Saturday 19 October 2019

'They make you look like a traitor' - the threats and harassment facing environmental activists

Campaigners share struggles in fight between industry and conservation

United stand: Cormac McAleer from Tyrone, Mina Beyan from Liberia and Emmanuel Peni of Papua New Guinea at the Front Line Defenders conference in Dublin Castle. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
United stand: Cormac McAleer from Tyrone, Mina Beyan from Liberia and Emmanuel Peni of Papua New Guinea at the Front Line Defenders conference in Dublin Castle. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

Caroline O'Doherty

Threats, harassment and assaults have all been hard on Cormac McAleer but the incident that bothers him most since he began campaigning against a gold mine in his locality involved no violence.

"I was accused of breaking up a marriage," the Tyrone man says uncomfortably. "The husband sold land to the mine company and the couple broke up over it.

"I knew both of them and I'm not out to split up families. You can put up with a lot but that kind of thing gets to your soft underbelly."

Mina Beyan from Liberia has similar feelings. In her work to secure land rights for communities overrun by oil palm plantations, she has been held hostage, threatened repeatedly and faced a baying crowd armed with machetes, but it is the strain on friendships that hurts most.

"The supporters of these companies turn people against you. They tell your neighbours you are trying to stop development, you are trying to stop them having economic success," she says. "They make you appear like a traitor and some people believe that and your own community, the people who are trying to protect, they become suspicious."

Manu Peni, from half a world away in Papua New Guinea, nods in sympathy.

"The worst thing is the threats about my family. I am a single father of a nine-year-old boy and the threats to harm him are very difficult to deal with."

Those, they say, are the hardest aspects of environmental activism in a world where commercial interests and nature collide and communities get caught in the middle.

Front Line Defenders brought Manu, Mina and Cormac together with dozens of other human rights defenders from around the world to Dublin this week to exchange experiences and bring some international spotlight on their work.

Despite their very different backgrounds, the stories they tell share similar features.

Mina's government handed 680,000 hectares of land rich in unique wildlife that needs sensitive farming over to foreign companies to be cleared and planted with oil palm.

"After the civil war the economy was in great difficulty and these companies promised prosperity but monoculture destroys the land. Communities have been evicted, sacred sites desecrated and rivers polluted," she says.

"All we wanted was the government to protect our land and our rights but instead they said we were the problem."

Manu Peni knows that tactic. "The government pitched us as just a bunch of NGOs who couldn't find proper jobs and instead made it our job to sabotage development. They said the people I represent are illiterate and know nothing. It's true many of them don't have much education but they are literate in survival and they know this threatens their survival."

He allows himself a small smile: "And I'm a chemist, I have been a university lecturer in New Zealand. Many of the activists in our group are college graduates. When they discovered this, they started to treat us with more respect."

Mr McAleer is curious to know what his government would think of him and his campaign against Canadian firm Dalradian's plans for gold mining in the Sperrin Mountains but Northern Ireland hasn't had one for two years.

"The whole plan hasn't had proper scrutiny. The planning application is 10,000 pages and planning departments don't have the kind of expertise to deal with something so specialist but there's no government to say, hold on until we have a look at this."

Dalradian says it has done everything by the book and has engaged with the community for 10 years to answer all questions and concerns.

A spokesperson said: "We also encourage people to engage with the project through the planning process and are supporting calls for a public inquiry as a further level of scrutiny."

The gathering in Dublin is morale boosting but Cormac, Mina and Manu say the biggest help is being kept in the spotlight.

"When I saw the Front Line logo 'protect one, empower one thousand' I became emotional," says Manu. "Because I represent 400,000 people and sometimes I feel very alone."

Irish Independent

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