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Mike Davis is the CEO of Global Witness, an international NGO working on climate advocacy.
The death of Mexican Indigenous activist Oscar Eyraud took place far away from the European Union. A vocal campaigner for his communityâ€™s right to increasingly scarce water in the arid Baja California Desert, Eyraud was shot dead on September 24 last year by unknown assailants in Tecate, south of Mexicoâ€™s border with the United States.
But like the more than 200 people who were killed while fighting to protect their land and the environment, Eyraudâ€™s killing is closer to Europe than many of us like to admit.
Global Witness has spent almost a decade recording attacks against land and environmental defenders like Eyraud. And over time, a cruel trend has emerged: As the climate crisis intensifies, so too does violence against activists. Our latest report shows that 2020 was the deadliest year for environmental defenders on record, with 227 campaigners killed while standing up against resource extraction and climate breakdown.
This violence disproportionately impacts communities in the Global South, especially Indigenous peoples. As detailed in our report, all but one of the killings last year took place in Global South nations, and one third of those killed were Indigenous, despite these communities making up just 5 percent of the world population.
Our data also shows that many of the deaths â€” our evidence suggests at least one third â€” were linked to industrial activity, with logging and mining being the most implicated sectors. These industries provide vital goods to the EUâ€™s single market.
Take Eyraudâ€™s case. Mexico is in the grip of its worst drought in three decades, and much of Baja California faces long-term drought conditions. Water resources in the region have come under intense pressure, causing tension between the Indigenous Kumiai, who have lived in the region for generations, and authorities, who have denied them access to the traditional water sources with which they farm crops.
At the same time, the beer company Heineken has been handed the rights to nearly 2 million cubic meters of water annually for its Tecate brewery since 2010. Even as the Kumiai suffered extreme drought and tensions heightened, in 2018, the company announced that it would expand the capacity of its plant by 25 percent.Â
Thereâ€™s no reason to believe that Heineken was in anyway involved in Eyraudâ€™s killing, and the company has established sustainability projects in the area in order to replenish water supplies. But thereâ€™s no denying that its activities contributed to water scarcity among the Kumiai and the surrounding communities. And it shouldnâ€™t be a surprise that when such intense pressure is put on essential resources for so long, violence can ensue.
For too long, big companies have been free to use resources that vulnerable communities rely on. Thatâ€™s because for decades, the notion of corporate responsibility has been a voluntary one. Governments passed piecemeal legislation on specific supply chains or encouraged companies to conduct due diligence, but they failed to enforce them. That approach contributed not only to the climate crisis but also to many fatal human rights abuses.
Last year, the European Commission took a first step toward rebalancing these power dynamics between major corporations, people and the planet by committing to new sustainable corporate accountability legislation.
Under these new rules, for the first time, businesses would be required to evaluate their global footprints by doing due diligence throughout their entire value chain. Groups have been campaigning to ensure the legislation finds companies that cause environmental harm liable, so that they can be held accountable in European courts.
If introduced, this legislation and its crucial liability provisions could prove a turning point in the climate crisis and, by reducing pressure on local resources, have a materially positive impact on the security of environmental defenders like Eyraud.
In March, momentum seemed to be gathering as the European Parliament voted its overwhelming support for strong, sustainable corporate accountability legislation. Yet in May, the publication of the proposed legislation was delayed after concerted lobbying efforts by European industry groups like BusinessEurope. Worse still, the Commission appointed the historically pro-business Directorate General for Internal Markets, led by European Commissioner Thierry Breton, to play a key role on the file.
These developments strongly suggest that the Commission is preparing to water down its proposals. However, the battle is not yet over. There is still time to ensure that the legislation covers at-risk companies across all sectors, holds them liable for their impact on the environment and ensures the EU will play a leading role in upholding human rights and turning the tide on the climate crisis.
All eyes are now on the Commission and other jurisdictions that have the power to legislate for change. If executed properly, these new rules could prevent the pressure that leads to attacks against defenders like Eyraud from being carried out in the first place. Without it, the violence will continue.