They protect the forests. Who protects them? : the intersection of conservation, development, and human rights of forest defenders: lessons from Kenya, Peru and Sri Lanka

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International Law and Organizations Program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Modern-day forests are center stage in the discussion of how to balance economic development, conservation goals, and human rights. There is much dependence and potential in the world’s forests - from economic development activities, such as mining, logging, and eco-tourism, to management and conservation goals that mitigate climate change, ensure proper watershed management, and protect endangered species, to locals and communities that have traditionally lived in or subsisted from forestland. With so many competing interests, it is unsurprising that tensions exist. However, it is not a zero-sum game. Economic development and conservation goals can be met while respecting human rights. Indeed, they are all interconnected. Environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs), including those protecting forestland, arise against this backdrop. Whether forest-dependent communities protecting traditional access to forests for sustenance or livelihood activities, or indigenous leaders protecting their land from encroachment by a large-scale development project, or a wildlife officer protecting the animals in the forest from poachers, forest defenders are a broad group with varied goals, but they all share the same interest in protecting environmental and land rights. Because of their activities, EHRDs have faced threats to their human rights and challenges to their advocacy work. From restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly to harassment, beatings, and assassinations, being an EHRD can be dangerous. For the 2016-2017 academic year, the SAIS International Human Rights Clinic, in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the Carta de Foresta and in recognition of the heightened struggles of EHRDs around the world, studied the human rights situation of forest defenders in Kenya, Peru, and Sri Lanka through both desk and field research. The study sought to analyze the root causes which lead individuals and communities to advocate for the respect, protection, or fulfillment of environmental and land rights, as well as the major aspects that impinge on the realization of these rights. The study further sought to understand the respective social, economic, political, cultural, and legal landscapes in which forest defenders operate, as well as the threats and challenges to their human rights because of their work. Finally, the study aimed to provide suggestions for improving the human rights situation of forest defenders, as well as address underlying causes that lead to violations of their rights.
Conservation, Sustainable development, Human rights, Forest conservation, Kenya, Peru, Sri Lanka