Human rights impacts
of deforestation

Alongside major environmental and climate impacts, aggressive large-scale deforestation is causing multiple and severe human rights violations with devastating impacts on forest peoples [Figure 1]. Community resistance to land grabs and forest clearing frequently results in violence being used against them, including: forced evictions, police harassment, intimidation, death threats and violent attacks, arbitrary arrest, and retaliatory litigation and criminalisation of community leaders, human rights defenders and activists. Community leaders also suffer intimidation and public smear campaigns in the media, while lawyers, local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and journalists who seek to denounce violations and crimes against land defenders are subject to legal persecution and lawsuits by companies (often for libel or slander).

Loggers are cutting down our medicinal plants. Our diet has been disrupted… When we protect against the invasion of our forests, the police come and arrest us and threaten us.

Baka community member, Bikoro province, DRC, 2015

Community leaders and activists harmed defending their forests:

In 2016, more than 1,000 people in 25 countries were murdered, harassed, imprisoned or intimidated while fighting for their communities’ rights: [Figure 2]. Of 281 recorded deaths, half were defending their land and homes.47 According to Global Witness’ Defenders of the Earth report, nearly 40% of the defenders of human rights who died were indigenous peoples defending their rights to their land and the environment. Worldwide the total number of victims is probably much higher as reliable information on crimes against human rights defenders is not available for many countries, such as Paraguay, Guyana and Liberia. The shocking figures that are available are likely to be underestimates. In the Colombian case, the public ombudsman reported more than 100 killings of human rights defenders in 2016 and a further 52 deaths in the first six months of 2017.48 On top of killings, violent land conflicts in deforestation zones are linked to attacks on forest communities. In Indonesia, for example, human rights and land defenders suffer assaults causing physical harm and psychological trauma.49

Vocal leaders who challenge illegal logging, monocultures, mines, dams or road projects are the subject of extrajudicial killings or murder by henchmen, gangsters and goons working for farming and plantation interests or narco-agricultural cartels.51 Local journalists who seek to expose illegal deforestation, rights abuses and links to organised crime receive death threats to their families, leading to a ‘conspiracy of silence’ in local and national media (e.g. in Paraguay).

Fact check

  • Logging and mining interests in DRC are linked to criminal networks and paramilitaries responsible for disappearances, kidnappings mass killings, torture and rape of indigenous forest communities.52
  • Many countries have no effective frameworks for protecting human rights defenders (e.g. Paraguay, Cameroon, DRC).
  • Countries with protection systems for human rights defenders often lack adequate resources (e.g. National Protection Unit, Colombia).
  • Afro-descendant, peasant and indigenous land defenders challenging deforestation and land grabs by agribusiness in the Chocó region of Colombia are victims of murder, forced disappearances and forced displacement.53
  • As well as gross environmental damage, ‘legal’ and illegal miners in Guyana are accused of brutal sexual assaults on women and girls, sometimes leading to death (e.g. in mining fields around Baramita Village, Region 1).
  • Between 2012 and 2015 violence linked to Indonesian land conflicts included three deaths, 35 cases of serious physical violence, 20 cases of criminalisation, six cases of forced prohibitions on association, and 14 cases involving threats of violence toward property, individuals or families.
  • Dayak forest defenders on the Upper Mahakam in Kalimantan, Indonesia have suffered months of imprisonment for challenging loggers on their lands (2016).
  • Community leaders in Paraguay are subjected to legal actions and criminal prosecutions made by companies that have expropriated community land.54
  • In Indonesia as many as 10% of land conflicts are related to violation of sacred sites by industrial plantation companies and loggers.55

Mario Castaño Bravo, land rights activist and leader of Madre Unión Community and La Large Tumaradó Community Council (Colombia), was murdered in front of his family despite being under the guard of the National Protection Unit (UNP)… Hernán Bedoya, a land defender and leader of the community of Bijao Onofre, was murdered soon after - on 8 December 2017. Both … peacefully challenged powerful oil palm, cattle ranching and banana plantation companies and denounced them for grabbing lands from displaced peasant farmers. As a consequence, they received multiple death threats and despite state protection, both are now dead.56

In Indonesia, community members are often criminalised for resisting imposed agribusiness concessions and agrarian conflicts are increasing…

