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Are environmental activists in danger?
Blog...Are environmental activists in danger?

Are environmental activists in danger?

environmental protestors
In this article, we explore the growing threats faced by environmental activists worldwide and the urgent call for their protection against rising violence.
environmental protestors

In their mission to safeguard the environment, activists worldwide are facing a troubling increase in violent incidents. As they challenge the exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of critical habitats, environmental activists are increasingly finding themselves in the crosshairs of those with vested interests in land development and resource extraction. This article brings to light the life-threatening challenges these defenders face and the urgent need for measures to ensure their safety and the continuation of their vital work.

👉 In this article, we explore the growing threats faced by environmental activists worldwide and the urgent call for their protection against rising violence.

The killing of environmental activists and land defenders

NGO Global Witness has been documenting the killing of environmental activists and land defenders since 2012. Over this period 1,910 people lost their lives while defending the environment. In 2022, at least 177 environmental activists and defenders were murdered by organised crime groups and land invaders, which equates to a killing every other day. 

These shocking statistics reflect the worsening climate crisis and the increasing tension between those who choose to defend the planet and those who extract its resources for commodities, fuel, and minerals. 

The NGO also notes that in addition to physical harm, environmental defenders are also at risk from other tactics to deter their work - tactics such as criminalisation, harassment, forced displacement, and digital attacks. 

Where did these killings take place?  

The 2022 report by Global Witness revealed that the majority of these murders took place in Latin America (88%), with Colombia topping the list with 60 killings. The rundown for 2022 looks like this: 

  • Colombia - 60 murders, double the rate in 2021. Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities, small-scale farmers, and environmental activists were the primary victims. 
  • Brazil - 34 murders, up from 26 in 2021. Indigenous communities in the Amazon region faced increased levels of violence as a result of ex-President Jair Bolsenaro’s failure to protect the Amazon from exploitation. 
  • Mexico - 31 murders, marking a decrease from 54 in 2021. Those killed include environmental activists and lawyers. It’s notable that in addition to killings, activists also reported a high number of non-lethal attacks. 
  • Honduras - 14 murders. 
  • Philippines - 11 murders. 
  • Venezuela - 4 murders
  • Indonesia - 3 murders.
  • Nicaragua - 3 murders. 
  • Paraguay - 3 murders. 
  • Peru - 3 murders. 
  • India - 2 murders.
  • Guatemala - 2 murders. 
  • Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - 2 murders 
  • South Africa - 1 murder.
  • Malawi - 1 murder. 
  • Madagascar - 1 murder. 
  • Ecuador - 1 murder. 
  • Dominican Republic - 1 murder. 

❗️Global Witness has warned that these numbers most likely do not reveal the full scale of lethal attacks on environmental activists due to underreporting of incidents. 

Who was targeted? 

It is Indigenous communities, living on the frontline of climate change and environmental degradation, who are primarily the targets of such violence. Over a third (36%) of those killed were Indigenous peoples, 7% were Afro-descendants, and 22% were small-scale farmers. 

Others who tragically lost their lives include demonstrators, park rangers, lawyers, journalists, and government officials. The commonality between these victims is their commitment to defending the planet. 

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The threat face by Indigenous land defenders

In its report, Global Witness linked the high number of killings to the lack of protection afforded to Indigenous communities, who not only rely on the environment for their livelihoods and survival but are also working to protect these invaluable ecosystems for the benefit of all mankind. 

“Why do we want to protect the territory and risk our lives for it? We are not the only ones who need the forest to survive, we have to fight alone but we do it for the entire planet”. - Cacique Bepdjo Mekrãgnotire, Indigenous leader.

Indigenous communities are under threat from those who seek to exploit the land's natural resources. The communities are frontline environmental activists, performing the role of land defenders and acting as custodians of the ecosystems they call home.

When help from local authorities and state government has been lacking, these communities have been forced to take matters into their own hands. In some cases occupying land and establishing monitoring systems to try and prevent illegal activity. This puts them directly in harm's way with many reporting death threats, physical attacks, and arson.

👉 Discover why Indigenous communities are central to protecting the environment in our article.

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The situation in the Amazon

The report by Global Witness drew particular attention to the high number of killings in the Amazon rainforest - 39 activists and defenders were killed in the region in 2022, which equates to 22% of global killings, underscoring the Amazon as a critical flashpoint where the fierce battle over natural resource extraction is most acute.

The Amazon rainforest is the largest forest in the world, measuring 6.9 million square kilometres and spanning eight different countries in South America (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname). It is one of the world’s most important ecosystems.

Often referred to as the lungs of the planet, the Amazon rainforest is a vital carbon sink, helping to absorb carbon dioxide and offset human-induced emissions that are propelling climate change. Not only this, it’s also home to a plethora of unique species of plant and animals - and around 40 million people, including 500 different Indigenous and ethnic groups. 

Sadly the Amazon has come under threat in recent decades due to over-exploitation. The forest is being razed to make way for infrastructure, agricultural land, mining operations, and logging. The situation grew particularly dire in the Brazilian region of the Amazon (which accounts for 60% of the rainforest) under the rule of ex-Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. 

