Sur 25 – Letter to the readers

Patrick Alley, Global Witness

Guest Editor

Oliver Hudson, Sur Journal

Managing Editor

The Sur file on Natural Resources and Human Rights

Five years ago, on 26 April 2012, Chut Wutty, a courageous Cambodian land rights defender, was shot dead by Cambodian military police. It was this killing that prompted Global Witness to launch a campaign that would document the killings of land and environmental defenders worldwide, on an annual basis, because Chut Wutty was a former colleague of ours and his death brought home to us the stark reality of the threats that many ordinary people face every day defending their land and their rights.

In the intervening years our reports have documented a rising trend in these killings. However, we know that we are probably only scratching the surface as this is a vastly under-reported area, and also the annual report does not include the legal and physical threats and harassment that many thousands more people face, primarily because it is so hard to document.

Land and environmental defenders are ordinary people who suddenly find that their communities’ land has been sold off, without their knowledge or consent, to an industrial development, such as a dam, mine, oil block, logging concession or agricultural plantation. These deals are usually corrupt, which means that the politicians and officials involved have personally benefitted in some way and now owe their allegiance not to the citizens they are meant to represent, but to some corporation or other. If the judiciary and law enforcement have been bought off as well, then these local communities are on their own. The organs of state that are meant to protect them have instead become the very mechanism that threatens them and has deprived them of any legal means of redress. So they do the only thing that is left to them; they protest – by demonstrating, blocking access roads, disabling machinery, and for this they are threatened, beaten up and, too often, murdered.

These killings are a window into a much bigger issue. Natural resources are big money and the scarcer they get the more companies want to control them. The pursuit of natural resource wealth gave rise to the buccaneering corporate and private colonialism exemplified by the East India Company and King Leopold’s Congo in the 18th & 19th centuries, and which has continued in a similar fashion ever since, albeit under new management.

Today the system operates according to much the same principles, but in many important ways is far less visible. The resources continue to flow inexorably to rich consuming countries as before – Resource-Colonialism – but much of the money earned disappears into secret bank accounts held by a morass of anonymously owned companies based in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions; only occasionally, perhaps via some data leak like the Panama Papers, will the true owners of these companies be identified and the scale of looting from some of the poorest countries in the world become known.

The articles in this edition of the Sur International Journal on Human Rights (the Sur Journal) bring together some remarkable and critical case studies that illustrate that natural resource exploitation is one of the major causes of many human rights abuses. Land-grabbing, instability, the exacerbation of poverty, the destruction and pollution of lands essential to indigenous and other communities and, at its worst, murder and war, are too often the direct results of oil and mineral extraction, renewable energy projects, logging and industrial agriculture.

The role of law in preventing exploitation

Afghanistan has a plethora of legislation and regulations purportedly to protect its vast mineral wealth, resources that the international coalition that is working to bring peace to the country trumpets as its salvation. However, Javed Noorani (Afghanistan), paints a disturbing picture of what natural resource exploitation looks like in the context of corruption, instability and poor governance. His case study describes how – despite a theoretically strong legal framework in the country – corrupt politicians, warlords and Taliban insurgents all have their snouts in the mineral trough, enriching themselves, funding their wars and looting the state. Silas Siakor (Liberia) offers a compelling narrative on the damage wrought by corrupt natural resource exploitation in Liberia. He details how the country’s civil society banded together to demand an improved legal framework, specifically in the logging sector, to help ensure that the grievous human rights abuses inflicted on the local population cannot happen again. It was Silas’s organisation, together with Global Witness, that worked to document, expose and advocate against (then) President Charles Taylor’s timber-for-arms trade, which ultimately resulted in United Nations (UN) sanctions on Liberian timber.

The role of the state and private enterprise in exploiting natural resources

Aseil Abu-Baker (United States) describes how, in addition to military force and the building of the West Bank wall, Israel exercises ultimate control of the occupied territories – through the state owned water company Mekorot – by using water as a weapon of power, which strikes at the heart of people’s rights. Military orders, an inequitable water-sharing agreement, and a discriminatory planning and permit regime create and maintain a comprehensive system of control over the water resources, ensuring that Palestinians are prohibited from exercising sovereign rights over their water resources. Aseil goes on to describe how Israel has effectively created a system of “water apartheid”. Similarly, Renzo Alexander García (Colombia) offers a brief overview of the recent – and highly innovative – people’s referendum in the municipality of Cajamarca, Colombia. Despite the local population overwhelmingly demonstrating that they do not want a mining presence in their region, the government of Colombia is threatening to overrule a democratic decision, despite the method by which it was sought being protected by the Colombian Constitution. The devastating consequences of both corporate and state greed and inaction are detailed in the contribution by Michael Power and Manson Gwanyanya (South Africa). They lay out in chilling detail the circumstances that led to the 2012 massacre of 34 mine workers by the police at Marikana, in South Africa’s North West province. Finally, Caio Borges (Brazil) and Tchenna Fernandes Maso (Brazil) discuss how the destruction of the Rio Doce basin following the 2015 collapse of the Samarco mining tailings dam is an emblematic case of the tense relationship between ensuring human rights, within international standards, and the action of companies, especially transnational companies in countries of the Global South.

