The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

EarthRights Calls on Biden Administration to Protect Climate Defenders

Ahead of COP26, climate justice advocates urge world leaders to protect the rights of Indigenous and frontline communities battling climate change.


In conjunction with the launch of its Frontlines of Climate Justice campaign, EarthRights International today called on the Biden administration to use the upcoming COP26 climate negotiations to announce that the United States will no longer allow coercive tactics -- including torture --- against those who speak out against climate-damaging extractive projects and will call on other countries to do the same. This call to action comes just months after Indigenous environmental defenders protesting Line 3 in Minnesota reported harassment, intimidation, and torture ("pain compliance") at the hands of police officers.

"Environmental defenders and water protectors risk their lives and livelihoods to safeguard their communities and our planet," said EarthRights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa. "Alarmingly, they are often met with violence and intimidation. We are calling on the Biden administration to be a world leader on climate justice by ensuring that those who exercise their rights to speak out against climate-destroying projects are not subjected to attacks, harassment, threats, criminalization, or torture. Protecting climate defenders should be a central goal of our nation's climate policies."

As the primary guardians of the forests, Indigenous communities play a crucial role in the global response to the climate crisis. The loss of forest cover is contributing to a worsening of the crisis. Every year, the world loses around 5 million hectares of forest, equivalent to the size of Costa Rica. The loss of forest cover undermines the ability of forests to act as carbon sinks and also contributes to growing greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC has calculated that approximately 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions derive from agriculture and forestry. Such emissions are produced mainly by the deforestation of forests to open land for agribusiness. A new report from the Indigenous Environmental Network estimates that "Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least 25 percent percent of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions."

Despite the vital role environmental defenders play in protecting our shared natural resources, they are increasingly under threat. A 2020 analysis by the group Frontline Defenders found that environmental, land, and Indigenous defenders are the most targeted of all human rights defenders, with 331 murdered in 2020 alone.

"I would say to John Kerry, you cannot be a leader on human rights and social justice if you are penalizing, criminalizing, suppressing, and outright committing violent atrocities on Indigenous peoples, on water protectors, on citizens engaged in civil disobedience who are trying to protect this one planet, our only home," said Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation citizen and founder of the Giniw Collective. "The status quo and business as usual are literally killing us."

Working in partnership with Indigenous and frontline communities, the Frontlines of Climate Justice campaign will fight back against repressive tactics, amplify frontline voices, and share case studies that further reveal the tactics that the extractive and agribusiness industries use to push through climate-damaging projects. These include:

  • Harassing communities and activists to silence opposition to projects.

  • Lobbying for subsidies and other hidden policies that disguise the true cost of fossil fuels.

  • Pushing the costs of the projects onto local communities -- often in the form of pollution or landgrabs.

  • Engaging in corrupt practices to convince government officials to approve bad deals.

  • Enacting legislation to restrict the right to freedom of assembly and prevent communities from protesting fossil fuel projects.

  • Failing to develop or blatantly manipulating participation processes to prevent communities from taking part in decisions that affect their lands and rights.

  • Misusing the criminal code to harass and prosecute communities denouncing climate-damaging projects.

Protecting the rights of communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis is essential for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Governments, corporations, and financial institutions should take immediate actions to respect the rights of communities, including the right to protect their territories and oppose climate destruction. EarthRights urges those parties to take action in five broad areas:

  • Decriminalize opposition to fossil fuels and deforestation.

  • Fight corruption and state capture that drives illegal resource extraction and deforestation.

  • End the use of public security forces to protect fossil fuel and agribusiness projects.

  • Recognize and respect frontline communities' land rights, and the right to participate in the decisions that impact their territories and environment.

  • Give frontline communities a seat at the table during global climate negotiations.

EarthRights is also urging the Biden administration to cancel the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. "Line 3 directly conflicts with the Biden administration's climate goals and violates Indigenous land rights. President Biden has stated that addressing the looming climate emergency is a top goal of his administration. So why is it doubling down on expensive infrastructure projects that endanger frontline communities and perpetuate our reliance on fossil fuels? They should cancel Line 3 and commit to no new fossil fuel infrastructure," concluded Ka Hsaw Wa.

Read our policy recommendations here.

Learn more about the campaign here.

EarthRights International (ERI) is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that combines the power of law and the power of people in defense of human rights and the environment, which we define as "earth rights." We specialize in fact-finding, legal actions against perpetrators of earth rights abuses, training grassroots and community leaders, and advocacy campaigns. Through these strategies, EarthRights International seeks to end earth rights abuses, to provide real solutions for real people, and to promote and protect human rights and the environment in the communities where we work.