Environmentalist Heroes: Defending the Environment at a Great Risk

October 30, 2018

Around the world, environmental activists are being murdered at an increasing rate. The victims include those who are specifically environmental activists, park rangers, or indigenous leaders. These death patterns are caused by the increasingly globalized world and an economic rationale that stems from the ideals of capitalism. In the past, this capitalistic focus has burdened the environment, but never before has it severely impacted environmentalists. Based on data from 2016 and 2017, the main defenders of the natural world are being attacked and killed at a significant rate. There are organizations that aim to educate the world on these deaths, as well as protect the defenders who are at risk. This article will go into a discussion on the causes of this recent murder trend, organizations that defend these environmentalists, the stories behind the defenders, and how this is a global issue.

Environmental wars are occurring worldwide. The battles are often between the locals and the big businesses who have government approval for land development in controversial areas. The deaths are most frequent with those working to defend the environment affected by agribusinesses, mining and oil industries, logging, and poaching. The conflicts are happening because of the shift to globalization. Capitalism has influenced corporations into taking over the land and resources of poorer countries that have less environmental regulations, are susceptible to corruption, and have instability in their economies and governments. However, this has become the age-old problemrich corporations taking advantage of poor countries and their resources. The problem of these past two decades has been the increasing rate of environmentalist murders (Watts and Vidal, 2017).

These murders are frequently executed by state security personnel who are trying to protect their economic profit they receive from the environment (Watts and Vidal, 2017). Writers for The Guardian, Jonathan Watts and John Vidal, describe how “with major economic interests at stake, state security forces were behind at least 43 killings globally – 33 by the police and 10 by the military – while private actors such as security guards and hitmen were responsible for 52 deaths.” A dataset depicting the suspected murderers of 2017 has shown police, armed forces, paramilitary forces, and militia to make up a large percentile of the perpetrators. For example, armed forces was the third highest percentile of people making up 30% of the suspects behind the murders. Likewise, police were a percentile below at 23%. However, the largest category of people were those who have not been caught, as 58% of the murderers are unknown. Finally, criminal gangs also make up at large portion of the killers at 32% (Global Witness).

In continuation, 2017 has been publicized as “the deadliest year for environmental activists” (Zachos, 2018). An organization, Global Witness, confronts the corruption and conflict that the environment and the defenders face. Global Witness aims to spotlight the amount of violence that has occurred by providing the statistical evidence of the killings, as well as the stories behind those impacted. Specifically, Global Witness has been able to document a total of 207 murders of environmental defenders in 24 different countries. In comparison, in 2016 the number was lower, as at least 200 killings had been documented. Also, in 2015 only 16 countries had experienced murders in their environmentalist community. Agribusiness deaths were the highest with 46 reported cases. The Global Witness is the main platform that focuses on recording these deaths, but it is likely that there are more killings per year than they are unable to document because many of the murderers are left unidentified (Global Witness). For instance, Global Witness aims to document each killing, but as Cass Business School researcher, Bobby Banerjee writes, “These are just the reported ones. There could be three times as many. There is much more violence now” (Watts and Vidal, 2017). Likewise, it does not stop with the murders, people are threatened daily with “death, eviction, and destruction of their resources” if they are trying to protect their land or the environment in general. Thus, not only are the frontline defenders at risk, but also the indigenous communities whose land is being threatened (Watts and Vidal, 2017).

Despite the fact that the environmentalist killings are occurring worldwide, the deaths are highly concentrated in Latin America. For example since 2002 two-thirds of the land defenders who were killed throughout the world where from Latin America. According to the 2017 Annual Report by Global Witness called “Spotlight on Corruption,” 60% of the 207 defenders killed were from Latin America (Watts and Vidal, 2017). Brazil saw the highest amount of deaths, as 57 activists were murdered–many of which were in the Amazon rainforest (Global Witness). The high environmentalist death rate in Brazil can be correlated with their high deforestation rate. In 2016, Brazil experienced a deforestation rate of 29% and the highest death amount of 49, where timber production had be a causal factor for 16 of the 49 deaths. The high rate of environmentalist deaths can be drawn to the exploitation by businesses and governments of the natural resources and their communities in Latin America (Watts and Vidal, 2017). Therefore, the main causation of these deaths is negligence, corruption, and the need to maximize profit in the cheapest manner possible.

There is no region that is immune to the attacks on their environmentalists. The Philippines experienced 48 murders (second highest). Whereas in Africa, 19 activists were documented as killed–12 of which were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thus, this is a global movement that calls for global action against the deadly trend that continues to grow (Global Witness).

Aside from Global Witness, there are multiple organizations that confront this problem. For example, Not1More is a non-profit whose mission is to support the defenders by investigating the causes of the current conflicts by working closely with at-risk people and communities. They are focused in Cambodia, West-Africa, and Brazil (Not One More). Another organization is the Thin Green Line Foundation, and they take the role of specifically protecting rangers who are targeted by poachers. Finally, not only does Global Witness focus on documenting the amount of deaths and the perpetrators, they also aim to share the stories behind those who stand up for the environment in the face of violence.

On their website, Global Witness has a chapter for each country that has documented having deadly environment conflicts. From the evidence available, Global Witness takes the stories of the environmentalists in order to educate the world on the specific cases of injustice, inequality, and violence.  For example, there are stories of women defending not only their land, but also their human rights as women. There are excerpts on the rangers who are protectors of wildlife and parks. In Africa, the true amount of violence against them remains unknown (Global Witness). Each chapter consists of a variety of stories, and each of them include a photo of the activist–giving the victims a face, while confronting the world and creating a call to action.  

Likewise, a problem that persists outside of the death trend is that the magnitude of these crimes is often unknown. Organizations like Not1More, Global Witness, and the Thin Green Line use what data they can find, but this violence is occurring on a much larger scale than they are able to document. This is due to the corrupt nature of these killings. Therefore, as corruption and making large profits continue to influence those ruling over the environment sector, the danger environmental defenders face is likely to persist.



  1. Jonathan Watts, John Vidal. (July 13, 2017). "Environmental defenders being killed in record numbers globally, new research reveals". The Guardian.
  2. Not One More. (N/A). "Our Mission".
  3. The Thin Green Line Foundation. (N/A). "N/A". The Thin Green Line Foundation.
  4. Elaina Zachos. (July 24, 2018). "Why 2017 Was the Deadliest Year for Environmental Activists". National Geographic.
  5. Global Witness. (N/A). "Global Witness Website".

About Author(s)

Carley Clontz
Carley is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is studying Economics, Spanish, French, Global Studies, and Latin American Studies. Through academic programs, Carley has traveled to Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. This is her first year as an intern for Panoramas.