At the intersection of environmental rights and human rights stand the Defenders of the Earth: people who risk their lives to protect our shared resources. In so doing, they protect cultures, ecosystems, economies, and lives. Even though there are many organizations devoted to bringing these cases to light, record numbers were killed in 2016, and the numbers continue to rise. The comprehensive 2016 report released by Global Witness begins with a dedication: a list of the names of individuals killed for defending their environment worldwide – two pages of names, single spaced.
“Environmental human rights defenders regularly face discrimination, harassment and intimidation,” Angela Kariuki, an environmental lawyer working for UN Environment, told VICE Impact. “There are worrying signs of an emerging trend towards the hampering of the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, with increasingly harsh repressive measures being used to silence critical voices.”
As more people learn about their rights, and the relationship between human rights and their environment, they are boldly standing up in resistance.
"The organization is working to defend people who are threatened, harassed, assaulted, or killed when exercising their environmental rights.”
“People are speaking out more confidently than they were in the past,” explained Kariuki, “and this makes developers (or even states) want to silence them even more.”
Take Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmentalist who was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize for her work to protect the indigenous Lenca people when she opposed the building of the Agua Zarca dam, which would have cut off water and food to Lenca people. Through her grassroots activism, she raised awareness and put pressure on international investors until they pulled out of the project. Caceres was killed in her home by armed gunmen in 2016.
Check out more videos from VICE:
But for all the devastating stories of those killed, tortured, or kidnapped, there are many more out in the field fighting today. Global Witness, UN Environment, and others work hard to provide these people with the resources they need to get their work done and stay safe.
“UN Environment does not have the mandate to hear cases or prosecute perpetrators,” said Kariuki. “However the organization is working to defend people who are threatened, harassed, assaulted, or killed when exercising their environmental rights.”
They lay out resources and information to make sure people know their rights and how to exercise them. They can also access networks that can help further their missions. UN Environment works with policy makers, legal drafters, and others to help ensure that laws protect these defenders of the earth. And, of course, UN Environment boldly speaks out on the issue.
“People are speaking out more confidently than they were in the past, and this makes developers (or even states) want to silence them even more.”
“The rule of law in environmental matters and environmental protection is of critical importance when it comes to environmental human rights defenders,” said Kariuki.
In Cambodia, the organization Mother Nature, founded by Spanish activist Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson, is focused on protecting the mangrove ecosystems that people depend on for fishing and environmental health.
“What inspires me to protect our environment is love,” said a Cambodian activist with Mother Nature, who narrated a short film as he rowed a longtail boat through a mangrove forest. “When I was a child I saw an ampil tuk tree cut down behind my house… I started to cry.”
He remembered that experience and it propelled him into the work of protecting the environment in Cambodia. But as even as Mother Nature encouraged advocates to speak up for their environment through information campaigns, peaceful protests, and direct action, Gonzalez Davidson went to prison for two years. He is still not allowed back to Cambodia, even to attend his own trial.
“They are often seen as trusted leaders in their communities because they work to mobilize others to stand up for their rights, and to promote environmental protection.”
While environmental defenders can be found all over the globe, it is usually when industry and environment collide that these people are at greatest risk.
“Most environmental human rights defenders who have been killed over the last few years have been people who live in or around areas that are experiencing environmental and social problems because of a development in their area,” said Kariuki.
And even though Brazil leads the way in terms of numbers of activists killed, other countries including the US, have vulnerable defenders. Look at the Dakota XL Pipeline: more than 750 people were arrested as activists opposed the construction of a pipeline under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, which is sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people.
“[Defenders] are often people who know their rights and are exercising these rights to help protect the environment,” said Kariuki. “They are often seen as trusted leaders in their communities because they work to mobilize others to stand up for their rights, and to promote environmental protection.”
The best way to support the work of these defenders is to share their stories, to learn about environmental and human rights, and to speak out against violations.
“The general public can help by normalizing and promoting a human rights based approach to environmental protection,” said Kariuki. “We all have a stake in protecting the environment.”