Photograph by Timothy Allen / Getty Images

Here’s How We Protect Earth’s Defenders

WORDS BY Mie Hoejris Dahl

After a deadly decade for environmental activists and defenders of the Earth, The Frontline asks: is there a way out?

In the southwestern jungles of Venezuela in the Autana municipality, Indigenous territorial guards used to patrol their lands 24/7, armed with spears, bows, and fletches. They were in fight mode, prepared to fend off armed groups and illegal gold mining activities. Some of them barely slept. “The situation didn’t call for sleep; it called for tears,” said one guard in Spanish, remembering the severity of the threats.


Since their leader Virgilio Trujillo Arana was killed in June, the guards have been receiving death threats that make them fear for their lives. The unnamed guard spoke to Atmos on the condition of anonymity to ensure their safety. They won’t even leave their village to defend the surrounding rainforests anymore. The last time they went out on patrol was right before the assassination of their leader. Now, they won’t even talk on their phone. Instead, they spoke to Atmos through a borrowed connection. Despite the Indigenous guards’ several requests for protection from the government and two recent attempts by armed guerillas to kidnap their members, they haven’t received any support.

This leaves the Indigenous guard in the Venezuelan Amazon living an isolated, fearful life. Their story reveals an alarming pattern where protecting land and the environment often turns deadly. A report last year from international human rights group Global Witness documented the killing of 1,733 environment and land defenders over the past decade. That’s one killing about every two days. 


These findings raise an important question: what can be done to protect defenders in the decade ahead? Governments can make agreements and promise to persecute assailants, but ultimately, this needs to happen alongside a strengthening of civil society. The public must share defenders’ stories of triumph and hardship to shift the narrative and emphasize why they need protection and support.


These defenders are primarily killed because of land conflicts, often related to illegal crops and changes in land ownership. They are targeted by governments, businesses, and powerful political players such as violent guerilla groups. Several industries simultaneously obliterate nature, contribute to a global climate and environmental crisis, and harm activists. There’s mining and logging, the construction of hydroelectric dams and roads, and agribusiness looking to cut down forests to plant monocrops or feed cattle.


The fight to protect the land has become increasingly deadly over the years. While 139 killings were reported in 2012, this number was up by more than 40% to 200 killings by 2021. More than two-thirds of the murders reported by Global Witness happened in Latin America, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world—but also the deadliest for its defenders. Indigenous peoples are particularly threatened, subject to more than a third of the attacks, despite constituting only 5% of the world population.


The increased level of threats can be seen as a sign that land and environmental defenders are having an impact, explained Erica Chenoweth, a professor of the First Amendment at the Harvard Kennedy School and coauthor of the book Why Civil Resistance Works.


“They’re on to something,” they said. “They’re threatening established powers.”

“The situation didn’t call for sleep; it called for tears.”

Indigenous Territorial Guard

A 2020 study by ENVJUSTICE, a research project by the European Union to study global environmental conflicts in the supply chain, found that in 11% of global cases, defenders successfully contributed to canceling environmentally damaging projects. In even more cases, they were able to affect court decisions, strengthen local participation, or introduce environmental improvements to projects. 


But too often, danger bars land and environmental defenders from making these wins happen. Just look at the Indigenous guard in the Venezuelan Amazon who now finds themselves paralyzed by fear and unable to fight for their land.


It doesn’t have to be this way. According to Front Line Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization protecting nonviolent activists, killings are preventable if threats and attacks are immediately taken seriously. “Often, killings are preceded by threats or physical attacks,” said Sarah de Roure, head of protection at Front Line Defenders. To protect defenders, governments must act before the situation grows deadly.


Numerous actions have already been initiated. The 27 members of the European Commission came together last year at their headquarters in Brussels to present a proposal for an E.U. supply chain law. The subsequent national laws are expected to happen by 2025 and intend to hold companies accountable for environmental and social harms in their supply chains by making them pay for the damages they incur.


“This is really important because, despite nearly all killings taking place in the Global South, in so many of the cases we investigate, we see links to European companies,” said Ali Hines, senior campaigner at Global Witness.


On the other side of the Atlantic in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Escazú Agreement entered into force in April 2021, marking the first-ever regional environmental treaty that includes provisions requiring states to prevent and investigate attacks against environmental defenders. While historic, the agreement has not yet been ratified by Brazil, Peru, and more than a handful of other countries.


“These are two milestones of hope,” Hines said. 


De Roure from Front Line Defenders agreed and recommended expanding these sorts of initiatives elsewhere, particularly in Africa and Asia, regions that lack regulatory frameworks. 


Europe has been at the forefront of creating a legal architecture to address defenders. More than two decades ago, the European Union and 38 European countries came together in the Danish city of Aarhus to adopt the Aarhus Convention, an agreement that formalizes the right for the public to access environmental information, to participate in decision-making around plans that may affect the environment, and to take legal action when these rights have been violated. According to the text, anybody who exercises these rights must not be penalized, persecuted, or harassed. The convention entered into force in 2001, but those seeking to practice these rights are still met with resistance. 

“They’re on to something. They’re threatening established powers.”

Erica Chenoweth
Harvard Kennedy School

That’s why, 20 years later, a rapid response mechanism was added to deal with alleged violations of that last point—that people must not be penalized, persecuted, or harassed for practicing their rights. The rapid response mechanism will provide a tool for anyone to submit complaints even without the previous requirement of exhausting domestic remedies first. 


To make this new mechanism work, the members of the Aarhus Convention elected a U.N. special rapporteur on environmental defenders in June—something civil society organizations have requested since at least 2010. This official can help the U.N. respond in a timely manner to cases of arrest, attacks, and other persecution against defenders.


