African solidarity with community defenders

By Natural Justice

On the 22 October 2020 we heard the shocking news of another assassination of a community defender. 63-year-old community activist, Fikile Ntshangase, was gunned down in her home in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Defender of her land and heritage, Mam Ntshangase stood in opposition to the expansion of the Tendele Mine and she paid for this opposition with her life. This is a great tragedy. Mam Ntshangase’s death is another example of the stakes at play in the struggle that thousands of people across Africa are facing as they seek to protect their land and resources from exploitation.

The attacks on defenders across Africa are not very well documented, but it is evident to those that work closely with communities that attacks are growing in frequency and brutality. Community activists are living in fear, they are often under surveillance, their families are in danger and communities facing new developments are uncertain of how to move forward.

We are at war. In rural places across Africa, where generations have lived, the bulldozers come. They come to satisfy our ever-increasing need for new technologies, for the goods and services needed to labour in our markets. These are not goods and services that reach those defending their lands from these attacks; many live very traditional lives or have sacrificed their land for conservation, energy projects and mines that do not benefit them. Although communities are isolated, rural and disconnected from one another, they are connected to history, to heritage and cultural ways that respect and protect their land. Because of this, we rely on them to be defenders of nature; a heavy burden. We expect them to not only risk their lives, but also to be our teachers and custodians, spread information, monitor violations and embark on difficult activism with few resources. They also face environmental uncertainty as the climate crisis forces them to adapt to new uncertainties.

Natural Justice was established in 2007 by two international lawyers who felt that working closely with communities through a sustained period of time, building relationships with them and standing with them in all the seasons was key to empowerment. Their focus was on empowering the relationships communities hold with nature and strengthening their responses and actions through human and biocultural rights.

The work of Natural Justice is firmly rooted in the struggles of communities and defenders. Our vision is a just and equitable society on a diverse and healthy planet where the rights of indigenous and local communities are secured. To reach this vision, it is important to show solidarity with the networks of defenders across Africa, to respect them and support them.

The struggle is an international one. It is a struggle for hope. It is a struggle for our future and the future of the next generations.

The struggle is an international one. It is a struggle for hope. It is a struggle for our future and the future of the next generations. We need to keep on dispelling the lie that we are disconnected from each other and from nature. We need to start to forge deep bonds with each other and with the stewards protecting their lands. We need to enhance the collective rights of people and protect the sacred relationships that indigenous peoples and local communities have with nature.

Natural Justice are in solidarity with defenders through our work. We provide funding and support, both empowerment and litigation support to defenders, activists and their organisations across Africa. We invite other organisations to also centre their work around the needs of defenders, to centralise the defense of their rights and to provide support for their work. A further step is to support the alternatives to extractive developments that communities require to further their livelihood opportunities, secure their right to make their own decisions and respect their free, prior and informed consent. We need to advocate for their community needs, help to build new community facilities and institutions and introduce new economic initiatives that are gentle on communities and on the earth. Our work must advocate for their access to their traditional plants and animals, bring them closer to their values, and bring them closer to growth that is equitable, sustainable and inclusive.

We must centre our work on hope, and on the shared values and relationships that indigenous peoples and local communities hold.