WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
In 2020, at least 227 environment and land defenders were killed. The Frontline explores how these devastating numbers continue to increase—and the issue with converting their work into the next reality TV series.
Next month, a new competition show will arrive on TV. The participants won’t be dueling over who can bake the best puff pastry or who can gather the most influence online. No, they’ll go head to head to determine who’s the best activist. And, yes, I’m deadass.
On Thursday, CBS announced The Activist, a new reality series that will pit activists against one another and include hosts who don’t know the first thing about grassroots organizing, including Usher. The participants have a chance to secure funding for their work and mingle with “high-profile public figures,” per the press release. Meanwhile, environmental activists across Latin America, Asia, and Africa—who often strive for solidarity and unity—are being killed for their work.
In 2020, at least 227 environmental and land defenders were killed, according to the latest report released Sunday from Global Witness, a leading human rights organization that tracks these attacks. This is despite the pandemic, which complicated global organizing efforts. The number doesn’t come as a complete surprise as an earlier report this year from a different organization found that 228 environmental and land defenders were killed.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we recognize the heartbreaking work of environmental defense. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Activism isn’t a sport—and defending your homelands from extractive industries or private actors isn’t something to be glamorized. For folks on the ground, this is real life. In too many instances, the price is their lives.
Óscar Eyraud Adams was only 34 years old when he was killed last year. From Mexico’s Juntas de Neji region, Adams was Kumiai, an Indigenous community in Baja California. He died as a water protector, speaking out against the private interests trying to secure access to his people’s dwindling water sources. He left behind his mother, Norma Adams Cuero, who continues to seek justice for her son.
“We need it soon—to prevent the next killing,” she wrote in the latest report from human rights group Global Witness, which investigates and monitors the deaths of environmental and land defenders like Óscar.
In 2020, 226 other environmental and land defenders were killed alongside Óscar—the highest number since Global Witness began tracking this data in 2012. Most of these deaths occurred in Latin America, but nowhere is safe. African nations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Asian nations, especially the Philippines, are becoming increasingly dangerous for Earth warriors. In the U.S., there haven’t been killings—but there’s a concerted effort to criminalize and silence advocates. The most vulnerable are Indigenous peoples, who made up a third of 2020’s killings. They were disproportionately targeted in the massacres recorded last year, too: Five out of seven of these events resulted in Indigenous deaths.
“Many of the communities we work with don’t start in the place of, We’re going to become environmental activists or climate activists,” said Rachel Cox, a campaigner on Global Witness’s land and environmental defenders team. “They start because there’s a localized problem that’s very much affecting their well-being and livelihoods.”
Despite what despicable reality TV shows may have you think, land defenders don’t dedicate themselves to this work for fame. There’s nothing glamorous about fighting for your life. Their activism is about survival. Conflicts around logging, dams, and mining are what push frontline communities to speak out—and efforts to make such environmentally destructive projects happen is what gets them killed. It’s a deadly line of work, as this data shows. The worst part? These numbers are likely an underestimate, Cox explained.
“The methodology itself is reliant on civil society being able to operate in country,” she said. “Immediately, we have the problem of, What happens if there’s particular regions or countries in the world where that is not happening? So you have that lack of information coming out.”
What she means is that where there are oppressive governments or the diminishment of free expression, there’s also a silencing and hiding of information. Groups like Global Witness can’t investigate killings if they don’t know that they’re happening. For instance, there are data gaps in countries like Russia, China, and some parts of Africa where there’s not enough information trickling out—and on purpose.
All this death exacerbates the lives we’re already losing to the climate crisis. In New York, rising waters are drowning entire families in their own homes. At the U.S.-Mexico border, migrants attempting to reach the American dream literally boil alive in the desert. However, in the Philippines, the threat isn’t only super typhoons; it’s also an abusive government that orders police and military to kill in mass simply for opposing a project.
This violence is a systemic issue that requires clear and precise government and business intervention. Global Witness outlines just how world leaders can attempt to address their failings by properly investigating these deaths and regulating industries and the environment with adequate enforcement mechanisms. That doesn’t mean folks like you and I don’t have a role to play.
Remember the death of Fernando dos Santos Araújo? He was a landless worker in Brazil who was mercilessly shot in his home in January. Why? For farming land near the Amazon Rainforest that technically wasn’t his but may not even legally belong to the documented owner. That family wants to keep the land as part of its cattle ranching empire. As it turns out, European beef imports have been linked to the farm where Araújo was killed. That means someone may have inadvertently supported Araújo’s attackers by buying a burger whose meat originated on that conflict-ridden land.
So we, as consumers, must always ask ourselves of the journeys our items take before they arrive in our possession. Where did that steak you’re eating come from? You better hope someone didn’t die for it. Was anyone displaced for you to drink that fancy bottled water? Or was that water taken from someone who probably needs it more than you? How can you encourage your elected officials to make this information more accessible to you? How can you push them to ensure what you purchase is always safely sourced? (Hint: A quick phone call goes a long way.)
Cox urges the public to learn about the world’s land defenders. Read about them before they’re gone. Champion their cause. The forests and rivers they’re guarding with their lives benefit those of us oceans away, too. We need them—and we need them alive. Their number of deaths cannot continue to rise. Not if we actually want a chance at saving the planet.