“We have two separate worlds: the world of human rights and that of environmentalists,” said Michel Forst, the world’s first U.N special rapporteur on environmental defenders.


Mainstream human rights organizations only get to know environmental defenders when they’re at risk, he explained. Forst found it problematic that human rights experts mostly don’t know what’s happening under environmental agreements like the Aarhus Convention and that these two worlds don’t always communicate. He sees it as his role to build bridges, connecting environmental issues and human rights.


“This is important,” de Roure said about the creation of this new U.N. position, “because it comes from a reflection on human rights. The fact that this group is particularly at risk requires a different answer.”


For Forst, the answer looks a lot like what it’s always looked like: investigating letters of allegations, making public appeals, conducting quiet diplomacy, visiting countries, and going public when life is at risk. What he’s hoping to change is the process. “There are tools to hold states accountable, but they’re heavy and long,” he sighed. The Compliance Committee, for example, is a group under the convention that looks into complaints from environmental defenders but is battling a backlog of about three years due to the lack of appropriate funding. 


Forst is hopeful that the new rapid response mechanism, one of his key responsibilities as the new special rapporteur, will give immediate response to important cases, doing away with some of the backlog. He plans to make an assessment in two to three years, evaluating the performance of the rapid response mechanism and whether it complements the existing structure.


These efforts will take time—something our land and environmental defenders don’t have. They are being threatened and murdered right now. Their lands are being invaded right now. The climate crisis is already killing people. So what can finally be done?


“There’s a hell of a lot more that businesses can be doing,” Hines said. 


She said they must take responsibility for identifying and mitigating abuse across their entire supply chain. All too often, Hines has heard companies justify social and environmental harms because they’re not buying directly from producers or they rely on suppliers to verify claims of harm. “That’s hugely problematic,” Hines said.


The U.N. special rapporteur on environmental defenders agreed that companies must do better to detect early warning signals. “[The companies] are the most dangerous actors,” Forst said. “In fact, more than the states.” 


What they need is pressure. When organizations publish reports about a company’s abuse, that helps, but a U.N. report is even better. “Then, it hurts,” he added, explaining this can lead to the loss of funding for projects. Forst stands ready to confront companies in cases of abuse.


Global Witness is calling for the International Criminal Court to recognize ecocide, which is the human-caused mass destruction of the environment, as a fifth international crime. Today, the court investigates and prosecutes individuals charged with the most severe crimes of international concern: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. But the effectiveness of the court is questionable: of the thousands of cases the court could have addressed, only 10 have ever been convicted.


“Today, the legal framework makes it very difficult to pin legal charges on those who are causing environmental disruption,” Hines said. Criminalizing environmental harm at an international level, she believes, will indirectly help environmental defenders by holding perpetrators legally accountable in the international court.


This needs to happen locally, too. Companies, states, and other actors that may cause harm to environmental defenders typically do some kind of risk calculation. “It’s a risky move to hurt or kill somebody, so companies, vigilantes, and state authorities would consider if it’s worth the risk for the benefit,” Chenoweth said.

“Impunity is a driver of killings against defendants because, if there is no prosecution, it essentially gives the green light for perpetrators to continue.”

Ali Hines
Global Witness

This is also one of the reasons why impunity, which is particularly high in Latin America, must end. “Impunity is a driver of killings against defendants because, if there is no prosecution, it essentially gives the green light for perpetrators to continue,” Hines said. While perpetrators often get a free pass for their abuses, defenders pay a much higher price: “The level of risk that [defenders] are facing really contrasts with the importance of the role that they play for their generation, for their communities, even for the world,” de Roure said.


It’s essential to hold offenders accountable, particularly through the law, Chenoweth argued. “The legal architecture is in flux right now,” they said. “Countries are just flouting international law.” 


Public support and discourse can play an important role in the absence of institutional action— not only in casting light on abuse but also in emphasizing the value of land and environmental defenders and their work. Threats and killings often happen after environmental perpetrators have created a context of negativity around a defender. “It’s often a kind of character assassination, but there’s also a narrative around defenders sometimes being labeled as terrorists or anti-development,” Hines explained. She points out that Big Tech giants, particularly social media networks, could do more to stop the spread of hate language and smear campaigns. Speaking positively about defenders and shining light on their stories may help break hate cycles, she said.


Back in the Venezuelan Amazon, the Indigenous guard has indeed struggled with a negative narrative built around them and their work—with the guerilla groups that are invading their territories labeling their efforts to protect the lands as illegal. These are Indigenous territories, however, and the tribal communities approve of the monitoring efforts. The guard explained that it would be of tremendous help if the government and local organizations recognized and supported their work, too.


While the Indigenous guard had to take a step back, they say there are still ways to break the status quo. In a country where governments and local organizations are not providing the necessary support for its land defenders, the Indigenous guard wishes to engage with the international community but doesn’t know where to start. “We can’t count on the government for anything,” they said. The guard hopes that international organizations will support their Indigenous community, either through financial aid or by granting protective measures. But they acknowledge that this type of international attention requires strategy and education to be achieved. It’s hard and time-consuming work. 


International attention also requires community protection, not just individual protection, which de Roure from Front Line Defenders cautioned against. Instead, governments, businesses, and organizations should consider defenders as part of a collective. They all need protection. That’s the danger of taking individual defenders out of their community, as can happen when someone faces severe threats or attacks: “It takes that defender out of his or her networks and relationships, which are critical for their own protection. The communities lose their leadership and become weaker.”


Protecting those who protect the environment will require a coordinated effort. Every time a defender is lost, their community suffers. When you break a leader, you break a community. 


“The wound that has been left in our hearts will never ever heal,” the Indigenous guard in Venezuela told me after the death of their leader. Nobody can defend lands and fight the climate crisis alone. The fight to protect our land and environmental defenders must be fought together.

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