By Fred Pearce, February 21, 2013
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.
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.