When Environmental Activism Is More Dangerous Than Being a Soldier

©. Goldman Environmental Prize – Berta Cáceres of Honduras, winner of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize and founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations, was killed on March 3, 2016.

A new study reveals that murder rates of environmental defenders have spiked in recent years.

Being an environmental activist has never been easy work, but in the past two decades it has become more dangerous than ever. Between 2002 and 2017, the annual death toll has doubled and 1,500 defenders of land, forest, water, and other natural resources have been killed, mainly in countries with high levels of corruption and weak rules of law.

As the authors of a study just published in Nature Sustainability point out, "Murders of environmental defenders outweighed the combined deaths of soldiers from the U.K. and Australia deployed to overseas war zones" (via Scientific American).

The study is an attempt to quantify a disturbing trend that we may have a sense of, but not truly understand. Study co-author Mary Menton, a researcher in environmental justice at the University of Sussex, says that the findings are "intuitive" but until now lacked supporting evidence.

The study looked at a database of murders compiled by Global Witness, a nonprofit that reports cases of environmental abuse and corruption and verifies each case with three different sources. Using the Global Witness data, the researchers compared it to "agricultural harvests, forest cover, mining and dams to see whether the prevalence of these activities correlated with increased murders per capita."

Murder rates were also compared to a country's rule of law, based on rankings by the World Justice Project, and measured against corruption levels, based on reports from Transparency International. They found that South and Central America are the worst places to be an environmental activist; that is where people advocating against mining and large agricultural projects are most likely to be killed.

"Countries with larger agriculture sectors and more hydroelectric dams tended to have higher numbers of murders per capita. Indigenous groups suffered the worst losses, and non-indigenous lawyers, journalists, activists, park rangers and others were killed as well."

Scientific American reports that only 10 percent of people who kill environmental defenders are ever punished, thanks to high levels of protection or inadequate investigations due to lack of resources.

The study paints a dismal picture of what it means to be an environmental defender, particularly in a richly biodiverse part of the world that provides countless resources to the rest of us, and where good environmental stewardship is more crucial than ever. The findings are a call to businesses, governments, and investors to take a stand and demand greater transparency and accountability.