On September 29, Global Witness published a report about environmental defenders and activists that contains information about individuals who have been targeted and murdered for their actions defending natural resources and the environment. The organization sheds light on the stories of these whistleblowers, collates data on murders of environmental defenders around the world, and provides recommendations on how to strengthen protections for environmental whistleblowers and, in turn, protect our planet.
Highlighting Environmental Defenders and Their Stories
“We are not just in a climate emergency. We are in the foothills of the sixth mass extinction, and these defenders are some of the few people standing in the way,” writes Dr. Vandana Shiva in the report’s forward. Dr. Shiva, an environmental defender herself, states that “[t]he future of our species, and our planet,” depends on environmental defenders having protections. “In 2021, 200 people were killed protecting their homes and their rights. I urge you to read all their names. To honour the dead with your attention. To get angry on their behalf, and then to act,” she writes.
The report first bears witness to environmental defenders who were murdered in 2021, with a list of their names and home countries. According to Global Witness, 200 environmental defenders were murdered last year.
Interspersed with statistics about murders of environmental defenders and the industries they were trying to fight in service of preserving natural lands are more personal accounts of specific whistleblowers. The report first highlights Joannah Stutchbury from Kenya, who had previously received multiple death threats. Stutchbury spent years fighting against private developers who were trying to build on the Kiambu forest. She was provided no police protection even though she received death threats, and the report states that “in the months before she was killed, she had rightfully won a legal case against a developer wanting to build on the forested land.”
For each personal story and introduction to an environmental defender, Global Witness provides recommendations to the defender’s country on how to address murders of defenders, regulate wildlife and environmental crime, and strengthen protections for environmental whistleblowers. The report includes specific recommendations to the governments of Kenya, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and the state of Tamil Nadu in India.
Statistics and Analysis: Environmental Defender Deaths
The report provides data on murdered environmental defenders in 2021 as well as a grim retrospective of a decade’s worth of data on environmental defenders who have been killed. The data includes the country in which the defender lived and the sector, if confirmed, in which the defender was advocating for change. Mining and extractives, fishing, hydropower and logging were among the industries for the 2021 figures. Global Witness notes: “The majority of these cases were related to land conflicts, including those related to illegal crops and changes in land ownership. Land is a key driver of the attacks against defenders, however in many cases the economic motives behind land-related violence are not reported on.” According to the report, since 2012, 1733 environmental defenders have been killed. Brazil, Colombia, and the Philippines are the countries with the most murders of environmental defenders.
Additionally, Global Witness reports that in 2021, “the disproportionate number of attacks against Indigenous peoples continued once again, with over 40% of all fatal attacks targeting Indigenous people, despite them only making up 5% of the world’s population. These were documented predominantly across Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines.” According to the report, “[a]round 1 in 10 of the defenders recorded killed in 2021 were women, nearly two-thirds of whom were Indigenous. Gender-based violence rooted in misogyny and discriminatory gender norms is disproportionately used against women environmental and human rights defenders to control and silence them, and suppress their power and authority as leaders.
What is Contributing to Attacks on Environmental Defenders?
One section of the report outlines and analyzes what is driving “threats and attacks to land and environmental defenders.” This section discusses land inequality, corruption, violent conflict, “shrinking civic space,” or weakened civil society, and “culture of corporate impunity” as common threads in the countries where attacks on environmental whistleblowers are the highest. Global Witness takes all of these factors into account and explains how said factors contribute to unsafe conditions for environmental defenders.
Celebrating Victories and Making Recommendations
One section near the end of the report features a rundown of wins: situations in which perpetrators of crimes against or murders of environmental defenders were given prison time, decisions in which land was protected, etc.
In terms of making recommendations for governments and businesses around the world, Global Witness emphasizes strengthening protections for environmental defenders and individuals who speak out. “Existing laws that protect defenders must be enforced. Where such laws do not exist, new frameworks must be established. And efforts to use any legislation to criminalise defenders should be declared null and void. Governments must protect defender rights, including rights to free, prior and informed consent, Indigenous peoples’ rights to their livelihood and culture, the right to life, liberty and freedom of expression, and the right to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment,” the report states.
The report recommends that governments and businesses “Ensure commitments to implement the Paris Agreement align with existing international human rights obligations and standards, and promote just and equitable solutions to climate change. This should include strengthening the land rights of Indigenous and traditional communities, and enhancing their participation in decision-making in recognition of the key role they play in protecting the world’s last remaining biodiverse areas.”
Additionally, the report calls on the EU to be a leader in corporate responsibility, writing that the EU “is obliged to contribute to protecting human rights and the environment, particularly where the Union’s actions have an international impact.” Global Witness suggests that the EU mandate “that companies engage with affected Indigenous and local communities and other land and environmental defenders in a safe, meaningful and inclusive way,” require “that financial institutions be held to internationally recognised due diligence standards, including conducting ongoing due diligence, safely disengaging from harmful business relationships where harm cannot be prevented, and conducting due diligence on business partners based on risk (rather than partner company size),” and ensure “that companies conduct effective climate due diligence in line with proposed human rights and environmental due diligence requirements.”