

“Cop26 will ensure the voices of all are heard in the fight against climate change, which is why the Cop26 president-designate has prioritised meeting people on the front line of climate change.”

The Independent also approached a representative of the UN secretary-general for comment.

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