Sabah Resolution on Agribusiness and Human Rights, 2016

I do not remember the date I was arrested…I heard a lot of boats coming then I saw them, a whole swat team fully kitted out. I stood up and they had already surrounded me and my wife. It was like they were arresting a terrorist

Land and forest defender, Dayak Bahau Community of Long Isun, Indonesia

Violation of land rights, FPIC and the right to
access information:

Customary land rights and community rights to meaningful and effective participation, access to information and free, prior and informed consent are routinely violated by State authorities responsible for zoning forests, declaring conservation areas, and allocating land to companies and investors [Figure 1].

If information is provided to communities by land and forest agencies, it is often late, incomplete, biased or even false. Communities are pressured or tricked into renting or leasing their lands or surrendering their rights entirely (see section C). A case in point is the Minangkabau people of Nagari Kapa in Pasaman Barat, Indonesia, who suffered such violations when their lands were taken and rights extinguished by a subsidiary company of Wilmar International with the connivance of the National Land Bureau (BPN) without their full knowledge and agreement.59

Fact check

  • Indigenous peoples such as the Penan in Sarawak, Malaysia, are pressured by state authorities to accept large infrastructure projects – against their will.60
  • In Liberia, FPIC is contained in 2009 Community Rights Law, but it is not implemented.
  • In DRC a new FPIC Decree applies to REDD+, but not to other land use and development decisions.
  • In Guyana and Peru, FPIC only applies to titled indigenous lands, so untitled customary community forests are vulnerable to expropriation and sale or lease to third parties.
  • Positive rulings on FPIC by the Constitutional Court in Colombia are not implemented by state agencies.

Severe livelihood and cultural impacts:

The theft and takeover of community lands linked to the expansion of agro-industries and monocultures is transforming entire landscapes and eliminating vital resources on which forest communities depend for food, medicine and materials. Encroachment on forest peoples’ customary lands, land expropriation and the destruction of their food and water security, diminished livelihood security, increasing landlessness and marginalisation often result in their impoverishment, malnutrition and ill-health. Women in particular are adversely affected by loss of forest resources and expropriation/privatisation of land and water sources by plantation companies and agribusiness. Land use change is also responsible for the desecration of sacred sites and erosion of traditional knowledge and local ways of life.

Fact check

  • Forest fires in Indonesia in 2015 resulted in 24 deaths and more than 120,000 people seeking medical help because of the haze and smoke (Indonesian Health Ministry).

  • Isolated peoples and gatherer-hunters are vulnerable to western diseases: Half of the Nahua people in the Peruvian Amazon died after contact with extractive industry workers.61

  • Pesticides and fertilisers used for oil palm and soybean monocultures contaminate water supplies and watercourses.62

Our lands are now like small islands of forest surrounded by deforested land. The soybean farmers spray pesticides from aircraft. The poison damages our crops. We sometimes suffer hunger. It pains us to see our land and water sources inside the private properties of Brazilians. These places are sacred to us…Our forests are being destroyed and our waters are being polluted.

Indigenous woman leader, Organización Pai Reko Pave, Paraguay

Illegal Brazilian miners are now pushing roads towards Blue Mountain, which is sacred to the Wapichan people. Our spiritually sensitive sites and forests used for gathering medicines and materials are being violated, important trees are being cut down and our water supplies and rivers are being polluted. This is hurtful to us.

Wapichan community forest monitor, Guyana

Oil palm, pulp and paper plantations are creating health and environmental crises for our communities. Children are sick from the forest fires. Deforestation and land drainage are making water scarce and there are food shortages. People are being pushed off the land, which is becoming concentrated in the hands of large companies. Inequality is growing. Selfsufficiency is being lost. People are being forced into exploitative work for the companies

Indigenous leader and representative of Pusaka, Indonesia

Due to industrial logging…we no longer have enough resources. The honey, mushrooms and game animals have disappeared. There are fewer large trees. We have problems getting water during the dry season.

Village resident, Mambasa Province, DRC

Fact check

  • Forest areas with livelihood resources and sacred sites important to the Wapichan and Atorad peoples in the Karawaimintao mountain range in SW Guyana are threatened by illegal road building and mining.63