In an endangered world of dwindling resources, a line by Pogo, Walt Kelly’s popular newspaper-comic hero of the last century, is worth recalling: “When you starve with a tiger, the tiger starves last.”
It’s worth keeping this maxim top of mind as one reads the latest annual report from Global Witness, an independent organization that tracks the murders of people around the world who try to resist mining, farming, logging and other powerful industries that savage ecosystems and drive people off their land.
In 2018, 164 defenders of the land and environment were killed, with the Philippines of the brutal President Rodrigo Duterte taking over from Brazil as the deadliest place to resist rapacious developers and governments. That was less than the 201 killed in the previous year, but it was hardly an improvement.
Global Witness noted that the actual figure is probably far higher because reporting is iffy in the most vulnerable parts of the world. Governments and industries are also learning that there are other, nonlethal means of intimidating or eliminating activists who resist them. In addition to the violence of private security agents, state forces or contract killers, activists now also confront teams of aggressive lawyers.
Using, or misusing, laws and the courts, governments and industries intent on driving indigenous people or activists away criminalize resistance or proclaim them to be “terrorists,” choking off their funding and tying them up in costly legal battles. The U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, was among 600 people the government of her home country, the Philippines, labeled terrorists.
Human Rights Watch called the action “a virtual government hit list” and noted that state security forces and pro-government militias in the Philippines had a long history of murdering people labeled terrorists or communists.
Things are not looking much better for 2019. Although Brazil is no longer No. 1 in the number of people killed, the populist president installed in January, Jair Bolsonaro, has vowed to open previously protected indigenous lands to commercial development. The Times reported Sunday that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which plays a crucial role in absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and thus slowing global warming, has dramatically accelerated under Bolsonaro, in large part because of deliberately lax enforcement of laws and regulations. Bolsonaro simply dismisses his own government’s data on deforestation as lies.
“The Amazon is ours, not yours,” he told a foreign journalist.
Duterte and Bolsonaro were two of the new breed of populist leaders Global Witness identified as contributing to worsening the plight of those who defend the land, through their disdain for the environment and hostility to dissenters.
Predictably, President Donald Trump and his “energy dominance” agenda came in for their share of opprobrium.
In this summer of oppressive heat waves, yet more bad news — there seems to be no other kind — on the environmental front risks adding to a sense of helplessness before the greed and willful contempt of the world’s “tigers.”
Another nongovernmental organization, the Global Footprint Network, annually calculates the day on which humanity consumes more resources for the year than it can regenerate. This year “Earth Overshoot Day” was July 29. In 1993, it was Oct. 12; last year it was Aug. 1.
There are solutions, there are well-researched strategies, there are innumerable organizations and people anxious to rescue the Earth. Yet at every turn, they run up against destructive industries and callous politicians prepared to resort to any means to continue despoiling the planet.
“So far,” said the Global Witness report, “governments have largely failed to listen or react, while big businesses are generally holding to the model that created the problem in the first place.”
Pogo aced that reality, too, in a saying environmentalist like to quote: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
But the solution is also us, however dangerous or discouraging. There is no choice but to fight on for our planet and to hammer home to the tigers that in the end, they too will starve unless they join the rest of us in saving the island.