“Deadly Environment,” a report by the non-governmental organization Global Witness, revealed that from 2002 to 2013 at least 908 people were killed globally due to their environmental advocacy, with the rate of murder doubling in the last four years. Latin America and the Asia-Pacific show the highest rates of violence as tensions over limited natural resources in these regions escalate. Will Potter writes for Foreign Policy that, today, “Brazil remains overwhelmingly more dangerous for environmentalists than other countries.” Twice as many environmentalists were killed in Brazil as in any other country. However, this problem is just part of the global trend that reveals an increasing number of such deaths.
In a growing global economy, competition for resources is intensifying, pitting local communities against powerful business industries such as mining and logging. The problem arises when indigenous people are unaware of, or unacknowledged by, business deals that violate their land rights. Without more widespread attention on this growing problem, rural communities whose livelihood depend on the land will continue to be threatened by powerful businesses.
Political and economic elites benefit from silencing environmental defenders. In one case, gunmen shot a man, Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, and his wife, Maria do Espirito Santo, both of whom had worked in the Amazon forests for 24 years and served as members of an NGO founded to preserve the forests. These two assassins “were convicted in 2013 – a rare victory in these kinds of cases – but the landowner accused of hiring the assassins walked free,” writes Potter. This case is typical, he reports. “Only 34 people worldwide are currently facing charges for violence against environmentalists, and only 10 killers were convicted between 2002 and 2013.” Lack of prosecution sends the message that environmentalists can be “killed with impunity.”
Though the Global Witness report is significant, it has limitations of its own, Potter notes. “The research is confined to 74 countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, and it only includes murders,” he observes. “Nonlethal violence and intimidation, which is much more pervasive, are left out.” Further, the Global Witness report does not address the “well-documented history of violence against environmentalists in Western countries.”
Although there is some corporate media coverage of the increasing number of slain environmental activists, most fail to report the full extent of the problem and understate the involvement of U.S. businesses. For example, a report written in October in the Huffington Post frames the issue as one of national government corruption in Cambodia exclusively, and downplays the detrimental role that U.S. industries have, while simultaneously praising President Obama for addressing the issue at all.
Source: Will Potter, “When an Activist Falls in the Rain Forest Does It Make A Sound?” Foreign Policy, April 23, 2014, https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/04/23/when-an-activist-falls-in-the-rain-forest-does-it-make-a-sound/.
Student Researchers: Rachel Song and Inga Van Buren (Pomona College)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Pomona College)