The fight against global warming and climate change has never been deadlier according to a new report by Global Witness found activists defending the environment are being murdered in record numbers. At least 207 environmental defenders were killed in 2017 alone, the highest total so far recorded by Global Witness. Many others still face repeated death threats and harassment.
Who are environmental defenders?
The United Nations Environmental Program defines an environmental defender as “anyone who is defending environmental rights, including constitutional rights to a clean and healthy environment, when the exercise of those rights is being threatened.” There are such people all over the world who are passionate about environmental conservation. But today’s times are proving to be the most dangerous for them as they have to deal with increasing amounts of death threats and violence.
“Of course my life is at risk, I receive death threats 24 hours a day because I’m not going to keep my mouth shut in the face of this atrocity,” says Maria da Silva, an activist from Brazil who has felt the barrel of a gun on her forehead more than once.
According to the report released by Global Witness, 2017 recorded the most killings of these activists on record. Especially at risk were those protesting against the agribusiness sector where powerful forces try to level down forests in a bid to establish plantations. The report also revealed a rise in the murder of defenders protesting against illegal mining and those protecting wildlife.
Deaths of Environmental Defenders by Region
Latin America witnessed the most killings with about 60 percent of the 2017 murders occurring in the region. 57 of the 2017 defenders were murdered in Brazil alone painting a gloomy picture of the fight against environmental degradation in the country. According to the report, armed Brazilian farmers brutally attacked the Gamela – a community indigenous to the Amazon, after they resisted logging in their land. More than 22 Gamelans were left severely injured with some having their hands cut off.
Asia witnessed an alarming 71 percent rise in murders from the statistics recorded in 2016. In the Philippines alone, 48 environmental defenders were killed as they protested against detrimental mining activities in the country. A community living near a lake in the Philippines was also attacked by military forces after they staged protests against the expansion of a coffee plantation into their land which would have displaced them. The attack left eight people dead, and more than 200 others were displaced.
The report also recorded at least 19 deaths of defenders in Africa, most of them were killed as they tried to protect the wildlife from poachers and illegal miners. 17 of these were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone.
Who is killing environmental defenders?
The report by Global Witness pointed to large corporations, paramilitary groups and governments as being the leading murderers of environmental activists. The motive is the same – to quiet dissident voices and to maximize profit while disregarding environmental impact.
The report further revealed corrupt and negligent governments colluding with unscrupulous investors to weaken laws and create an easy route for environmental exploitation. This has made prosecuting the murders challenging with defendants being absolved 92 percent of the time.
Some Environmental Defenders Lost in 2017
Shot and killed in January 2017, Isidro was an award-winning activist who was known for resisting drug traffickers, loggers and local strongmen from destroying the Sierra Tarahumara ranges in Mexico. He received the 2005 Goldman Environment Prize for his efforts which made him a target for threats. Fearing for his life, he fled from his community for a time only to be killed upon his return. Sadly, Isidro’s father had been murdered 30 years earlier for resisting logging in the same region.
Murdered in December 2017, Hérnan was an environmental defender based in Colombia. In 1966, Hérnan had been evicted from his land by a paramilitary group but then returned years later. In 2015 he started receiving multiple threats for his activism against environmental degradation. He had fiercely opposed the clearing of forests to establish cattle ranches, banana and palm oil plantations which invaded his community’s ancestral land. He was brutally murdered by paramilitary soldiers who shot him 14 times. 24 other defenders were killed in Colombia in 2017.
Murdered in Honduras, Berta was an indigenous leader of the Lenca people of western Honduras. She actively opposed the construction of a dam across the Gualcarque River which is sacred to the community. After receiving many death threats she was murdered in cold blood, and her murder case was dropped by the Honduran authorities.
Global Witness reports that Honduras remains the “deadliest place to defend on the planet.” Martin Fernandez, another environmentalist in the country, received a note on his door after his house was sprayed with bullets saying “we don’t want to, but if you don’t disappear in three days, we will kill you.” He was investigating the environmental damage that a hydroelectric scheme in the country was causing.
It is feared that more environmental defenders were murdered across the globe than the 207 that were recorded. According to the report by Global Witness, many more murders could have occurred, but details are often hidden or go undocumented. This is especially the case in Africa where many atrocities against environmentalists are committed, but verification of the cases prove to be difficult due to the lack of documentation.
John Knox, The UN Human Rights and Environment special rapporteur, says, “For their tireless work in empowering communities and protecting ecosystems, environmental defenders are killed in startling numbers. Murder is not the only way environmental defenders are persecuted; for every one killed, there are 20 to 100 others harassed, unlawfully and lawfully arrested, and sued for defamation, amongst other intimidations.”
A Call to Action
The people who should be getting the most support and recognition for their valiant efforts to conserve the environment are instead being murdered, but others can make a difference. Everyone can honor the memories of murdered environmental defenders by vowing to protect the environment in whatever capacity possible.
Consumers direct connections to distant environmental problems are not always clear, but they exist as the Global Witness report reminds us and senior Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather said in a statement.
“Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. Yet as brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced. Enough is enough.
“Governments, companies and investors have the duty and the power to support and protect defenders at risk, and to guarantee accountability wherever attacks occur. But more importantly, they can prevent these threats from emerging in the first place, by listening to local communities, respecting their rights, and ensuring that business is conducted responsibly.
“Despite the odds they face, the global community of land and environmental defenders is not going away – it’s only getting stronger. We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard. And we will be watching to ensure that defenders, their land, and the environment we all depend on are properly protected,” Leather said.
You can read the full report from Global Witness here and learn more about the brave environmental defenders that gave their lives to protecting our planet.