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Community activists in mining areas in South Africa face harassment, intimidation, and violence, the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch have said. Issuing a joint report, titled ‘We Know Our Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, the NGOs found that the attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants.

“In communities across South Africa, the rights of activists to peacefully organise to protect their livelihoods and the environment from the harm of mining are under threat. South African authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining, instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” says Matome Kapa, attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights.

The findings of the report are based on researchers following the activities of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018, as well as interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police, and municipal officials.

In order to provide a balanced report, the researchers also wrote to the relevant government agencies and to many of the mining companies. However, only four out of eleven companies responded. The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, has stated that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where [its] members operate.”

The 74-page report cites examples of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and “arbitrary” arrest of activists for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. “Municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis. Government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse, and some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects. The government has a constitutional obligation to protect activists,” the report states.

“South African authorities and companies should ensure zero tolerance toward threats and abuses against rights defenders in mining-affected communities. Government departments and the police have an obligation to investigate incidents and work with mining companies to create an environment conducive to freedom of speech and to reporting threats against defenders,” says Katharina Rall, environment researcher at Human Rights Watch.

She adds that many of the attacks go unreported or unnoticed, in part because of fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks. Community members in mining areas have experienced threats, physical attacks, or damage to their property that they believe is a consequence of their activism. They described being assaulted, intimidated, threatened, and their property damaged.

“Municipalities infringed on citizens’ rights to freedom of assembly, imposing extra-legal requirements for protests, despite constitutional guarantees established in South African law. In other cases, it was companies themselves that requested community activists notify them of their upcoming protests, wrongfully claiming that this was a legal requirement,” the researchers said.

“Some companies have used the courts to harass activists by asking for financial penalties, seeking court orders to prevent protests, or filing vexatious lawsuits. Companies have also used social media campaigns to harass activists and organisations who are challenging them, inflicting an emotional and reputational toll on defenders.”

Ramin Pejan, staff attorney at Earthjustice, says that municipalities and mining companies want to suppress protests. “But suppressing protest does not solve the underlying concerns of these communities, and upholding the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly is their legal obligation.”

The research also found a pattern of police misconduct during peaceful protests in mining-affected communities, including violently dispersing demonstrations or arbitrarily arresting and detaining protesters. South African police have also injured peaceful protesters with teargas and rubber bullets.

“These patterns of police violence and company tactics combine to create an environment of fear for community rights defenders and environmental justice groups in South Africa. For some, this has meant reducing or stopping their activism. But for many, it means putting their lives at risk while they are continuing the struggle,” says Robby Mokgalaka, Coal Campaign manager at groundWork.

Watch the video: https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/16/we-know-our-lives-are-danger/environment-fear-south-africas-mining-affected

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