Murders of environmental defenders have reached war-zones levels
More than three people are being murdered each week for defending the environment, according to 2018 data from Global Witness. There were 1,558 murders of environmental defenders between 2002 and 2017, of which Indigenous people make up the majority.
According to the UN, Indigenous people occupy 1 quarter of the Earth’s land surface, which they share with most of the world’s remaining biodiversity. About 65% of this land has not been developed, compared with 44% of lands owned by non-Indigenous populations. But there is a war waging between Indigenous communities looking to protect their lands, and those who seek to destroy it for profit.
Researchers have found that nature on Indigenous peoples’ lands is degrading less than in other areas. Part of the reason for this is that most Indigenous people have a deep relationship with the environment: “for the Indigenous, the ecosystems are considered to be relatives and there is a relational accountability that comes with that, so destroying the environment is not just violence against the ecosystem, it is violence against a relative,” says Michelle Montgomery, a Cherokee descendant and an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.
More than half of the murders in 2018 of environmental defenders took place in South America, which has consistently ranked as the worst affected continent, with Guatemala being the deadliest country per capita.
Colombia is another minefield for environmental defenders. Within 2½ years, more than 700 indigenous leaders have been killed. The UN has documented 52 murders of Indigenous people in the northern part of Cauca in Colombia this year alone, with the latest killings taking place last month, where 5 Indigenous leaders were murdered. “There is never a focus on who the murderers are,” Holly Gabriella, a student in Bogota says.
Brazil, the country with the world’s largest tropical rainforest, has seen a correlation between recent spikes in deforestation and an increase in murders of Indigenous people in those areas. After a decade of supposed progress (according to Global Forest Watch, between 2001-18, Brazil lost almost 55 million hectares of tree cover at a rate of 5.7 soccer fields per minute), Bolsonaro’s new government began ignoring environmental regulations and encouraging deforestation.
There has been an 88% increase in deforestation in June of this year, compared with the same month a year ago.
In Brazil, invasions of Indigenous people’s lands also increased by 150% this year, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council. Paulos Paulino Guajajara, a member of the Guardians of the Forest, is the latest victim. “I knew he [Paulos] wouldn’t last long the moment I saw his face all over social media. It is very dangerous out here. The government is encouraging this chaos”, an environmental activist, who is based in the Cerrado area and wishes to remain anonymous, told The Hourglass.
“Indigenous people lack secure rights for their lands and support from the state so they are often left to impose their own rights going against very powerful people,” Darragh Conway, Lead Legal Council of Climate Focus, says. In most countries, the lack of prosecution is astonishing: on average just over 10% of these murders are convicted. Yet research has found that granting formal land rights to Indigenous people living in the world’s forests is one of the “most underused and effective solutions to reducing deforestation that fuels climate change,” according to Peter Veit, director of the Washington-based World Resources Institute’s land rights initiative. This makes it a key factor in addressing the current Climate and Ecological Crisis.
It is not just South America. Under President Duterte in the Philippines, there was a 71% increase in the murder of environmental defenders, with 30 murders in 2018 alone. Murders in Africa are at a lower rate but defending national parks is now riskier than ever, with large numbers of game rangers being murdered.
The killings of environmental defenders have doubled over the last 15 years, reaching levels usually associated with war zones, according to a Nature Sustainability study. While many of these people are trying to defend their land and the ecosystems within them, in doing so they are risking their lives to protect the future of all life on our planet.
The Guardians of the Amazon need your backing. Please visit www.survivalinternational.org/emails/guajajara_guardians to email the authorities in Brazil to urge them to help the Guardians.
Published at The Hourglass November 2019