Where is Sombath Somphone? With every day that passes, the fate of one of south-east Asia’s most high-profile environmental activists, who was snatched from the streets of Laos in December, becomes more worrisome.Read more here.
His case has been raised by the State Department and countless NGOs around the world. But the authorities in Laos have offered no clue as to what happened after Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint on a Saturday afternoon in the Lao capital of Vientiane as he returned home from his office. It looks increasingly like state kidnap — or worse, if recent evidence of the state-sponsored killings of environmental campaigners in other countries is anything to go by.
Personal danger is not what most environmentalists have in mind when they take up the cause of protecting nature and the people who rely on it in their daily lives. But from Laos to the Philippines to Brazil, the list of environmentalists who have paid for their activism with their lives is growing. It is a grim toll, especially in the last year.
One of the most grisly cases occurred last year in Rio de Janeiro on the final day of the Rio+20 Earth Summit. On the afternoon of June 22, delegates from throughout the world — me included — were preparing to leave for the airport as Almir Nogueira de Amorim and his friend João Luiz Telles Penetra were setting sail for a fishing trip in the city’s Guanabara Bay.
The two men, besides being fishermen, were leaders of AHOMAR, the local organization of seamen, which they had helped set up three years earlier to fight the construction of gas pipelines across the bay to a new refinery run by the Brazilian national oil company Petrobras. The pipelines, they said, would cause pollution, and the engineering works would destroy fisheries.
The issue they were raising — protecting the livelihoods of people who used natural resources — was at the heart of the Rio conference’s agenda for sustainable development. But someone in Rio saw it as a threat. Two days later, the bodies of the two men had been found. One was washed up on the shore, hands and feet bound by ropes. The other was found at sea, strangled and tied to the boat, which had several holes in the hull.
This was no isolated assassination. In the three years since AHOMAR was set up, two other campaigners had been murdered. To date nobody has been convicted of any of the offenses. The refinery is expected to open early next year.