Learning to detect the criminalization of land defenders — #WetsuwetenStrong

Re-posting from Canada Files!

“Raise your hand if you’ve heard the word eco-terrorist before,” I asked the audience of a conference on climate change.

Many hands, most actually, rose up.

I ask another question, “Now raise your hand if you’ve heard of ecocide?” Less hands.

“Green crime?” I tried again. Less than ten hands are up.

This is the story, told before, of the collusion between government, corporations and mainstream media to criminalize those who defend life and land. The story of how we have big words for those who protect water, land and life, but not for those who compromise our future and put profit before people.

A lot has been written on the topic and so many aspects of this issue still need to be addressed. I am writing today in the context of extreme colonial violence happening in so-called Canada. I am writing this as a settler who has been exploring these topics as such, mostly through academic readings. I have seen them apply in real life to fellow members of the climate justice movement, especially indigenous ones.

What is the criminalization of land defenders? How is it special? Why does it matter?

In order to be both better citizens and better allies, we must know the strategies of our government, the mainstream media and industry officials as they attempt to criminalize those who defend the land.

The word ‘eco-terrorist’ is a good starting point. It is not a legal term, nor an academic one, despite it being used to label many forms of action that go beyond the cute-kids-with-signs kind. The term was actually coined by Ron Arnold, involved in groups such as the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, self-described as “an educational foundation for individual liberty, free markets, property rights and limited government”, or the infamous Heartland Institute.

He wanted a word that could describe anyone engaging in illegal activity in order to protect nature. When he coined the term, he was well aware of what he was doing. He frequently bragged about succeeding in framing environmental defenders, especially those opposing extractive projects in the U.S., as threats to society… Yet the effect went way beyond framing.

In the U.S., the use of the word ‘eco-terrorist’ led to imposing harsher penalties on climate activists, who were put in jail for months for trespassing actions that would usually simply get you a fine if you weren’t challenging the dominant ideology of extractive colonialism.

Right, about colonialism. Criminalizing of environmental defenders goes far beyond the use of the word ‘eco-terrorist’ for Greenpeace activists. It is a much broader practice that is especially used in countries where indigenous people oppose mining, pipeline, dams and other forms of environmentally dangerous projects.

Criminalizing (v): “to turn into criminal or to treat as criminal” (Merriam-Webster).

Criminalizing means passing laws to make certain ‘bad’ actions punishable, like child labour or assault. It can also mean putting in the law things that are political, like the time a proposed bill in the U.S. put forward that the law would protest drivers who injured protestors if those protesters were on the road1… And finally, it can mean treating as criminal, framing as criminal, judicially trying as criminal, actions and people that are simply fighting the status quo. Not ‘bad’ people per se. Just “bad for profit”, mostly.

While there is no step-by-step guide to “making good people seem bad”, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Global Witness have identified common steps taken by industry and government to criminalize land defenders. I have hereby summarized them and added to them:

Smear campaigns

The media, governments and corporations may start by vilifying their targets. They may exaggerate the harm or discomfort caused by their actions in an attempt to make public opinion turn against them. They frequently spread lies about the targets’ past, motivations, sources of funding, and affiliations. The objective in this first step is to make the public at best apathetic to future arrest or physical violence.

Criminal charges

Without necessarily pressing charges, press releases and interviews of industry officials or governments will mention vague criminal charges that they claim could be used against the targets. These are often terms like “trespassing”, “conspiracy”, “perturbation of public order” or “instigation of crime”, directed at large groups of environmental defenders. This is both a method to continue the previous smear campaigns, by starting to make them seem dangerous. This has been reported to happen both for legal and illegal forms of protest (see sources).

Arrest warrants

Despite often poor evidence, arrests warrants may be issued. Once again, they may be vague or impersonal. They can be a way to justify the intervention of armed forces but are also a way to mentally and materially drain environmental defenders as they live under vague threats, sometimes see their supporters withdraw financial resources by fear of legal complications and may need to protect themselves physically.

Illegal shortcuts

Criminals who are said to represent a real threat to society are sometimes held before their trials. However, environmental activists and land defenders, including peaceful protestors, are sometimes detained for several months without trial. This continues the framing of these defenders as ‘dangerous criminals’, but also takes a huge toll on their mental health as they are purposefully isolated from their community. They may loose support, as they become ‘dangerous’ to be associated with, their relatives receiving threats or fearing similar treatments. These detentions also have an extremely harmful effect on the communities they are taken from: the arrest of elders of indigenous communities is for example a well- known strategy to destabilize the community. The build up of the previous three steps is a tool to avoid public outcry over these illegal practices.

Mass criminalization

Quoting directly from Global Witnesses: Environmental defenders “have suffered illegal surveillance, raids and hacks (…) and funding controls that weaken them”.

The UN, Global Witness and other NGOs talk about many of these stages as prominent in Latin America, as well as in some countries of sub-saharan Africa. But two other countries are known for perpetuating these practices, both at home and abroad: Canada and the United States of America.

Read again through the 5 stages: having a feeling of déjà-vu? Yes, the case of Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their indigenous and settler allies refusing a pipeline, denouncing an invasion by the RCMP and calling for the end of colonial violence has been met with a textbook case of criminalization.

Know the steps. Call them out. Criminalize the oppressors instead.

Criminalizing is only a fragment of the violence land defenders face. Murder, as thoroughly reported by Global Witness, often awaits community leaders and indigenous activist when they oppose extractive projects.

This is a direct consequence of criminalization: by violating their own judicial procedures, governments signal that they will not uphold these if defenders are physically attacked.

Genocide, through the damaging of ecosystems on which communities rely, is another. Extractive colonialism and environmental imperialism are expansions of such topics, addressed in countless academic papers. Add to that a strong gendered component, as documented by Madeline Wontung amongst others, and you get a full range of violence exerted on people through their environment.

It must be noted that I did not take the time to discuss ‘good’, ‘legitimate’ or ‘right’ ways to protest.

Coming from the youth climate movement, I often have politicians and media on my side: “See, that’s the right way to protest. Nicely, with a permit, and only once in a while”. I believe in climate strikes, I know they are part of the fight, but I strongly push back on the idea that it is what will save us. It is the softest part of expressing dissent, accessible to minors and folks who would be put at risk by more radical action.

However, do not be mistaken. Given the profit and power at stake, the youth strikes will not be enough to truly obtain climate justice. When the bravest of the defenders stand up and ‘break the law’ by blocking business as usual — and, it must be noted, do so unarmed and peacefully nevertheless — we must fight so that they’re seen as heroes, not threats.

The law as we know it today is meant to keep the oppressed, oppressed. These laws were imposed on people with violence and were never accepted. These laws, upheld by our Canadian government in response to the country-wide mobilization as a sort of guide to morality, are not the original laws of this land.

Shaming radical forms of protests by indigenous people who were forced to obey our current laws through violence is deeply hypocritical. Asking them to be peaceful is denying the fact that all that Canada is today was based on violence.

Climate Justice Activist originally from South of France, now a settler in Toronto . Organizer with Fridays for Future Toronto.

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