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Environmental Defenders Are Being Murdered at an Unprecedented Rate, Says UN Special Rapporteur

The Earth’s front-line defenders are disappearing at an astonishing rate. On average three environmental activists were killed each week in 2015, according to a recent report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Global Witness, an international NGO that documents natural resource extraction, corruption, and violence, reports a 59 percent increase in deaths last year compared to 2014. In total, 185 killings of environmental defenders were recorded by Global Witness in 2015.

“I am extremely appalled by the number of killings and attacks and the lack of response from states,” writes the special rapporteur, Michel Forst, who was given his mandate to investigate the issue by the United Nations Human Rights Council. “This report is dedicated to the heroic activists who have braved the dangers facing them and defended the rights of their communities to a safe and healthy environment… They spoke truth to power, and were murdered in cold blood.”

Latin America and Asia are the hotspots for increased environmental human rights violence, where industries like mining, deforestation, and palm oil cultivation are taking a toll on the land and people. Land and resource rights in many hotspots are highly contested, especially concerning ancestral lands and the rights of indigenous populations, and there are few legal protections that can be counted on. The report finds that in almost every Latin American country where such abuses are present, government and corporate actors were involved.

But increasing violence around land rights is a transnational issue, the report says. As increased competition for natural resources has expanded over the last few decades, major international corporations with stakes in global development “have prioritized resource-based development models to raise their national income,” according to Forst.

An Escalating Crisis

In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed a set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and established a working group to emphasize the responsibilities that transnational corporations and other business enterprises have in respecting human rights. Since then, the working group has provided guidance to states seeking to live up to these principles and contributed to national action plans on the matter.

185 killings were recorded by Global Witness in 2015, a 59% increase

Given the “heightened risk posed by business activities” though, the special rapporteur now calls for the international community to do more: to “formulate an international treaty to prevent and address human rights violations by transnational and national business enterprises.”

While some private actors are engaged in productive stakeholder dialogues to peaceably resolve contested practices, the diversity and number of private actors connected to land and resources extraction frustrates bottom-up efforts.

Amnesty International recently published an interactive online database to highlight the increasing amount of attacks against environmental activists in the Americas. “The cases feature[d] in our new platform show only the tip of the iceberg,” said Amnesty International Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas in a press release. “The new tool aims to shine a light on an invisible crisis and on the stories of those who work against powerful political and economic interests to protect the resources without which none of us would be able to live.”

According to the database, defenders in the Americas have faced criminalization for combatting illegal logging of forests, intimidation for opposing fishing refineries, and threats against the right to occupy lands. Murders and attempted attacks are also catalogued.

Examples of lethal violence against environmental leaders range across regions and issue areas. Perhaps the best known case was Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper who was gunned down in 1988 by large land owners for resisting deforestation in Acre. Mendes’ murder drew international headlines as Amazonian deforestation took center stage in conservation efforts.

More recently, the death of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres made headlines after she was gunned down in 2016 in front of her family for leading indigenous people through grassroots opposition to a large proposed dam. Cáceres had received the prestigious Goldman Prize for environmental activism the previous year and spoken at the Wilson Center.

Families and communities of organizers have also been targeted, including the family of Alexandre Anderson de Souza, a food and water activist operating in Brazil. Women and indigenous people face additional gender- and power-based inequalities, the UN report finds.

Long Ignored

The rise in personal violence against community groups may be a symptom of globalization seeking out and exploiting weak legal protections and land rights in many places, but it is also an issue largely ignored by the wider environmental security community.

A surge in interest in potential connections between the environment, natural resource management, and violence dating back to the early 1990s almost exclusively focused on the onset of conflict among organized forces. With conflicts in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and West Africa, violence was large-scale and state and regime stability were often at stake. But the focus on investigating the environment’s role in causing mass violence largely ignored the level of individual actors. Planned violence against individual activists standing up to unsustainable, inequitable, or corrupt resource use or infrastructure projects flew under the radar and received little to no attention in the prominent environment and security discourse. The UN special rapporteur’s report makes the case that this omission is a significant one.

Planned violence against activists received little to no attention in the environment and security discourse

Forst insists it is the “duty of the state” to provide greater recognition and legitimacy to these environmental human rights activists under increasing threat. But the report provides recommendations for a wide array of other actors, including regional intergovernmental organizations as well as business enterprises.

By providing political and financial support to regional human rights initiatives, intergovernmental organizations can reinforce the protections theoretically afforded to these defenders. Businesses who adopt the relevant Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights can ensure the rights of environmental activists are respected and help establish greater accountability mechanisms for future protection of these defenders.

Ultimately, though, it is individuals that are all too often paying the price when these policy processes fail, as the UN special rapporteur, Global Witness, and Amnesty International reports show – and to whom much of the modern environmental justice movement owes a debt.

Environmental human rights defenders “are at the heart of our future and the future of the planet,” writes Forst. “Empowering and protecting [them] is part and parcel of the overall protection of the environment.”

Had Berta Cáceres not been killed for her environmental activist efforts this year, she would have been recognized as a UN Environment Champion of the Earth earlier this month. Instead, Berta’s brother Juan Manuel Cáceres received the award on her behalf. 

“Berta didn’t die, she multiplied,” said Manuel Cáceres in his acceptance speech. “She multiplied in your consciousness, in you that work day-by-day to defend the environment.”


Bethany N. Bella is earning a Bachelor’s degree in Specialized Studies at Ohio University, studying geography, political science, journalism, and anthropology. She is also a Voinovich Research Scholar at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Geoffrey D. Dabelko is Professor and Director of the Environmental Studies Program at the George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University. Also see:


Sources: Amnesty International, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Danish Institute for Human Rights, Deutsche Welle, Global Witness, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Environment, United Nations, United Nations Human Rights Council, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.

Photo Credit: A memorial to nun and environmental activist, Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in Brazil in 2005, courtesy of flickr user Flavio Serafini.

[This arcticle originally appeared on New Security Beat, the blog of the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program.]