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

24 January, 2017
Bethany N. Bella & Geoffrey D. Dabelko

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.]

Biodiversity & Livelihoods
Land & Food
Minerals & Mining
Private Sector

Global Issues


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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

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Conflict Transformation

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Environment & Migration

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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