The Slaughter of Innocents: Our Complicity in the Murder of Environmentalists
All around the world, people who are on the front lines of efforts to protect our planet are murdered for their eco-advocacy. They put their lives on the line, and they are being slaughtered while the world does not appear to notice. Many other environmentalists are subject to intimidation, violence, stigmatization and criminalization.
As revealed in a Global Warming is Real article, environmentalists are persecuted and killed all over the world. In 2012, there were a total of 147 environmentalists murdered. Although these heinous crimes are getting more media coverage, the frequency of these killing appears to be accelerating.
According to a report from Global Witness, titled Deadly Environment (PDF), the murder of those who advocate for the environment sharply increased between 2002 and 2013. During this time, at least 908 people are known to have been killed in 35 countries for little more than advocating for land rights, trying to protect trees or exposing the environmental impacts of mining operations. Even more tragic is the fact that these killers act with impunity as the conviction rate for these crimes is only around 1 percent.
The report shows that a troubling trend is emerging with more murders having occurred in recent years. On average there are now two activists murdered each week.
"There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis than a dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people defending rights to their land or environment," said Oliver Courtney of Global Witness. "Yet this rapidly worsening problem is going largely unnoticed, and those responsible almost always get away with it."
The report indicates that indigenous communities are most at risk and some of the most dangerous areas for environmentalists are in Latin America and Asia-Pacific. Brazil is the most dangerous place with 448 killings, followed by Honduras with 109 and the Philippines with 67.
Recently, an Ecuadorean leader was murdered to keep him from sharing his story with world leaders at UN climate talks in Peru at the end of 2014. As the negotiations commenced in Lima, the tortured, bound and buried body of José Isidro Tendetza Antún was discovered. It is widely believed that he was killed for being a vocal defender of an Ecuadorian forest that is at risk from the Mirador copper and gold mine. Prior to his murder, his crops were burned and he was threatened.
In Ecuador, foreign multinational companies are invited by the government and they are afforded protections by the state, the police and the army. The same cannot be said for the country's indigenous people. It is very likely that the Ecuadorian authorities are complicit in the killing of Tendetza.
Others have also been killed in Ecuador for their opposition to Mirador, they include Bosco Wisum in 2009 and Freddy Taish in 2013. In addition to these murders, at the end of 2014, a group of campaigners traveling in a “climate caravan” was repeatedly stopped by police on the way to COP20 in Lima. When this did not deter them, their bus was confiscated.
Tendetza's killers, like those who killed Wisum and Taish, are still at large.
Not all murders go unsolved, the case of Prajob Naowa-opas is one such rare exception. Prajob lived in central Thailand. As head of his village he did everything he could to save his community form illegal dumping of toxic waste. He filed petitions and blocked trucks from making their lethal deliveries. Then one day, in broad daylight, a gunman silenced him forever by shooting him four times.
His killers, including a senior government official, have been sentenced to death for the crime. However, the sentences of 2 of the 3 have been commuted to life in prison for cooperating with authorities. Not only have Prajob's killers been sentenced, but the dumping has been stopped and villagers have erected a statue as a token of their gratitude to their slain hero.
Justice is a rare occurrence in such crimes with only 10 out of 908 murdered environmental activists having been convicted between 2002 and 2013.
It is not only disreputable companies and nefarious governments that are responsible for the these deaths. In France, a young environmental activist by the name of Remi Fraisse was killed during a protest against the controversial Sivens Dam Project in southwestern France. Initial investigation results suggest the 21-year-old protester may have been killed by a police concussion grenade. Activists are concerned that the dam would jeapordize 94 protected species that reside in the forest.
The number of sad stories are far too numerous to review. Victims have ranged from a 70-year-old farmer like Jesus Sebastian Ortiz, one of several people in the Mexican town of Cheran killed for opposing illegal logging, to the shooting of indigenous anti-mining activist Juvy Capion and her two sons by Philippine armed forces.
It is not only murder but intimidation as well. Survival International released a video of a gunman terrorizing a Guarani indigenous community in Brazil, which has recently resettled on land taken from them by ranchers decades ago.
The situation is actually far worse than the 908 murders confirmed by Global Witness. Suspected murders in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe were left out of the report because they could not be independently confirmed. There are also many places where Global Witness does not have access to information. This includes African countries such as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Zimbabwe. All of these nations are suffering from resource-fueled unrest, but the incidences of violence and murder go unreported.
What must be done
Clearly, we need a more coordinated and concerted effort from human rights organizations and governments to monitor the issue and bring those responsible to justice. Global Witness would like to see a resolution related to the threats faced by environmentalists from the UN’s Human Rights Council. The private sector also has an important role to play overseeing their operations and their supply chains to make sure no harm is done.
“[I]t has never been more important to protect the environment, and it has never been more deadly,” said Oliver Courtney of Global Witness. “...We hope our findings will act as the wake-up call that national governments and the international community clearly need.”
John Knox, United Nations independent expert on human rights and the environment said, "The international community must do more to protect them from the violence and harassment.”
If we fail to stand up for those who have the courage to die defending our planet, we should consider ourselves complicit in the endemic culture of impunity.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.