Human rights defenders call on Consumer Goods Forum companies to prevent violence and killings in their supply chains
Stronger action needed to protect communities in commodity supply chains and investments
Photo above: Harvested oil palm fruits are piled by the roadside in Montes de Maria, Colombia
“The agribusiness supply chain is one of the riskiest for human rights defenders and communities,” said Michel Forst, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, speaking at a Zero Tolerance Initiative event yesterday.
"The Consumer Goods Forum – as a key platform for retailers, producers of products from palm oil, soya among others – can play a key role in advancing the [human rights] debate and improve corporate practices related to human rights defenders and environmental rights defenders," said Forst.
According to Global Witness, the agribusiness sector has seen a 60% increase in killings of Human Rights Defenders in the last year, most of them indigenous peoples.
Forst urged the Consumer Goods Forum "to include the recommendations contained in the NGO letter in the commodity roadmaps and in the further consultations with stakeholders."
"We are running out of time,” he said. “Reports [of attacks] are implacable: the world is deadlier than ever for land and environmental rights defenders, for those who expose corporate abuse."
Land conflicts rife in Indonesia
Speaking at the same event, an indigenous community representative from Indonesia said “[In Indonesia] there is a failure of companies to obtain legal rights to acquire land but they go ahead and grab land, clear forest and plant/operate.”
“That is their modus operandi."
"We hope that the Consumer Goods Forum can try and identify which is a good company that operates and fulfils its obligations, such as through RSPO processes. When we look at documents, we find there is often not a genuine representation of indigenous peoples in decision making [when it comes to] certifying palm oil plantations," she added.
"There were 30 land conflicts and problems with palm oil companies and indigenous peoples in Central Kalimantan in the past month," she said. "Indigenous peoples defending their lands are met with force by the police and Brimob [special operations unit of the Indonesian police]. They are criminalised."
Environmental defenders targeted in Paraguay
This same issue is widespread across the globe. An indigenous community leader and human rights defender from Paraguay, speaking at the event, reiterated concerns and added how much more difficult life has become since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Soybeans are the main product in Paraguay,” he said. “It provokes internal conflicts, the migration of indigenous families. It impacts the ecosystem through severe droughts. And now on top of all this we can add the pandemic.”
“[In Paraguay] we are all working to making environmental rights defenders visible, and this is what we are doing with a lot of effort with the communities,” said the community leader.
“This is especially important in these times of pandemic when the government is asking us to remain at home without any kind of policies relating to healthcare and food,” he added.
“Even six months after the beginning of the pandemic, we have found that what affects most members of the indigenous family is hunger. In this time, deforestation has created a lot of conflict regarding indigenous areas due to lack of security.”
The community leader explained that indigenous Paraguayans face racism and discriminatory policies and attitudes, including from the non-indigenous cattle ranchers that restrict the access of indigenous communities to their ancestral lands, limiting their freedoms to practice their traditional livelihoods on their ancestral lands. "Even in the 21st century, we continue to suffer from racism in Paraguay," said the leader.
“As indigenous peoples living under threat, our calls are not listened to. We need to issue an SOS – an urgent call for help that we are experiencing this level of threat and harm,” he added.
Human rights under attack in Colombia
In Colombia, which was the most dangerous country in the world for environmental and human rights defenders in 2019, local communities face similar issues.
"In the territory of Montes de Maria, our population is not only threatened physically by illegal armed groups, but we also face severe threats to our livelihoods and food security from the extensive oil palm plantations that have occupied the region,” said a female human rights defender and leader of an Afro-descendant community.
"Many of the conflicts can be traced to land tenure problems and inequality in access to land," she said.
The communities of Montes de Maria depend on fishing and agriculture, and the vast palm monocultures threaten their livelihoods.
"The oil palm plantations are in the watersheds,” said the community leader. “It affects the communities – the chemicals go into the water so it is no longer safe to drink. It also causes deforestation."
"Many of our communities are now surrounded by oil palm plantations and their access to water, wells and livelihood resources has been lost,” said the leader.
"The plantations use chemicals that bring serious and grave consequences for our communities, [while at the same time] the palm monocultures are also encroaching on our water and forest reserves."
"Our petition is that companies, the EU and other markets must respect human rights protections as established by the United Nations," she said.
"It is significant that the cases from Peru and Colombia being shared in this ZTI event are both linked to global oil palm supply chains connected to major transnational agribusiness, food and beverage companies who are members of the CGF, including Nestlé, Cargill and Unilever,” said Maria del Rosario Arango of Forest Peoples Programme, and moderator of the event.
Photo: Burning forest in Santa Clara de Uchunya, Ucayali, in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Carlos Hoyos Soria, January 2018
Threats to indigenous defenders in Peru
An Indigenous leader from Ucayali in the Peruvian Amazon described the impacts on local people of palm oil company Ocho Sur P.
"This company has destroyed our way of life. In the midst of a pandemic, it has continued operating without authorisation or permission. This company does not respect Indigenous Peoples' rights."
"Ocho Sur P supplies oil palm to OLPESA, OLAMSA, Rossel and Palm Oleo, among others. These companies supply palm oil to Peru's largest consumer goods company, Alicorp. Between 2013-2019, 25% of the palm oil exported from Peru came from Alicorp."
"Even as the RSPO continues to investigate the complaint we filed against OLPESA a year and half ago, we have learnt that CGF member Nestlé includes OLPESA amongst its suppliers," the Indigenous leader said.
Business must uphold human rights
As these local accounts demonstrate, companies must take more robust actions to prevent conflicts and provide stronger protections for those trying to defend their homes, their lands and territories, their fundamental rights, ways of life, and their forests from harmful commodity production.
In his intervention, Michel Forst emphasised that, "In my statements to the UN I have tried to underline linkages between violence, repression, intimidation and land and environmental conflicts."
"I have also called on business actors to pay special attention to land tenure rights and do robust due diligence to prevent land conflicts as part of their efforts to protect human rights and environmental defenders and their responsibilities to uphold UN Guiding principles.”
Many companies as well as the UN Human Rights Council have already acknowledged the need and obligation to undertake human rights due diligence and adopt policies to protect human rights defenders, including the Esperanza Protocol to tackle impunity and ensure access to justice, and the Escazu Agreement for the Americas.
Some companies and industry bodies like the RSPO have developed their own policies on human rights defenders, yet much more needs to be done to ensure these policies are implemented in practice.
"In their majority, initiatives led by companies are often offering individual approaches when all of us know the collective dimension of such conflicts," said Forst. "There is not a holistic approach to protection and how we can prevent conflicts with communities."
"Some of the main detonators to environmental conflicts – such as power imbalance, the commodification of nature, impunity and the ongoing model of development – need to be tackled by states and companies to ensure long-term solutions," he said.
In his closing remarks to the event, Forst said that respecting and protecting human rights defenders are not optional. "They are intrinsically linked to the international obligations and commitments made by States related to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms and to the Sustainable Development Goals,” he stressed. “It is high time all actors, states, companies and investors, in particular, understand that defenders are not the enemy but indispensable allies that will help create a better and safer future for everyone."
Photo: Palm oil workers in Indonesia
You can read Michel Forst’s full statement here.