According to records compiled by the campaign group Global Witness, 1,738 people described as environmental defenders were killed between 2002 and 2018, across 50 countries.
Their latest report for 2018, released last week, identified 164 killings
Although the figure is slightly down on that for 2017, the group says the number of reported deaths has been increasing over time with about three people killed each week on average.
In a study of the group’s data from 2002-2017, published today in Nature Sustainability, we found many of the deaths related to conflict over natural resources, including fossil fuels, timber and water. All but three of the countries where deaths were recorded are classed as highly corrupt, according to their Corruption Perceptions Index score.
What’s an environmental defender?
The term environmental defenders can include anyone involved in protecting land, forests, water and other natural resources.
Environmental defenders can be community activists, Indigenous peoples, lawyers, journalists or non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff. They are defined not by job title or political identity, but by their struggles to protect the environment or land rights. Many are part of collective struggles: they do not act alone.
One of the most well-known murdered defenders is Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist. He was killed in 1988 for his work protecting the Amazon and advocating for the rights of local people.
In Cambodia, Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group and a critic of military and government corruption in illegal logging, was shot and killed in 2012.
Berta Cáceres was murdered in 2016 for her fight against a dam that encroached on the water and land rights of the Lenca people of Honduras. Her death led to international movements calling for justice.
While some of the killings have sparked international outcry, others led to much more localised repercussions. Still others remain unreported and are not accounted for in the Global Witness database.
A conflict of interest
Conflicts over natural resources are often the underlying cause of the violence against environmental defenders. They are linked to different resources and sectors, such as fossil fuels, minerals, agriculture, aquaculture, timber and to the land or water from where these resources can be extracted.
We can see these conflicts as the continuation of historical colonial land use and appropriation. Today, the environmental footprint arising from the resource consumption of high-income countries is effectively outsourced to less wealthy nations and regions.
This is where raw materials are sourced in a country separate to where the resulting product or service is consumed.
Resource extraction is often carried out by companies or groups without legitimate rights to that resource. Examples include illegal logging in community forests. There is also the consumption of water from rivers that traditionally supplied villages or towns, for example, foreign mining companies in Bolivia.
While some of these natural resource drivers are local or national, in many cases it is multinational companies that are directly outsourcing their resource needs that play a role in violence against environmental defenders.
But who is actually doing the killing?
In our study we found weak rule of law and corruption in a country is closely correlated with environmental defender deaths.
We also found that indigenous people represent a disproportionate percentage of the defenders who are killed. About 40% of deaths recorded in 2015 and 2016, and about 30% in 2017, were indigenous people.
Indigenous people manage or have tenure over about a quarter of the world’s surface (about 38 million square kilometres. Conflict over natural resources is often related to a lack of recognition or acknowledgement of these rights.
A well-known recent example in the United States,Standing Rock involved resistance of the Sioux tribe, and allies, to the North Dakota Access Pipe Line. The aggressive response of the authorities, lead to the hospitalisation of many demonstrators.
We believe companies that profit from natural resources extracted under conditions that disregard the rights of environmental defenders are complicit in driving violence through their supply chains. They have a responsibility to act ethically.
There is an urgent need for a global perspective on natural resource conflicts. What is currently happening, in terms of the displacement of environmental and social damage, is a result of globalisation, and is increasing with trade and consumption.
The voices of those trying to defend the environment are being silenced. Low conviction rates show few people are being held accountable for these killings. This cycle of violence and impunity affects entire communities, creating a climate of fear. Despite their fear, many continue to fight for social and environmental justice.
A global climate agreement was adopted in Paris on Saturday evening, but it will leave activists demanding direct action on fossil fuels and energy market reform.
Before the Paris talks even began there were activists arguing that the negotiations would not deliver what they want. The Climate Justice Action network said that the COP21 will continue a 20 years of ineffective climate policy, demonstrated by a 65% rise in fossil fuel emissions since 1990.
Has activist pessimism about the agreement been justified?
The Paris Agreement doesn’t stack up
Klein argues that there is some “good language” in the agreemnt. The Paris text recognises the need to cap temperature rises at 1.5℃. However, the language doesn’t match national pledges for action. These pledges are so weak that a dangerous 3 or 4 degrees warming is likely.
The agreement also notes “the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change.” But the substance of agreement falls far short of what movements mean by the term.
One of the main issues activists have raised is the absence of reference to fossil fuels in the Paris Agreement. The agreement aims for “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks” after 2050.
Reference to reducing fossil fuels, or even “decarbonisation” would have been better. The vague language of “balance” between (fossil fuel) “sources” and “sinks” opens up the possibility for loopholes, such as “forest carbon offsets” and technologies activists oppose such as “clean coal” and nuclear energy.
