Between 2002 and 2017, an average of four environmental activists were murdered each week. This number doubled during that 15 year period, amounting to 1,558 people from 50 countries. To put it into perspective, fatalities equal almost half the number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. And it’s over double the number of soldiers from the United Kingdom and Australia combined who have died on active duty during the same period. So why is it so dangerous to advocate for the environment? Corruption and weak rule of law may be the culprits, according to a recent study.
Who is in danger?
While these murders occur across the globe, Central and South America are the most dangerous regions for environmental activists. According to a study published by Nature Sustainability, 68% of these deaths happened in Central and South America. Another 31% occurred in Asia.
These deaths include environmental defenders of any kind — community advocates, lawyers, journalists, indigenous people, park rangers, agrarian reformers, and more.
While activists protesting mining and agribusiness account for the most deaths, protesting anything from poaching to water dams can put you at risk.
But disregarding all other factors, indigenous peoples die in the highest numbers. They account for up to 40% of overall murders, depending on the year. For indigenous peoples, the two most deadly countries are the Philippines and Colombia.
What’s more? Only 10% of these murders lead to a conviction.
This number is alarmingly low, compared to 43% of all global homicides. So with little judicial consequences, justice rarely comes for perpetrators of these murders.
Why are environmental activists at risk?
Overall, the source of these murders often comes down to conflict over resources. For example, indigenous peoples manage or have the tenure right for about a quarter of the Earth’s land surface. But a refusal to respect these land rights and poor governmental protection cause violence against these communities. Instead of consulting with local indigenous groups and environmental activists, governments and corporations tend to violently silence them, criminalize them, and even send death threats.
These risks are only compounded in countries with high levels of corruption and weak rule of law.
A case from Pará, a northern Brazilian state, exemplifies the issue at hand. In 2011, the environmental activist, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva (nicknamed Zé Cláudio), and his wife were killed in an ambush attack. Zé Cláudio had fought against log-cutting and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. For this work, he received countless death threats. Ultimately, the threats followed through.
Cláudio’s name had been on a death threat watch list for a decade before his murder. Despite this, the Pará government insisted they knew nothing about the threats. “How could we? The police are neither omnipresent nor omniscient,” said the official conducting the investigation, José Humberto Melo.
“In Brazil, given the current political circumstances, many Indigenous people feel that the government has put a target on their heads,” one of the study’s authors, Mary Menton said. She added that “[the government] created an atmosphere where people feel free to kill, threaten, or otherwise harm Indigenous peoples.”
Without governmental protection, cases such as Zé Cláudio’s are scarily common.
In Peru, a criminal gang shot dead six farmers in an attempt to seize their farms for a palm oil trade deal. Indeed, weak rule of law makes it even more dangerous. 32 deaths occurred in Colombia following a 2015 peace deal that led to the destruction of lands previously protected by the left-wing guerrilla opposition. And when Rodrigo Duterte — who doesn’t hesitate to kill indigenous environmental defenders — became the President of the Philippines in 2016, the death rate rose 71%.
An NPR interview with Leon Dulce, a leading environmental activist from the Philippines, reveals the sad truth. “Safety is no longer in the vocabulary of environmental defenders,” he said, referring to the grave threat activists faces under Duterte’s rule.
“It’s a situation where you can always – you will always fear for your life,” he continued. Yet despite the risks, to Dulce the work is necessary. “If you’re not going to do the work you do, who else will do it?”