The price of courage is often death


Environmental and human rights activists fight to protect nature, biodiversity and the climate. They champion sustainable development. They defend land and resources from exploitation and destruction. They uncover corruption and abuses of power. And that is precisely what makes their work so dangerous.

Hände mit Aufschrift: Our lives in your hands

Topics like biodiversity, nature conservation, and human rights are inextricably linked together. Our natural environment and its biological diversity form the basis for human existence and wellbeing.

According to the United Nations, 250,000 people could die every year from 2030 to 2050 as a result of climate change – from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea and heat stress. Climate change and environmental destruction will greatly exacerbate global problems like poverty, hunger and inequality. And the exploitation of nature violates human rights – for example, when villages are wiped out to make way for mines, or when groundwater is contaminated by resource extraction. That means that activists fighting to protect the environment and biodiversity are often also directly fighting to defend human rights.
It is imperative that we consider the protection of human rights as directly linked to the protection of the environment, the climate, and biodiversity. In August 2019, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) signed a new agreement committing to work closely together to protect the human right to a healthy environment.

Increasing pressure on activists

In their agreement, the UNEP and the OHCHR make explicit reference to better protection of human rights defenders and promoting their participation. In many places across the world, environmental human rights defenders are being threatened and put under great pressure. These people are fighting to protect nature, biodiversity and the climate. They champion sustainable development. They defend land and resources from exploitation and destruction. They uncover corruption and abuses of power. They support investments that actually help poor and disadvantaged people. They strive to give people a say when it comes to infrastructural measures that exploit water, land and other natural resources. They oppose the greed of companies that do not care when their actions destroy the environment and violate human rights. And that is precisely what makes their work so dangerous.

In its Global Analysis 2019, the organization Front Life Defenders records the killing of 304 human rights defenders. The actual figure is probably much higher. Land rights defenders and environmental activists are at particular risk; 40 percent of the murdered activists worked in that area. In 2018, 321 human rights defenders were killed, and of those 77 percent were fighting for environmental and land rights.

The NGO Global Witness produced a detailed analysis for the year 2019 dedicated entirely to the situation facing environmental activists and land rights defenders. It documents 212 killings in that year – a further increase over the previous year, when 164 cases were recorded. In addition, many other activists were threatened, harassed, or detained. Activists are particularly at risk in Colombia, the Philippines, Brazil and Mexico. In 2019, 64 environmental activists were killed in Colombia, 43 in the Philippines, 24 in Brazil, and 18 in Mexico. It is the mining industry that seems to be behind many of the deaths. Fifty environmental rights defenders died after they had actively protested against the destruction of nature resulting from resource extraction. Danger also threatens people protesting agribusiness and deforestation. In 2019, 34 activists fighting agribusiness and 24 activists fighting deforestation were killed.

Fighting against illegal logging and poisonous chemicals, and for the right to water

In early 2020, Raúl Hernández Romero and Homero­Gómez González joined the ranks of the dead. The two environmental activists, known as the “butterfly activists”, were murdered within days of each other in Mexico. They were calling for an end to illegal logging in the forests of Michoacán, Mexico, where monarch butterflies frequently seek protection from the cold. The commitment of these two men clearly sealed their fate.

Murder is the most extreme method in a series of tactics employed to intimidate and silence critics. Others include physical attack, threats, smear campaigns and wrongful arrest. One of the many organisations facing this kind of abuse is the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a grassroots environmental defence organisation in Cambodia. PLCN started in 2001 with the aim of protecting Cambodia’s Prey Lang rainforest from excessive exploitation and logging. Prey Lang is the largest contiguous lowland evergreen forest on mainland Southeast Asia. It is the home of the Kuy people, and a biodiversity hotspot. Although large parts of the forest were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2016, the forest receives no protection from illegal logging and clearing.

Since February 2020, PLCN has been denied access to the forest – while illegal loggers have been granted access and are permitted to drive away with lorries full of timber. Later in the year, two PLCN members, Khem Soky and Srey Thei, and the activists Ouch Leng and Men Mat were arrested and temporarily taken into custody. The Cambodian environment ministry warned that non-registered organisations like PLCN were prohibited from carrying out any kind of action in the wildlife sanctuary.

Another example is the case of Alena Masliukova from Belarus, an environmental rights defender and member of the Viasna Human Rights Center. One of her primary concerns was protesting the construction of a bleached pulp factory in Svetlogorsk, which would seriously pollute the local environment. This April, plainclothes police officers searched her apartment and confiscated her smartphone and laptop. Human rights organisations believe that this was because of her environmental activism, and have judged it a case of judicial harassment.

Another case is that of Camila Bustamante Álvarez, a human rights and environmental defender from Chile who fights for the protection and furtherance of environmental rights and for the right to water, on behalf of marginalised communities in particular. In March 2020 she received a series of threats online and was confronted with coordinated misogynist attacks by a group of unidentified men. The threatening images sent to her featured male genitalia and guns. She made a formal complaint of harassment, whereupon she received death threats. Chile’s water supply was privatised in 1981.

Human rights defenders need international protection in order to continue their work

These are not isolated stories; there are patterns behind them. While reckless exploitation of water, land and other natural resources continues apace across the world, activists and civil society groups have increasingly less scope for action. Even in cases when the public, in particular the affected communities, are consulted on projects that impact on the environment, land and resources of their region, their voices are rarely heard. Increasingly, such public consultations are empty gestures that merely serve to legitimise projects and do not accommodate local concerns and needs in any real way. Things get particularly dangerous when people express criticism of a project. Methods used to silence critics range from threats to actual physical violence, sexual harassment, smear campaigns and wrongful arrest. These crimes often go unpunished, and the law does not adequately protect environmental defenders. All too often, governments drag their feet when it comes to pursuing such crimes. And corporations and investors very rarely offer support to threatened activists.

We urgently need international initiatives that value the work of environmental defenders and strive to protect them. The agreement between UNEP and OHCHR mentioned earlier is an important step in that direction. It is a continuation of a resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2019, which acknowledges the important and legitimate role of environmental human rights defenders in protecting the environment and recognises the high levels of risk they face for their work. 

That resolution was built on the landmark UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which was adopted in 1998. It explicitly relates the work of human rights defenders to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Biodiversity Convention, establishing an important reference point for the protection of environmental and human rights defenders. Now, it is up to individual nations to put the resolution into practice. Corporations, too, should finally accept the responsibility they bear.