This morning I woke up to the sad news that Emmanuel de Merode, Chief Warden for Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in hospital in a stable, but serious condition after being shot in an ambush whilst travelling from Goma to Rumungabo (where national park headquarters are based). Our thoughts go out to him and his family.
This is the latest in a long line of attacks on rangers working to protect Virunga National Park and its amazing biodiversity, including the Critically Endangered Mountain gorillas. In August last year, we heard Ranger Kasereka Kipako had been killed in an ambush of his patrol post. This came just a month after two rangers were killed and seven others wounded whilst travelling from Goma to Rumungabo. More than 140 park rangers have been killed in Virunga in the last decade. Rangers are often caught in the crossfire of ongoing conflict in the region. They are also targeted directly as they present a threat to the income of militia groups, who are responsible for much of the illegal charcoal production inside the park. Virunga National Park has set up a fund to support the families of rangers killed in the line of duty. Rangers have also been targeted by the state; we reported last year that Ranger Rodrigue Katembo Mugaruka was arrested and imprisoned in Kinshasa for trying to protect the park from British company, Soco International, carrying out oil exploration.
Having conducted my PhD research in the Virunga region, I feel a personal connection to the conservationists there and was keen to report on this news. However, unfortunately these cases are not standalone. At a recent meeting in Geneva, hosted by Universal Rights Group, I heard testimonies from dozens of African and European Environmental Human Rights Defenders (EHRDs) who face harassment, intimidation and even death threats for trying to protect their environment and communities from the destructive activities of unscrupulous extractive companies. Yesterday, Global Witness released a report: Deadly Environment: The Dramatic Rise in Killings of Environmental Land Defenders. The report revealed some shocking statistics:
- At least 908 people were killed in 35 countries protecting rights to land and the environment between 2002 and 2013, with the death rate rising in the last four years to an average of two activists a week.
- 2012 was the worst year so far to be an environmental defender, with 147 killings – nearly three times more than in 2002.
- Impunity for these crimes is rife: only 10 perpetrators are known to have been convicted between 2002 and 2013 – just over one per cent of the overall incidence of killings.
- The problem is particularly acute in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Brazil is the most dangerous place to defend rights to land and the environment, with 448 killings, followed by Honduras (109) and the Philippines (67).
Through supporting our partners on the ground, we have seen just how important EHRDs are for safeguarding the future of the planet. Yet threats towards them appear to be increasing. We are talking with partners and other organisations to try to understand how we can provide better protection for EHRDs and help to reduce these threats.