Violence Against Environmental Activists Is Rising Rapidly Worldwide

"These murders are about politics, about economics, about power and control."

Oregon State University

The number of reported deaths of environmental defenders has increased, as well as the number of countries where these deaths occur. According to a study released Monday in Nature Sustainability, the number of people murdered in connection to their work protecting natural resources rivals that of a war zone, and it represents the “tip of the iceberg” of the violence that their peers face.

"…for every murder, many more are threatened, criminalized, or subjected to other forms of violence."

Between 2002 and 2017, an estimated 1,558 people in 50 countries were killed for defending protected land, forests, water, and other natural resources, the study reports. These killings have doubled over the past 15 years, with Indigenous peoples facing a higher level of risk. The category of “environmental defenders” includes, but is not limited to, community activists, lawyers, NGO staff members, and those who resist forced eviction.

These deaths include activists like José Cláudio Riberio da Silva, a Brazilian conservationist who campaigned against logging in the Amazon rainforest. He and his wife were shot dead near their home in the Amazon in 2011. Just four months earlier, he delivered a TEDx Talk in which he vowed to “protect the forest at all costs.”

Study co-author and University of Sussex environmental justice research fellow Mary Silva Menton, Ph.D., tells Inverse that data collected by the international NGO Global Witness shows that “for every murder, many more are threatened, criminalized, or subjected to other forms of violence.”

A panel discussion on the conservation of Indigenous and Afro-Colombia land rights in Colombia.

Inter-American Dialogue

For this study, Menton and her colleagues used the database of environmental murders cataloged by Global Witness as well as numbers of deaths collected by Comissão da Terra (Pastoral Land Commission, Brazil) and The Guardian. They then attempted to identify the conditions, sectors, and interactions that drove those deaths.

The researchers point out that “the data are likely to be underestimates since countries that appear to have the highest number of such deaths may in fact be those with a free press, and apparent increases in numbers of murders may be due to improvements in reporting.”

While natural resource sector drivers of violence and deaths of environmental defenders vary by country and region, certain patterns emerged. For example, of the 683 deaths that occurred between 2014 and 2017, 230 were related to mining and agriculture business. The majority of these deaths occurred in the Philippines and Brazil, which is also the country with the most deaths in the logging sector.

Mining and extraction deaths also were common in Colombia and India, while Guatemala and Honduras had the most deaths related to water and dams. Meanwhile, poaching-related deaths were most frequent in Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While no such deaths have been recorded in the United States, that doesn’t mean that violence doesn’t occur. During the Standing Rock resistance movement in North Dakota, activists were forcefully repressed with water cannons in sub-zero temperatures, and as many as 300 demonstrators were hospitalized.

Indigenous activists mark in solidarity with Standing Rock and protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

Wikimedia Commons 

Overall, Indigenous peoples have died in higher numbers than any other group of environmental defenders. They counted for 40 percent of such deaths in 2015 and 2016, and 30 percent of deaths in 2017.

“Globally, Indigenous peoples represent a disproportionately higher percentage of those killed, if we compare the numbers to what you would expect based only on the number of indigenous people in the countries in question,” Menton says.

Several factors are involved in explaining why. In the case of Latin America, where many of the murders of Indigenous peoples have been located, there are widespread conflicts over land, and the natural resources within those lands, that impact Indigenous communities, says Menton.

“In Brazil,” she elaborates, “given the current political circumstances, many Indigenous people feel that the government has put a target on their heads, [and] created an atmosphere where people feel free to kill, threaten, or otherwise harm Indigenous peoples.”

The study identifies “weak rule of law” as an important condition leading to violence against defenders. Globally, the average rate of conviction for murders is 43 percent. When the murders are of environmental defenders, that number drops to 10 percent. In turn, a “weak rule of law” means that many of these murders are not investigated, and at times those charged with investigating — the police or other federal authorities — are responsible for the violence.

From 2016 to 2017, there was a 71 percent increase in the murders of environmental defenders in the Philippines. This coincided with the ascension to the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, known for his use of lethal force on Indigenous peoples defending their land. In July, the Philippines was declared the deadliest country for environmental defenders in 2018.

“The murders are a symptom of corrupt systems and power dynamics that do not value the lives and rights of the poor and those who resist those systems,” Menton says. “These murders are about politics, about economics, about power and control. The defenders who get killed are seen as a threat to the status quo.”

While white activists like Greta Thunberg have been able to capture media attention at large, it has been harder for the stories of activists from the Global South to penetrate the international press. Menton hypothesizes this is because their stories are especially painful to hear and perhaps harder to relate to. But she also views them as inspiring and argues that the work being done by organizations like Global Witness have steadily shed a bright light on this struggle.

Menton is currently coordinating a research project on the experiences of environmental defenders in the face of violence surrounding development projects, which is a part of a larger effort led by Not1More, an environmental campaign group that supports frontline environmental defenders.

It’s an issue that is increasing as trade and consumption grow worldwide. Just this July, Global Witness published a new report, this time finding that in 2018 more than three environmental defenders were killed every week.

Every year, more people are killed defending the environment than are soldiers from the United Kingdom and Australia on overseas deployments in war zones combined. During the last 15 years, the number of both deaths of environmental defenders, and the countries where they occur have increased. Recorded deaths have increased from two per week to four per week over this period. These deaths are primarily related to conflict over natural resources, across a range of sectors. Of 683 total deaths, >230 were related to mining and agribusiness between 2014 and 2017. We find that rule of law and corruption indices are closely linked to patterns of killings. Using spatial data, we investigate the drivers of these conflicts and violence and seek to identify who may be most at risk and why. We argue that businesses, investors and national governments at both ends of the chain of violence need to be more accountable.
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