200 Environmentalists Were Murdered Last Year

A new report warns of escalating violence against conservationists and protestors, from the U.S. to Africa and beyond.

Photograph by Giles Clarke, Getty Images News
Photograph by Giles Clarke, Getty Images News

At least 200 people were murdered last year for protecting the land, water, and wildlife in their communities, including five park rangers in Africa’s Virunga National Park, which is home to some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.

These rarely prosecuted murders are being documented in more countries than ever before—24 countries this year compared to 16 in 2015. Together with criminalizing and aggressively prosecuting protestors, the result is suppression of environmentalists, a new report by the nonprofit group Global Witness argues. Global Witness is a London and Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that works on the intersection of natural resource extraction and human rights.

“We have strict criteria for documenting murders of land and water defenders but many other killings go unreported,” said Billy Kyte, campaign leader for Global Witness, co-author of the report, with Defenders of the Earth.

“Our report is just the tip of the iceberg for what’s really happening,” Kyte told National Geographic. There is little data about the fate of local people trying to protect their land and water in the Middle East, Asia, eastern Europe and Africa.

Unrest in the U.S.

Criminalization and demonization of protestors is reaching new heights in the U.S., the report found. Last February at the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota protestors were attacked and injured—one woman lost her arm —by militarized police and the National Guard over construction of an oil pipeline under Lake Oahe, considered a sacred site. Some 800 people now face prosecution for protesting. (See photos of the protestors.)

At the same time North Dakota politicians came close to passing a law allowing drivers to run over and kill environmental protesters without facing jail. North Carolina is about to pass a similar law. The report documents 18 states currently working on new anti-protest laws since the election of President Trump.

“While there were no murders of environmental protestors in the U.S. last year, it’s the same pattern of the state using laws to attack and silence land and water defenders,” Kyte said.

The Global Picture

Around the world, corporate and political leaders often demonize protestors, sometimes even calling them terrorists, said Jamie Kneen, communications and outreach coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, an organization supporting local people impacted by mining projects around the world. These are tactics to keep the public from getting involved, Kneen said in an interview.

“The media portrays protestors as violent even when it’s the police or security forces that attack peaceful marches,” Kneen said.

Some countries have even declared martial law to end protests, such as the Philippines and Thailand, Kneen noted. (See pictures of Philippine death rituals under martial law.)

“It’s crazy. It’s completely out of control and hardly anyone knows about it,” Kneen said.

Protestors are often attacked for being anti-growth or anti-jobs, when all many of them want is environmentally sustainable jobs and businesses that don’t pollute their air or water, said Kyte. Countries with pro-business governments are where murders of protestors were most common. Killings of forest defenders in Brazil have become more brazen under the new business-friendly Michel Temer government, he said. The Global Witness report found protections for local and indigenous peoples had been rolled back and documented 49 people who were murdered by loggers and large landowners in the Amazon last year. (See pictures of Amazon tribes standing up for their survival.)

Even national parks aren’t always safe. At least 20 national park rangers and forest guards were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other countries in 2016. Poachers, militia groups, oil exploration, and corruption are ongoing threats to gorillas, wildlife, and rangers in Virunga National Park in the DRC, said Tina Lain, project leader for wildlife crime for the IUCN.

“Corruption is a global driver of environmental destruction not only in Africa but all over the world,” Lain said from Lubumbashi in the southeastern part of the DRC. Corruption may take different forms, but the end results can be similar.

“Shifting from an illegal or unsustainable business model that profits a few to a legal business model that profits many and nature is not an easy task but it can be done,” said Lain.

Targeting Dissent

Another driver of violence against conservationists is the often repeated claim by those in power that environmental protection will hurt economic growth, when the opposite has been proven true in many places, such as Kenya and Rwanda, said Lain.

Gorilla Defenders: On the Front Lines of Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

The rangers of Virunga National Park serve on the front lines in the fight to end illegal wildlife trafficking in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Thanks to the rangers' efforts, the park and its critical mountain gorilla population are rebounding.

In its quest for economic development Nicaragua became the most dangerous place per capita for protestors last year. A Chinese company promised to invest $50 billion to build a canal three times the size of the Panama Canal that will slice through the middle of the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The 120,000 indigenous people who will be forced to move only found out when the Daniel Ortega government made a public announcement in 2013.

“We have carried out 87 marches, demanding that they respect our rights and we have had no response. The only response we have had is the bullet,” Francisca Ramirez, a local protestor, told Global Witness.

Recent media reports suggest the ambitious canal project may never be built. However, the Chinese company still holds a 50-year concession to sell the rights to ports, airports, and tourism complexes.

Just two weeks ago in neighboring Honduras, Bertha Zuñiga, the daughter of murdered Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres, escaped men armed with machetes on a remote road. Cáceres, winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize, was murdered in her home last year for opposing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project. Zuñiga had just been elected to head the same indigenous organization her mother led in defense of the land rights of the Lenca people. In April this year UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights said Honduras’ failure to consult indigenous peoples had forced them into peaceful protest.

A week after Zuñiga’s attack the Netherlands Development Finance Institution (FMO) and Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation (Finnfund) finally pulled their investments from the uncompleted Agua Zarca dam project.

“Investors have a duty to speak out when activists opposing their projects are threatened. They need to put in place proper policies to protect environmental defenders, and freeze their investments if local populations are threatened or attacked,” said Kyte.

“Berta Cáceres endured years of threats and violence but investors said nothing, did nothing,” he said.

Cáceres was one of 14 land and environmental activists killed in Honduras in 2016. International pressure after her murder led to a rare prosecution of the killers, which revealed “the state was working with the company to kill activists,” Kyte said.

Ending the violence starts with guaranteeing communities can make free and informed choices about whether and how their land and resources are used, the report concludes. Governments, businesses, and investors must push for prosecution of those responsible for ordering or carrying out an attack. This obligation includes ensuring those who failed to support and protect defenders also face consequences for their inaction, the report notes.

Finally investors should pull out of any project where the rights of protestors and local people are violated, said Kyte.