More Deadly Than Being a Soldier in a War Zone: Environmental Activists Killed for Defending Planet Have Doubled in 15 Years

The number of environmental activists murdered across the world has doubled over the past 15 years, climbing above the number of soldiers killed in some conflict zones, research has revealed.

Between 2002 and 2017, as many as 1,558 people across 50 countries were killed while defending the environment, according to a study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. That is more than double the number of U.K. and Australian armed service personnel killed while on active duty in war zones during the same period, the researchers emphasized.

Since 2004, the recorded number of environmental defenders dying has risen from two per week to four per week. Most were killed due to conflict over natural resources.

The study focused on "environmental defenders," defined by the authors as those who peacefully attempt to protect natural resources including forests, land, and water. The victims include indigenous peoples, lawyers, journalists, and community activists, as well as individuals who resist forced eviction and other violent interventions.

Those killed were campaigning against activities mining fossil fuels and minerals, agriculture, illegal logging, and accessing water used by communities, and poaching. The indigenous Sengwer people in Kenya, for instance, were evicted from their homes and ancestral lands in Embobut Forest, after the government claimed this would reduce deforestation, according to the researchers.

"Environmental defenders currently face a wave of violence that includes threats of physical harm, intimidation and criminalization," the authors wrote.

"Deaths represent the 'tip of the iceberg' of the violence that environmental defenders face."

indigenous woman, Brazil, protest, getty, Brasilia
An indigenous woman holds a Brazilian national flag stained in red representing blood during a march in Brasilia on April 26, 2019, on the last day of a protest to defend indigenous land and rights. CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

In 2017, at least 185 activists were killed, with Indigenous peoples making up the biggest portion at around 30 percent, down from 40 percent in 2015 and 2016.

At 36 percent, most deaths happened in Central America, followed by South American at 32 percent, and Asia at 31 percent. The most indigenous peoples died in the Philippines and Colombia between 2015 and 2017, with 36 and 22 deaths respectively. In 2017, 56 environmental defenders were killed in Brazil and 47 in the Philippines.

And the loved ones of victims struggle to seek justice, the authors said. Just over 10 percent of murders result lead to a conviction each year. This is likely due to corrupt police and authorities, who are sometimes involved in environmental devastation, and because murders are often carried out in remote areas. For instance, military and civil police are the main suspects after 10 land rights activists were killed in the city of Pau D'Arco, Brazil.

The researchers said the elections of populist leaders Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are a further cause for concern. Bolsonaro has called activists terrorists, and plans to relax gun and environmental protection laws, while the Philippines' president "has taken a violent stance toward human rights defenders, Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, women, drug users and others," the authors wrote.

The death toll is likely to be conservative owing to a lack of a free press and human rights monitors, according to the researchers. Increases in numbers could be down to improvements in reporting, they said.

Companies and consumers also have a responsibility to "investigate the sources of products, publish the results and commit to eliminating violence from supply chains," the authors said.

Co-author Dr. Nathalie Butt, a researcher fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia, School of Biological Sciences commented in a statement: "The number of reported deaths of environmental defenders has increased, as well as the number of countries where they occur."

Butt told Newsweek she was surprised that corruption was the key driver of the deaths, rather than the resources themselves.

"As a lot of the resource demand is driven by international markets, consumers in countries in the Global North need to make sure they are aware of where their products come from, and how they were obtained, and demand (through pressure on supply companies) ethical and transparent supply chain processes," she said.

Butt continued: "In many cases they [environmental defenders] are trying to protect environments that are important for everyone on the planet such as the Amazon, which is critical in terms of buffering climate change and carbon emissions."

Researchers in similar fields who didn't work on the study suggested they were not surprised by the findings.

Leah Temper, a researcher in environmental history and ecological economics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona told Newsweek: "The level of impunity and the fact that only 10 percent of these cases are convicted is shocking but not altogether surprising. It shows that the environment is currently one of the major battlefields over the shape of the global economy, on a par with armed conflicts and calls for urgent and immediate action."

"It is worth mentioning that these direct deaths are insignificant compared to deaths and sickness due to the environmental impacts caused by these projects that the defenders are resisting," she argued.

Christopher Jeffords, associate professor in the department of economics at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, told Newsweek: "These studies help shine a light on known instances of extreme violence committed against environmental defenders and thus help illuminate the notion that there are likely many cases which go unreported."

Eve Bratman, assistant professor of environmental studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, told Newsweek: "The study tells us that the most important driving forces behind human rights abuses and the killings of environmental defenders are corruption and rule of law; when governments become more accountable, the benefits will likely be seen across the board.

"In Brazil and several other countries, there is reasonable cause for concern that rates of violence will spike even higher given the dangers of today's political climate."

Felipe Milanez, political ecologist and professor of humanities at the Federal University of Bahia, told Newsweek: "My experience working in conflict zones in which communities are entirely under threat demonstrates that the so-called rule of law is also associated with colonialism, conquest, and state-driven violence."

Temper, who runs the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, said concerned members of the public can look at their stocks and pension funds using her resource to see whether the companies their savings are invested in are responsible for abuses and take action.

"This can include personal divestment, a divestment campaign targeted towards your pension funds and letting the companies know the reasons for your actions. They can support organizations such as Global Witness and other frontline groups and activists fighting for environmental justice," she said.

Correction: This article stated Eve Bratman's previous role as adjunct professorial lecturer at the American University Washington, D.C. Bratman is currently assistant professor of environmental studies at Franklin and Marshall College.