Defenders speak out about business contribution to shrinking space

ARTICLE | 17 December 2019

Companies and states need to step up their efforts to support environmental and human rights defenders that are negatively affected by business operations, said panelists at a seminar arranged by Swedwatch and member organisations.

Speaking in the panel was Ryan Mendoza, a defender forced to leave the Philippines because of his work with indigenous peoples in Mindanao.

“The Philippines is the worst place in the world for environmental human rights defenders. We’ve seen an erosion of democracy and dissent is criminalised,” Mendoza said.

“Companies have a big role to play. My experience was very negative – profit was prioritised over people,” he added. “As human rights defenders we were followed. We could not speak freely. We were not in a free space.”

Mendoza was one of ten defenders profiled in a report launched at the seminar, highlighting the critical situation faced by defenders around the world and the urgent need for companies and states to take effective action. In the report, Swedwatch and its member organisations ACT Church of Sweden, The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Diakonia, Afrikagrupperna, Solidarity Sweden-Latin America and Fair Action, call on companies to implement a zero-tolerance policy towards attacks on defenders and urge states to adopt legislation on mandatory human rights due diligence to ensure that companies respect defenders throughout their value chains.

Åsa Eriksson, trade policy spokesperson for Sweden’s ruling Social Democratic Party, said the report made it easier to put the issue on the agenda and that Sweden was “obviously not doing enough”.

The role of companies in assessing risks to defenders was described by Théo Jaekel, Corporate Responsibility Expert at telecom company Ericsson who said defenders provide a valuable early warning system that can alert companies to negative developments.

Britta Ekman, Sustainability and Quality Manager at Swedish food importer Martin & Servera, said the company carried out risk-based evaluations on the thousands of items they imported from complex global supply chains and that she was aware of problems. She gave the example of Ecuadorian defender Jorge Acosta who the company supported publicly through a petition when he faced judicial harassment for speaking out about labour rights issues in the banana sector.

South African defender Nonhle Mbuthuma outlined her community’s decades-long struggle against a mining company in Pondoland in the country’s Eastern Cape province, which has also brought the community into conflict with the government.

“We have experienced a lot of violence. In 2016 our co-founder was assassinated. We know there was a hitlist and that three of us were on it,” she said.

“This struggle is no different than the apartheid one. Some of us live in hiding … Some want us to leave for our safety. But that opens up the space for the mining companies. The space for human rights defenders is shrinking.”