2020 Was No Safer for Environmental Land Defenders

WORDS BY Yessenia Funes

Around the world, fighting for basic human rights can put you in harm’s way. The Frontline takes a look at a recently released report that outlines just how dangerous 2020 was for environmental land defenders.

People honor the late assassinated environmentalist Berta Cáceres with a religious ceremony on the Gualcarque River in Honduras on March 27, 2016. (Photograph by Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images)

Every year, the numbers seem to rise. 167 becomes 212. And now we’re at 228. That’s how many environmental land defenders were killed in 2020. Well, at least. The reality is that number is probably even higher. A report released last week by Front Line Defenders outlined the killings of global human rights defenders in 2020. Meanwhile, they were all facing another risk: COVID-19.


Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re honoring those who lost their lives last year fighting to protect nature. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. These numbers sometimes fail to communicate the gravity of this crisis. Everyone one of these individuals played critical roles in their communities—whether that’s organizing against logging in the Amazon or providing access to mobile phones to Liberian rural communities monitoring their land. We need to remember them, their dedication, and the vulnerability of their communities—not only the data.







Fikile Ntshangase, a 65-year-old grandmother in Ophondweni, South Africa, didn’t want a nasty coal mine near her home expanded. Since the coal mine sits on the border of the country’s oldest nature reserve, there’s concern the mine’s proximity contributes to the poaching of endangered white rhinos in the region. The expansion also requires locals to leave their homes so the mine can occupy the land, instead.


So Ntshangase took the company, Tendele Coal, to court. And she didn’t stay quiet. When the company allegedly offered her a bribe to sign an agreement that would withdraw her legal case, she wasn’t interested: “I cannot sell out my people. And if need be, I will die for my people,” she reportedly said.


Not long after, in October 2020, she did die for her people. Four gunmen shot her at home—in front of her 11-year-old grandson. Her story is like so many others. However, the complications of last year—with the pandemic, border closures, and inability to gather in groups—made protecting these environmental defenders more of a challenge than it already is. As a result, at least 331 human rights defenders were killed. Sixty-nine percent focused on land, Indigenous, and environmental issues. The others organized around LGBTQ and women’s rights. The riskiest sector was still, by far, protecting Mother Earth.


Even those who avoided death faced threats in other forms: incarceration, physical violence, and increasingly online harassment. The coronavirus made everything go digital; attackers followed. In countries where internet access is scarce, that wasn’t a problem—but their inability to connect was.


“Working remotely with defenders made it more difficult and took longer to establish trust; online capacity building had to be carried out in much shorter bursts over longer periods of time,” the 62-page report reads.


Still, these obstacles didn’t stop anyone. We saw that firsthand in the U.S. where Black Lives Matter organizers and supporters took to the streets in historic numbers last year. The rest of the world was inspired, and human rights campaigns against anti-Blackness popped up elsewhere on the globe, too. Many Indigenous communities followed in their steps, according to the report.


As Black History Month continues, let us not forget the colonialist history that puts dark-skinned Indigenous people at risk around the world. Many Garifuna leaders and organizers, the Afro-descendant Indigenous people of Central America, died or went missing last year. When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean them, too.

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