Murders of Environmental Activists Are Increasing

Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental and Indigenous rights activist who successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam in Río Gualcarque, Honduras. She was assassinated in 2016. Photo: UN Environment.

During the past 15 years, the number of people who have been killed for defending the natural environment has doubled, according to a new report from the journal Nature Sustainability.

Every week, four people are murdered for protecting the environment. This number may seem small compared to murders from gun violence in the United States – our national disgrace. But this isn’t a contest. Both are reflections of the worst aspects of humanity – the human mind when it’s lost its way.

Between 2014-2017, 683 environmental activists have been murdered, according to data from Global Witness, a human rights organization. Thirty-four percent, or 230, of these deaths were related to mining and agribusiness.

But the actual number of murders is most likely higher, reports Yessenia Funes in Gizmodo. Because language barriers, lack of human rights advocates, and censorship of journalists and the media in the places where the murders are occurring make it difficult to get accurate information on the deaths.

Those murdered include Indigenous people protecting their land, community activists, journalists, and lawyers. Indigenous people represent 40 percent of the deaths.

But whereas 43 percent of murders worldwide result in a conviction, only 10 percent of murders of environmental activists do, reports Jonathan Watts in the Guardian.

The murders of environmental activists are concentrated in countries with high corruption and weak laws. Almost all of the murders of environmental defenders happened in countries that get low scores for high corruption, lack of human rights, lack of legal oversight, and lack of transparency. Most of the murders are taking place in tropical and subtropical countries, notably, Central and South America.

Jairo Mora Sandoval
Jairo Mora Sandoval, a Costa Rican environmentalist who was murdered in 2013 while protecting leatherback turtle nests. Photo: WIDECAST.

Scary Parallels with Donald Trump and His Enablers

While those of us who live in the U.S. might think murders of environmental activists in the rainforests of Central and South America are far from our reality, think again.

We have a person in the Oval Office and enablers of him who display scarily similar behaviors to corrupt people in power in the places where activists, journalists, and others are getting killed for defending the environment, including a:

  • Disregard for the rule of law and willingness to obstruct justice
  • Enriching themselves at the expense of the majority of people in the country
  • Trying to suppress journalists and the media from telling the truth
  • Emotional disconnection from and exploitation of the natural environment
  • Denying scientific facts

Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, is horrifying too.

Deforestation in Brazil
Deforestation in Brazil. Photo: NASA.

The study in Nature Sustainability underscored the threat that Brazilian activists face under President Jair Bolsonaro, whom Trump congratulated in a tweet upon is inauguration, saying “the U.S.A. is with you!”

For the record, as an American citizen, I am not with Trump or Bolsonaro.

Even before Bolsonaro came to power, reports Yessenia Funes in Gizmodo, Brazil had a disproportionately high number of murders of environmental activists. And there is logical concern that things will be even worse under Bolsonaro, who, like Trump, has praised dictators and repeatedly spoken in physically violent terms.

Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva
Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, a Brazilian conservationist, who campaigned against logging and clearcutting of trees in the Amazon Rainforest. He originally worked as a community leader at a forest reserve that produced sustainable rainforest products, including oils and nuts. He and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo, were murdered in 2011. Photo: ResearchGate.

“We think attacks on Indigenous people are likely to increase, particularly in Brazil where Jair Bolsonaro has taken power with a promise that Indigenous people must adapt to the majority or disappear,” said Frances Lambrick, who co-authored the study and is the director of the nonprofit Not1More. “He is putting exploitation of the environment first.”

Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said “The Brazilian government’s proposed policy to open up more areas of the Amazon to mining could lead to incidents of violence, intimidation, and killings of the type inflicted on the Waiãpi people last week,” Jonathan Watts reported in the Guardian.

In July, a group of miners invaded a remote village in the northern state of Amapá, Brazil and killed the Indigenous leader Emrya Wajãpi. President Bolsonaro questioned whether Emrya Wajãpi was murdered. However, Michelle Bachelet released a statement calling the murder “tragic and reprehensible,” reports the Pacific Standard.

Since Bolsonaro came to power, deforestation in Brazil has increased, including in areas where Indigenous people live. Yet, in Trumpian fashion, Bolsonaro has denied that deforestation is happening, and he recently fired one of the top scientists at Brazil’s National Space and Research Institute, who spoke out about deforestation, reports Yessenia Funes.

We are also accountable.

U.S. Mall
Sunrise Mall, Citrus Heights, California. Photo: J Smith.

Trump, Bolsonaro, and their enablers aside, as consumers, we all have to come to terms with our role in the degradation of the environment and even the deaths of these activists.

We need to start incorporating more environmental accountability in our daily lives. We need to view our impact on the natural environment in the same way that we know physically abusing another person is wrong, hurting animals is wrong, and stealing is wrong. We have the moral capability to do the right thing. This needs to extend to our consumption habits and our impact on the environment.

In human evolution, we have reached a fork in the road: We are either protectors of the natural environment or destroyers. We are either living in a way that promotes sustainability and biodiversity or we are not.

If we are not doing this, we’re being greedy. We’re actively killing other living beings we share this planet with because we’re consuming more than our fair share. Those living beings include plants, animals, and people.

For my hardworking friends in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and other developed places – I know, it’s uncomfortable to hear this. After all, we’ve been working hard to have a better life. Don’t we deserve the things we want? Perhaps we do. But not at the expense of others.

And it’s important to keep in mind that we can be happy, healthy, and fulfilled even after we curb some of our consumption patterns.

The world is overpopulated with humans and we are consuming too much of the Earth’s natural resources and destroying habitats as we do. This demand, says Jonathan Watts, is “pushing mining, farming, and other extractive industries into ever more remote regions.”

“The toll is unbelievable,” added Nathalie Butt of the University of Queensland, who was the lead author and researcher in the study. “Conflict over resources is the issue, but it is corruption that is the problem.

“We need to make ethics and transparency an important part of the supply chain,” she added. “We need to ensure that there is no blood on our hands.”

What can we do?

Farmers Market, VA
Farmers market, Christiansburg, Virginia. Photo: C Burgva.

Understanding the supply chain for everything we consume is practically impossible, but we can still endeavor to try. In the future, when blockchain technology is more readily used, things should be easier. But that’s a whole other topic for another time…

Today, we know the metals in our smartphones come from Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

From Brazil, the U.S. imports fossil fuels, iron, steel, coffee, fruits, vegetables, red meat, tobacco, and essential oils.

What we can do is get to know the brands behind the products we buy. Know what they stand for and if they’re transparent about their supply chains. Look for the important certifications, including USDA Organic (or the equivalent in your country), Fair Trade, and Non-GMO Verified. Reach out to manufacturers, like Apple and Samsung, and voice your concerns. And eating an organic, plantbased diet helps to solve environmental, human rights, and animal rights issues.

Organizations that Protect Indigenous People and the Environment

Hyacinth Macaw
A hyacinth macaw, a native bird of the Amazon Rainforest. Photo: Pa Van.

In addition to being more informed consumers, we can support NGOs that work to protect Indigenous people’s rights, biodiversity, and the environment. A few are listed below. All of the organizations I’ve listed here get top scores on Charity Navigator.

Amazon Conservation Team (ACT)

Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

Rainforest Foundation US

Center for Biological Diversity

The Xerces Society

Ocean Conservancy

Be aware. Be kind. And never give up the fight for human rights and environmental justice.

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