Natural resource exploitation and climate change

Events at Marikana, South Africa and Mariana, Brazil illustrate, with devastating clarity, the immediate consequences of the exploitation of natural resources. However, all too often the effect of exploitation of natural resources on our climate is forgotten. Tessa Khan (Bangladesh/Australia) not only illustrates that climate change is one of the most powerful, indeed apocalyptic drivers of human rights abuses, but she also highlights the need to hold those who fail to limit carbon emissions to account, and she lists numerous examples of creative court cases brought against companies and governments that are forcing them to take action. We see the need for holding governments to account in the contribution by Michael Klare (United States). Oil companies are past-masters at wielding their lobbying power and engaging in straightforward corruption to avoid or weaken financial and environmental regulations in the Global South, and now they’re employing the same tactics in the US and Canada as part of the fracking boom as they did across the Global South. Meanwhile, in an attempt to illustrate that climate change is already having a very real impact on the lives of individuals, this edition of the journal features the work of two photographers – Jashim Salam and Khaled Hassan (Bangladesh). Their beautiful yet haunting images show how two communities in the Ganges Delta are adapting to a new reality as climate changes wreaks havoc with their daily life.

The role of individuals in protecting our natural resources

It is the individual that must be at the centre of any discussion about natural resource exploitation. Not only are these individuals’ human rights systematically violated by the exploitation of natural resources but it is these individuals who are resisting the state and private enterprise, often putting their lives at risk while doing so. The life and mission of Berta Cáceres – one of the foremost human rights defenders of our time – is eloquently celebrated by Patricia Ardón and Daysi Flores. Far from silencing her, Berta’s assassination in 2015 propelled her work to a global level. Her legacy is her inspiration to community-led social movements across the world, and the leading role played by women in these movements. The philanthropist Alex Soros (United States), writes a highly personal op-ed on the critical role played by environmental human rights defenders and the responsibility that those of means have in supporting their work.

Sur 25 also presents the profiles of three women who fight for human and environmental rights, inspired by their religious beliefs and who are from communities that are strongly impacted by natural resource exploitation (deforestation, extractivism, monoculture, etc.). Beata Tsosie Peña (United States), Jennifer Domínguez de Esquimulas Chiquimulas (Guatemala) and Joyce Cleide Santiago dos Santos (Brazil) were three of the participants in the multi-faith conference “Faith in the Climate” that took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in May 2017. The goal of the meeting was to discuss climate change and strengthen a rights advocacy network.

Graphic Novel

Recognising the need to find alternative ways of communicating to new audiences, the Sur Journal is delighted to feature an extract of the graphic novel, La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico, the brainchild of Front Line Defenders. The novel tells the dangers of the day-to-day work of being a human rights defender in Mexico and is contextualised with a preface by Lucha Castro, whose crucial work the novel is based upon.


Staying in Mexico, we are honoured to feature two contributions from the country. Firstly, Alejandro Anaya Muñoz examines the development of the international human rights regimes, in an international relations context. The text is of fundamental importance to anyone interested or studying IR or human rights. A suite of authors (Santiago Aguirre Espinosa, Stephanie Brewer, Sofía de Robina e María Luisa Aguilar) from the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre (Prodh) discuss the innovative way that the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, went about investigating the case of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa and examine why its methodology can be seen as a best practice example for similar investigations going forward.

Drawing on a recent report that argues that the violence in Mexico amounts to a crime against humanity, Marlon Alberto Weichert (Brazil) asks the same question with respect to Brazil and the disproportionate violence metered out on the young black population. Completing our suite of in-depth articles, Vincent Ploton (France) examines recent developments in the UN treaty bodies, in particularly focussing on how their recommendations can be made more effective. He draws on the success of recent innovations made by the Committee Against Torture.


Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) talks to the Sur Journal about his six years as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. He explained how his early experiences in Argentina formed his life’s work, how he came to be appointed Special Rapporteur and his achievements during his tenure.


Sur always aims to include material that its readers can put into practice. Irit Tamir (United States) offers excellent suggestions on how to build an effective campaign, based on Oxfam’s highly successful Behind the Brands campaign that sought to influence the sourcing policies of the world’s ten biggest food and beverage companies.

Institutional Outlook

Doctors’ Without Borders (MSF) made international headlines following its decision to refuse further funding from the European Union (EU) in 2016 on the basis that it opposed the EU’s migration policy. Here Susana de Deus (Portugal) and Renata Reis (Brazil) discuss the process – and the controversy – behind the decision.


Member of Sur Journal’s Advisory Board and internationally renowned human rights academic, Philip Alston (Australia) offers his take on the current state of the human rights movement and how it must – urgently – respond in order to retain its relevance.


Finally, we would like to emphasise that this issue of Sur Journal was made possible with the support of the Ford Foundation, Instituto Clima e Sociedade (Climate and Society Institute or iCS), Open Society Foundations, the Oak Foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), as well as some anonymous donors.

We are also extremely thankful to the following people for assisting with this issue: Akemi Kamimura, Ana Carolina Alfinito, Aparecida H. Soares, Bonita Meyersfeld, Bruno Huberman, Caio Borges, Celina Lagrutta, Daniella Hiche, Evandro Lisboa Freire, Fernando Campos Leza, Fernando Sciré, Josua Loots, Karen Lang, Kristina Ardaga, María José Guembe, Muriel Asseraf, Renato Barreto, Sebastián Porrua Schiess, Stephen Carter, Tom Lomax and Vivian Calderoni. Additionally, we are especially grateful for the collaboration of the authors and the hard work of the Journal’s editorial team and executive board.

And finally the Communication Team from Conectas deserves great credit for their dedication to this issue. As ever we are very appreciative for the invaluable support and guidance given by the directors of Conectas Human Rights – Juana Kweitel and Marcos Fuchs.