During his tenure, Bolsonaro indirectly incentivised illegal extraction activities in the Amazon rainforest, including Indigenous territories. Under Bolsenaro’s oversight, environmental protection bodies were weakened, allowing both illegal and legal operations to rise, destroying large areas of forest. 

The deepening crisis in the region placed environmental activists - also referred to as land and environmental defenders - in a dangerous position. Without sufficient government support or protection, these activists were left to face powerful mining, logging, and agricultural companies, state security forces, and criminal organisations alone. This is part of the reason why 1 in 5 of the 177 killings recorded by Global Witness took place in the Amazon. 

One of the most publicised murders in 2022 was that of Brazilian Indigenous expert and activist Bruno Pereira and British Guardian journalist Dom Phillips. The pair were brutally murdered during an excursion into the Amazon rainforest. 

Bruno Pereira, a renowned environmental activist and Indigenous expert, was working with local Indigenous populations to counteract illegal fishing and protect their land from mining gangs. He was accompanied by Dom Phillips, who, in addition to his work as a journalist, was also working on a book called ‘How to Save the Amazon: Ask the People Who Know’. Phillips had accompanied Pereira to interview Indigenous defenders fighting criminal activity in the region. 

It’s believed that the pair were murdered by three fishermen on account of Pereira's work, helping Indigenous activists defend their land from illegal fishing and mining practices. 

And although the two men are just two of the 177 people who tragically lost their lives as a result of their activism and work to defend the environment, the publicity that the case brought has helped to push the issue into the public consciousness. The media and public are starting to take notice. 

👉 Learn why the Amazon rainforest is crucial to the fight against climate change and why the election of Brazilian President Lula has activists sighing in relief.

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A growing threat in Southeast Asia

Similarly, in Southeast Asia - a region pivotal for its production of critical metals like nickel and copper essential for green technologies - environmental conflicts are intensifying as development pressures clash with conservation efforts. 

Mirroring the situation in the Amazon, local communities are increasingly at odds with mining corporations, often facing these challenges without the backing of local officials. In several cases, it is the authorities themselves who are responsible for heavy-handed tactics and physical altercations. The situation is further complicated by the exposure of corporate links to high-profile political leaders, highlighting the intricate entanglement of economic interests, political influence, and social dynamics that environmental advocates are forced to contend with.

The Global Witness report also highlighted the political abuse of power against climate activists in Vietnam, emphasising the need for government and corporate entities to proactively identify, prevent, and mitigate risks to these defenders. The pattern of arrests under the guise of tax evasion has become a discernible method for stifling environmental opposition. Notably, several climate activists have been detained following their advocacy for cleaner energy alternatives and reduced dependence on coal. These charges are increasingly viewed as politically motivated, part of a broader strategy to suppress environmental activism under the cover of legal and financial regulation.

The criminalisation of environmental activists is a hugely harmful practice. Not only are they forced to confront the legal system that should be protecting them, but in some cases, criminalisation has preceded murder. By labelling them as a criminal for their activism or actions, they are singled out, making it much easier for others to identify and target them. 

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How our need for metals and other natural resources is fuelling the fire

While events in the Amazon rainforest or distant Southeast Asia may feel remote, Western companies in the US, UK, and EU are implicated in violence against environmental activists and indigenous groups through their supply chains. Illegally mined Amazonian gold, among other resources, has been traced back to these international corporations, highlighting a shared global responsibility and compelling governments and businesses alike to take decisive action.

What can we do to protect environmental activists and land defenders?

The NGO Global Witness produced recommendations for governments and companies that it believes will help to protect environmental activists and land defenders. Full details of these recommendations can be found in their report, however, we’ve summarised the key points below: 

For governments

  • Enforce protection for activists - Enforce laws protecting defenders' and activists’ rights and establish new frameworks where none exist. Introduce safeguards against misuse of legislation that criminalises activists, and revoke laws targeting protestors.
  • Investigate and report reprisals - Show international leadership in monitoring attacks against activists and securing their participation in decision-making. Utilise existing mechanisms to promote the safety of environmental defenders.
  • Promote legal accountability for companies - Legislate due diligence laws for human rights, environmental, and climate risks in companies’ global operations to make them transparent and accountable for violence against defenders and activists.

For businesses

  • Implement due diligence - Conduct thorough due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remedy human rights and environmental harm. Implement policies recognising risks to activists, provide remedies for harm, and publicly acknowledge defenders' roles.
  • Zero tolerance for attacks - Enforce a zero-tolerance policy for attacks against activists and land defenders, illegal land acquisitions, and violations. Apply these standards throughout all levels of operation.

Joint actions for governments and businesses

  • Rights-based approach to climate change - Align commitments to the Paris Agreement with human rights obligations, enhance land rights, and participation of Indigenous and traditional communities in decision-making.

Recommendations to the European Union

  • Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) - The EU must ensure the CSDDD protects defenders by engaging safely with local communities, allows access to justice in European courts for harms caused by EU businesses internationally, and aligns with UN standards on human rights and environmental protection. Financial institutions should also conduct human rights and environmental due diligence.

These recommendations aim to create a safer environment for defenders and hold companies and governments accountable for their role in perpetuating violence and attacks against those who protect land, communities, and the environment.

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