NGO Reports ‘Deadly Decade’ for Environmental Defenders

One environmental advocate was murdered for their activism every two days for the last 10 years, reports environmental watchdog Global Witness.

Corn growing between trees in Kiambu County, Kenya. Low angle view.
Kenya’s Kiambu Forest.

MichaelUtech / Getty Images

For those impacted by record temperatures, flash floods, rising sea levels, and severe drought, climate change can be deadly. It’s not just extreme weather that threatens lives, however. Also, it’s extreme actions by extreme people, according to Global Witness, an NGO whose mission is protecting the environment and the human rights of those who defend it. In a new report on violence against land and environmental defenders—its 10th annual report on the subject—it says 1,733 people have been murdered in the last decade because of their environmental advocacy. That’s one murder every two days.

“Around the world, three people are killed every week while trying to protect their land, their environment, from extractive forces,” scientist, activist, and author Vandana Shiva wrote in a foreword to the report. “This has been going on for decades, with the numbers killed in recent years hitting over 200 each year.”

Typical of victims is environmental activist Joannah Stutchbury, who spent many years ardently defending Kenya’s Kiambu forest, beside which she lived. She personally confronted land-grabbers who were felling trees in the forest and subsequently won a legal case against a private developer that wanted to build on the forested land. Then, in July 2021, she was shot dead near her home on the outskirts of Nairobi.

“On the day of the incident, she stopped her car to clear branches that had been purposefully put there to block her driveway. Neighbors found her dead with her car engine still running,” Tracey West, CEO of Word Forest, wrote in Global Witness’s report. “We … know she was receiving multiple death threats. One time, I recall her telling me that unknown men had visited her to tell her they would kill her if she continued disrupting their plans to construct an access road through the forest. Despite this, she received absolutely no police protection. But that didn’t stop her. She continued to fight for what she believed in. For what we should all believe in. Still to this day, her bravery and determination is what shines through all the sadness.”

What happened to Stutchbury in Kenya happens to environmental advocates all over the world—especially in developing nations, where increases in killings and violence are linked to territorial conflicts and the pursuit of economic growth based on the extraction of natural resources, reports Global Witness, which says violence is most fatal in Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, where 54, 33, and 26 people, respectively, were killed in 2021. Murders also are common in the Philippines, Nicaragua, and India, which saw 19, 15, and 14 environmental murders, respectively, last year.

Violence also is linked to certain industries, according to Global Witness. Although the majority of environmental killings cannot be traced to a certain sector, there were 27 murders linked to mining last year, 13 linked to hydropower, five related to agribusiness, and four each related to logging and roads/infrastructure.

“The majority of these cases were related to land conflicts, including those related to illegal crops and changes in land ownership,” reported Global Witness, which says violence is likely underreported in many countries thanks to a lack of independent monitoring and a lack of a free press.

Even if the true scale of the problem is murky, however, at least one thing is clear: few perpetrators of killings are ever brought to justice.

“Many authorities either turn a blind eye or actively impede investigations into these killings, which can be due to the collusion between corporate and state interests—one of the root causes of the violence against defenders. Such impunity for threats and attacks against defenders acts as a green light to potential perpetrators, who see that they are unlikely to face consequences for attacks on activists,” explained Global Witness, which says indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to fatal attacks, constituting nearly 40% of victims despite representing only 5% of the world’s population.

Many of those victims are women. “Around one in 10 of the defenders recorded killed in 2021 were women, nearly two-thirds of whom were indigenous,” Global Witness said. “Gender-based violence rooted in misogyny and discriminatory gender norms is disproportionately used against women environmental and human rights defenders to control and silence them, and suppress their power and authority as leaders.”

To stop violence against environmental defenders, Global Witness says governments must pass and enforce laws that protect activists—including corporate accountability laws that require companies and financial institutions to carry out due diligence on human rights and environmental risks. Businesses, meanwhile, must “prevent, identify, mitigate, and account for human rights and environmental harms throughout their operations” and embrace policies that “explicitly include protocols for safeguarding the rights of land and environmental defenders.”

Concluded Global Witness in a press release: “All over the world, indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and other land and environmental defenders risk their lives for the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. They play a crucial role as a first line of defense against ecological collapse, yet are under attack themselves facing violence, criminalization, and harassment perpetuated by repressive governments and companies prioritizing profit over human and environmental harm. With democracies increasingly under attack globally and worsening climate and biodiversity crises, this report highlights the critical role of defenders in solving these problems and makes an urgent appeal for global efforts to protect and reduce attacks against them.”