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The Cost of Environmental Activism

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Environmental activists have been fighting for centuries for a variety of climate and social justice causes, yet the real cost of this activism has only been recently uncovered by a non-profit group, Global Witness. In their latest report, “Decade of Defiance,” Global Witness identified a sharp increase in unnatural deaths of environmental activist in the past decade, with an average of one activist killed every two days. We caught up with SIS professor Robin Broad, environmental activism expert and coauthor of the award-winning The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greedto discuss the implications of this report and what can be done to prevent future killings of environmental activists.

Global Witness just released its tenth annual report. In it, they stated that more than 200 environmental activists were killed each year in the past decade. Is this report important? Why do you think the death count has been so high in the past ten years?
Global Witness reports shock many around the world with the horrifying reality that murder can be the cost of protecting the environment, especially in poorer countries. Many who follow the news know that people—disproportionately poor and disproportionately people of color—are killed by the slow violence of chemical poisoning of air, land, and water by global mining corporations and fossil-fuel firms. Yet, in the United States and Western Europe, seldom do people get murdered for leading these fights for water, forests, land, and for environmental justice overall. Global Witness meticulously documents the shocking murders of over 200 environmental defenders. I’m both haunted by that number and honored and humbled to have worked with some of these brave people over recent decades.
Furthermore, as Global Witness explains, that number is likely just the tip of the iceberg as numerous murders are unreported or cannot be definitively categorized as defending the environment. As to whether the last decade of murders is higher or lower than prior years—we have no idea; no other organization bore witness to these murders across the globe before Global Witness began to do so in 2012.
Natural resource exploitation is a leading cause against which activists fight; why is natural resource exploitation by corporations and governments such as damming, mining, and logging so dangerous for the environment?
As the prices of gold, silver, lithium, and other metals have risen, global mining corporations have moved into more and more isolated areas. So, too, with global logging companies seeking tracks of precious hardwood. These global corporations deploy technologies that are even more environmentally harmful, such as open-pit mining that removes mountains. These operations, such as gold mining, rely on cyanide or chemical-intensive agriculture, resulting in the poisoning of waterways and land. It is not surprising that local populations—the 99%, if you will—quickly discover that the promise of jobs is overshadowed by environmental threats, and short-term profits for the few often mean longer-term disaster for the majority.
Many attacks disproportionately target Indigenous people; what contributes to this disparity?
For centuries, Indigenous peoples have been pushed onto the mountains and other remote areas. These are precisely the areas where resource-exploiting firms are now moving. Ironically, these areas that are now so attractive to global corporations for exploitation have largely been protected by the Indigenous peoples who live off of those natural resources—and who have done so sustainably for millennia. As Indigenous peoples witness the costs of this kind of so-called progress, they often come together to take action to save their land and water so that they and future generations can live. And such actions make Indigenous peoples, especially those who live in remote areas, easy targets of the rich and powerful who want to profit off of these natural resources.
Many in the AU community are not only concerned about climate change but consider themselves climate justice activists. To what extent are those who are killed also activists fighting for climate justice?
The fights by these environmental defenders—be they against resource-intensive mining, chemical-dependent agribusiness, or clearcutting forests that are the lungs of the world—are also fighting to save our shared climate. Indeed, these environmental activists whose murders Global Witness documents were at the frontlines of climate justice. As Global Witness itself says, it is very hard to separate exactly the concerns that lead “land and environmental defenders” to be killed.
For example, Berta Cáceres, a Honduran Indigenous activist and women’s rights defender, was murdered in 2016 for trying to stop the damming of her people’s sacred river, but that dam would have provided energy for mining operations whose operations would have added to climate change. While the report distinguishes among those who were murdered primarily for their activities against dams vs. mining, logging, roads, infrastructure, fishing, and so on, that total is far overshadowed by the nearly three-quarters of deaths—143—where the “sector could not be confirmed.” As the first law of ecology states, “Everything is connected to everything else.” So, too, are all environmental justice battles connected to climate change.
Mexico (56 killed), Brazil (26 killed), and Colombia (33 killed) account for over half of the reported attacks on environmental activists. Why do you believe these countries have such high rates of activist deaths?
These are large countries, population-wise and area-wise, so these numbers, while numbing, may not be so surprising. The commonality is clear: governments in 2021 in all three of these countries followed aggregate economic growth paths that rely on ever-expanding use of the very natural resources upon which their Indigenous and poorer populations depend. What is just as shocking is smaller countries with high levels of killings of environmental defenders; for example, 19 deaths in the Philippines, where I’ve worked for decades with environmental defenders; 15 deaths in Nicaragua, and eight deaths in Honduras.
What actions need to be taken by governments or other entities to ensure the protection of environmental activists and land defenders?
The impunity against those who are the masterminds behind the murders needs to end. In most cases, the murders go unsolved, often even uninvestigated. My recent book, The Water Defenders, begins with the murder of Marcelo Rivera in El Salvador in 2009. A few were jailed for the actual killing; who knows if they were guilty or not. But the “intellectual authors” of Marcelo’s murder have gone scot-free; indeed, an investigation never really proceeded. However, to end on a more hopeful note: water defenders on the ground, linking with allies around the world, continued Marcelo’s work and convinced the Salvadoran government to pass the world’s first ban on all metals mining in 2017. And, also on a hopeful note, a top corporate official—a former West Point-trained Honduran military intelligence officer—was found guilty of the murder of Berta Cáceres and sent to jail for 22 years in June 2022. This did not just happen because justice prevailed in Honduras; undoubtedly, the power of local, national, and global movements calling for justice in her case helped catalyze the conviction. There is much we all can and should be doing to ally with local environmental defenders.