By: Peter Denton
It matters most when something happens in your own backyard.
Whatever the tragedy or problem, the further away something is, the less important it becomes.
It is not that we don’t care about those other people, somewhere else. We do. It just doesn’t lead us to do something that interferes too much with our day. It’s just not personal.
That can change in a heartbeat, of course. Ask people involved in fundraising for the cure of a particular disease. Most will have had a family member or friend affected, if they are not survivors themselves.
The same is true for environmental issues. Live downwind from a refinery or downstream from an industrial facility and you will have a different opinion than others of the environmental price we pay for how we live. Get driven from your house due to flood or forest fire and you will think differently about water issues. Develop a serious food allergy and you will read labels intently — and you will have different opinions about what is in our food.
Recent events, therefore, matter most if you are a member of the black community, the LGBTTQ* community or the police. It becomes personal when these things directly affect you or someone about whom you care.
In 2016, however, that’s just not good enough. We can’t wait for the problem to turn up in our own backyard before we take a real interest and do something about it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Holocaust remains the starkest example in the modern world of what can happen when that kind of evil is not challenged, wherever it happens to appear first.
So when I read that 2015 was the deadliest year for environmental defenders yet, with 185 confirmed deaths (according to the Global Witness organization), I was both sad and angry. These were people who objected to what was being done in their own backyards, who helped others challenge environmental destruction that poisoned the earth, ruined communities and shattered lives in order to make a profit for the few elsewhere. These defenders did not deserve to die for their work.
But when Berta Caceres was assassinated in her home in Honduras on March 3, 2016, things got closer to home. She was a celebrated indigenous leader who had won the 2015 Goldman Prize for organizing local resistance among indigenous peoples that pressured a large dam-building company to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam. At the time she was shot, a colleague of mine was in Honduras working on an environmental impact assessment process with the government there.
I also have civil society colleagues from Latin America and other countries who have become friends through our work together with the United Nations Environment Program. I could not help but think their work as activists was more dangerous than my own. Their commitment comes, increasingly, at a high cost, something that threatens all of our futures.
That was driven home to me at the second United Nations Environment Assembly in May. I was just finishing my lunch in a crowded cafeteria when a man asked whether the seat across from me was free.
We had a wonderful, warm conversation about the issues we were confronting at the assembly, and especially about Canada. He was a Somali Canadian, whose family was still in Canada, where he had moved many years ago. He had returned voluntarily to Somalia in 2012 to become part of the government and help shape a better future for his home country. He told me there were a number of Somali Canadians doing the same thing.
It turned out my lunch partner was Prof. Buri Mohamed Hamza, minister of state for environment.
Later that afternoon, in a discussion about forced migration, he slipped into a seat labelled “Special Guest” when everyone else had nameplates. I thought it odd, but reflected on our conversation and realized there might be a security concern. He said that displacement in his country was the result of poverty and economics, not religion.
Four weeks later, he was killed in the attack by al-Shabab in the hotel in Mogadishu where he was living. Whether or not he was the intended target, he was the only person with a public profile who died in that attack.
In the rubble of his room, there was a copy of one of my books, something he had promised to read to continue our conversation about the environment and about Somalia.
For me, the fight against extremism has become personal, whether it is happening in my own backyard or elsewhere. Environmental defenders deserve to be defended themselves, or all of us will eventually pay the price.
Peter Denton is a major groups and stakeholders regional representative for North America to UNEP. He chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.
This article was originally posted in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 14, 2016.