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More People Die Defending the Environment in a Year Than UK and Australian Soldiers Combined

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Indigenous people are particularly at risk. This indigenous man from the Guarani Mbya community in Brazil was protesting to have his people’s voice heard in a land rights dispute in February 2019.
Indigenous people are particularly at risk. This indigenous man from the Guarani Mbya community in Brazil was protesting to have his people’s voice heard in a land rights dispute in February 2019.
Photo: AP

Fighting to protect your land is a risky task. A new study shows that every year, more people are killed defending their environment than those killed while deployed to war zones from the United Kingdom and Australia combined.

The study, published in Nature Sustainability on Monday, used data on the number of environmental defender deaths collected from the international human rights group Global Witness, which released its annual report on the topic just last week. The new findings build on Global Witness’ work by trying to draw connections between a country’s number of deaths and its amount of natural resources, as well as its level of corruption.


The Nature Sustainability study confirmed at least 684 defenders have been killed protecting their land over the past 15 years. That’s likely an underestimate as language barriers and lack of human rights advocates in some countries make the deaths difficult to track. Among those killed are community activists, journalists, lawyers, and indigenous peoples. The latter group has been disproportionately targeted with indigenous people accounting for 40 percent of all environmental defenders deaths in 2015 and 2016 and 30 percent of deaths in 2017.


Most deaths relate to issues around agribusiness where a government or private entity wants some land to grow their crops on, but the people who live on the land or depend on it for their sustenance resist. Environmental defenders have also died in large numbers fending off mining and resource extraction. That means the metals in your smartphone, the fossil fuels that power your home, and even the food you eat can come at a cost to the people who live near them.

Unfortunately, the number of deaths is increasing annually. The study blames the high death rate largely on the weak rule of law. Forty-three percent of homicides go convicted globally, the report notes, but for environmental defenders murdered, the number is just 10 percent. Corruption within some police forces or courts makes any murder tough to solve, particularly if police are involved in the killing. If there’s no mechanism to protect people, it can embolden more extrajudicial killings. Last year, imprisoned Iranian environmental activist Kavous Seyed Emami died under suspicious circumstances. When his wife went to go visit him in prison, police interrogated her instead of letting her know he was dead by alleged suicide. However, his peers don’t believe that was the case.

The paper authors highlight the case of Brazil, which has seen an outsized number of deaths even before the country elected Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right fascist, president this year. In 2017, 56 environmental defenders were killed in the country alone. That’s on the scale of some armed conflicts, the study notes, which are marked by about 25 deaths a year. Police officers are the main suspects for a massacre in 2017 related to land conflicts.

Bolsonaro has been clear about his intentions to expand industry in the Amazon Rainforest. Since his election, deforestation rates have been on the rise in the rainforest that’s home to indigenous communities. The president has denied deforestation is happening and recently fired a top scientist at Brazil’s National Space and Research Institute for speaking out about the issue. Advocates and environmentalists have worried about what his presidency will mean for environmental defenders; just last month miners killed an indigenous leader in northern Brazil.


“We always welcome additional attention on this issue, which helps raise awareness about killings and attacks against land and environmental defenders globally,” said Alice Harrison, a senior campaigner with Global Witness who did not work on this study, to Earther. “As our report released last week highlighted, calls to protect the planet are growing louder, but around the world, those defending their land and environment are being silenced.”

This problem may not be new, but people are finally starting to pay attention. The New York Times even published an editorial this month raising the alarm about the lives lost defending land rights and the environment. Attention is important, but action even more so. Environmental issues aren’t going anywhere, and people shouldn’t die trying to ensure they have safe drinking water or lands to call home.