Loopholes are familiar terrain for Australian negotiators, who have secured the continuation of a 1997 land carbon accounting loophole to meet Australia’s 2020 target. It is an accounting rule that will allow further emissions increases in energy and industrial sectors with no penalty.
Opaque carbon terminology typical in climate agreements turns the climate issue into an unhelpful abstraction. The concrete problems climate movements want addressed are about energy and inequalities, which are systemic and difficult to change.
Movements want ‘system change’
Activist pessimism about the Paris Agreement reflects the fact climate movements want to change society and transform energy systems more rapidly and fundamentally than the UN system allows for. They do this by bringing people together, online and in public spaces, to put pressure on governments and corporations to change.
The climate movement is a contemporary version of what Immanuel Wallerstein called “anti-systemic movements”. Anti-systemic movements want to transform societies, and in this case, humanity’s relationship with ‘nature’.
Climate justice movements are diverse, but there is a fundamental principle informing activist practice: climate change is a consequence of unequal, colonial, economic and social power relations.
Protests during the Paris negotiations illustrate the diverse strands of this anti-systemic agenda. The slogans were “Flood the system” and “Connect the dots”. Flood the system is a reference to anti-capitalist protests during the peak of the financial crisis. Connecting the dots means recognising the links between climate change and systemic inequalities.
Activists consistently point out that the impacts of climate change are greatest for marginal social groups, and that historical responsibility for climate change is concentrated in a small number of corporate and government hands.
Their analysis was symbolised in protests in the past weeks. The People’s Climate March and the People’s Parliament protest were both represented by Pacific Islanders, indigenous people, and mining-affected community members. They targeted Parliament, as well as a bank and fossil fuel company and coal infrastructure.
Given that climate justice movements want systemic change, it’s unsurprising that the Paris Agreement is not enough for activists. However, this is not to say that anti-systemic movements simplistically oppose all reform, or that movements don’t create new policy agendas.
Movements want reform too
There are two strong messages from activists about energy policy.
1) There needs to be a limit placed on fossil fuels
2) There needs to be regulation and public investment to facilitate affordable renewable energies.
As time as gone on, the political focus on abstract carbon targets and carbon pricing has diminished. Climate organisations like 350.org have translated their focus on global carbon target of 350ppm (a technical term for concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) into connected local campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
There are new research organisations documenting the fossil fuel assets that need to be retrenched in order to stay within a 1.5-2-degree limit. This year’s Australia Institute campaign for “no new coal mines” is concrete policy that would help keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Whether or not direct regulation of energy markets is politically feasible is an unanswered question. However, seeking change through complex and ineffective emissions policy like carbon trading has also been difficult for activists.
The road from Copenhagen goes beyond Paris
The last major climate talks held in Copenhagen in 2009 saw public protests like those last week. There was a broad sense that it was the last chance for a global agreement that could avoid dangerous climate change.
When the Copenhagen Accord was deemed a flop, a sense of failure was keenly felt by climate movements. The numbers of people engaged in climate activism dropped considerably from 2010.
But activists did continue to mobilise. After Copenhagen the social and environmental effects of Australia’s export mining boom in coal and gas were intensifying. New campaign organisations such as Lock the Gate and Land Water Future changed Australian climate politics. These groups are resisting fossil fuels, but climate mitigation is not the only, or central, motivation.
Food and water security, indigenous land rights, and farmer’s property rights have become much more salient than ever before. These campaigns have led to temporary moratoriums on coal seam gas, numerous inquiries, new water protections, and a debate about whether land owners should be able to say no to fossil fuel companies.
Renewable energy campaigns have matured since 2009, with new citizens campaigns developing the case for community renewable energy projects and fair access to the electricity grid for Australia’s 1.4 million rooftop solar owners. While these campaigns have struggled to get new policies, the resilience of the Renewable Energy Target is evidence that governments cannot risk losing voters who support renewables.
This week’s climate negotiations were one moment in a long battle. Activists are moving “through” and “beyond” Paris and will continue campaigns against fossil fuel dependence and for a “just energy transition”.
In doing so, movements will go on highlighting the failures of climate policy. They are changing what is politically feasible for Australian governments.
Should environmental groups that engage in public debate lose their tax-free status?
That’s the focus of a hotly disputed inquiry currently being considered by the Australian government — specifically, by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment.
Many green groups rely on tax-deductible donations from private citizens and small donors to sustain their work. In Australia, some 600 groups on the environmental register currently qualify. This is comparable to schemes in Europe and the United States, and was initiated to allow citizens and corporations to fund organisations that engage in issues of public interest.
Those who initiated the inquiry, such as the committee’s chair, Liberal MP Matthew Hawke, evidently have no problem with groups that do “on-the-ground” activities, such as planting trees and saving baby flying foxes. But they apparently see red when pondering groups such as Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth, who openly decry some government policies.
Particularly rankling for some conservatives have been campaigns to stop coal developments in Australia.
From our perspective as professional conservation scientists, the government’s inquiry is a bad idea wrapped in naïveté.
For starters, almost all environmental decisions made in Australia have been the result of community advocacy. Dating back to the 19th century, community organisations have pushed governments to legislate for the protection of wildlife and natural habitats. For instance, the NSW Bird Protection Act 1881 was passed because of the Zoological Society of NSW. When it comes to environmental protection, governments have rarely acted in the absence of community pressure.
Furthermore, fair and balanced public debates require input from all sides of an issue. Industry has a long history of funding advocacy groups to promote their agendas — often under the aegis of “community organisations” that actually are little more than industry mouthpieces.
Such environmental wolves in sheep’s clothing include the Australian Environment Foundation – which is on the register of environmental organisations – but has a distinctly anti-environmental agenda. Major corporations such as Dow Chemical, Chevron, the pre-merger Exxon and Mobil, and Philip Morris Tobacco have contributed to scores of other groups with pro-growth, anti-environmental agendas as documented by Sharon Beder in her book Global Spin.
Legitimate environmental groups, however, often achieve their funding via donations from thousands of individuals and the occasional philanthropic donor, rather than a few wealthy natural resource-exploiting corporations (although some environmental groups do partner with corporations in an effort to effect positive changes in their behaviour). Tax-free status is essential for such green groups.
There is also a clear legal precedent for the status quo. In 2010 the High Court of Australia determined in the Aid/Watch Case that advocacy activities aimed at policy or legislative change do not exclude an organisation from being classified as a charity. Such activities were held to contribute positively to public welfare.
Finally, the Australian public is overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal to strip environmental groups of their charitable status. The House Committee solicited public comments to their inquiry, and we assessed every one of them. Of 9,588 submissions, 9,539 (99.5%) were against the proposal, whereas just 28 (0.3%) were in favour (0.2% were neutral or ambiguous). Around 9,000 of the submissions were various types of form letters, although each was submitted by a different individual.
To us, the consensus against the proposal seems obvious. So, why is the government wasting the committee’s time on this inquiry when we have far greater environmental concerns that require bipartisan leadership?
In fact, the committee’s inquiry is merely one facet of a broader effort by conservative politicians in Australia to hamstring environmental groups.
As well as moves to curtail green groups’ political activities, reported previously on The Conversation by Peter Burdon, this effort also includes the attempt by Liberal MP Richard Colbeck to ban environmental boycotts, moves to insert gag clauses into the contracts of community legal centres, the defunding of voluntary environmental and heritage organisations, and the drafting of anti-protest laws in states such as Western Australia. Added to this list is the potential prosecution by the Victorian government of a green group that exposed illegal logging practices.
As Burdon emphasises, even if such efforts don’t result in legal changes, they force poorly funded green groups to waste precious time and resources defending themselves.
Notably, this war of environmental attrition isn’t just confined to Australia. There are alarming changes happening all over — most notably in the Asia-Pacific region.
In China, for instance, activists are often hounded while a new law restricting independent organisations is being drafted. Cambodia’s rulers are threatening to “handcuff” any group that stirs up political trouble, while lands-rights activists in Lao are similarly harassed.
India is becoming a poster-child for anti-environmental fervour. A new law there is imposing tight restrictions on activist groups. A leaked report by the country’s Intelligence Bureau claimed — ridiculously — that public campaigns against coal, nuclear and hydroelectric projects, and genetically modified crops were costing the economy 2-3 percentage points of growth a year. And in January a Greenpeace campaigner was prevented from leaving the country because she planned to testify to the British Parliament about coal mining in India.
In the coming decades, Australia and the world will face true environmental challenges. These include climate change; dwindling water, forests, biodiversity, and natural resources; and an extra 2 billion to 4 billion people to feed and support. We need real leadership and long-term policies to protect the imperilled ecosystems we all rely on.
Australia is certainly part of the global environmental crisis. We are among the world’s highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases — even without counting all the coal we export for others to burn. Our parks and protected areas are being seriously diminished. Forest and woodland destruction has recently accelerated. And in northern Australia, many native wildlife species are experiencing dramatic and mysterious population declines.
Criticism can be uncomfortable for policy makers but it has a crucial role in science and democracy. If governments attempt to limit censure of their policies or of industries, then where is our democratic right to freedom of speech? How do we stand morally above corrupt or authoritarian states that cause so much suffering in the world today, if we advance policies that are clearly intended to stifle self-criticism?