More people die defending the environment in a year than soldiers in some war zones

More people die defending the environment in a year than soldiers in some war zones

Every year, more people are killed defending their environment than soldiers killed while deployed to war zones from the United Kingdom and Australia combined.

The number of individuals losing their lives is nearly half that of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

According to an alarming study by a research team from the University of Queensland and University of Oxford, among other institutes, four people are killed every week defending the environment, a number that has doubled in the last 15 years. 

“People on the frontline, with no power and no voice, and no political support are most at risk. One of the aims of this work and a related project is to predict when and where people are most at risk so that we can help and support them. Overall, Indigenous people form the largest proportion of those killed,” University of Queensland-School of Biological Sciences researcher, Dr. Nathalie Butt, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

Between 2002 and 2017, 1,558 people in 50 countries were killed for defending their environments and lands.


“This is more than double the number of UK and Australian armed service people killed on active duty in war zones over the same period, and almost half as many as the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001,” says the study published in Nature Sustainability. 

According to the research team, these deaths, are, however, just the “tip of the iceberg” of the violence that environmental defenders face.

The team says that for every defender murdered, thousands more face direct violence, threats, and psychological intimidation, and more invisible cultural and structural violence.

Environmental defenders, according to the researchers, refers to people engaged in protecting land, forests, water, and other natural resources. This includes community activists, members of social movements, lawyers, journalists, non-governmental organization staff, Indigenous peoples, members of traditional, peasant and agrarian communities, and those who resist forced eviction or other violent interventions. The violence faced by them include threats of physical harm, intimidation, and criminalization.


Fatal violence over natural resources

For the study, the team focused on deaths of environmental defenders, documented since 2002 by Global Witness (UK), the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Pastoral Land Commission, Brazil), among others.

“During the last 15 years, the number of both deaths of environmental defenders, and the countries where they occur have increased. Recorded deaths have increased from two per week to four per week over this period,” says the paper.

The murders are on the scale of armed conflict - defined as 25 deaths per year - for example, 56 environmental defenders were killed in Brazil and 47 people in the Philippines in 2017. 

These deaths are primarily related to conflict over natural resources, across a range of sectors such as fossil fuels, minerals, timber, agriculture, aquaculture, and water, as well as access to land and/or bodies of water from which natural resources can be extracted. For example, a third of all deaths between 2014 and 2017 - more than 230 (out of 683 in all) - were linked to the mining and agribusiness sectors.


“Conflict over natural resources is the underlying cause of environmental defender deaths, and as consumption and globalization increase, pressure on natural resources increases, and violence is more likely. Often resources are extracted in one country (in the Global South) and consumed elsewhere (in the Global North) – this is why we need transparency and accountability,” Dr. Butt told MEAWW.

Deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (The University of Queensland)

Elaborating on these conflicts, the study states that conflicts often arise around the extraction of resources by companies or others without legitimate user-rights to the resource (for example, illegal logging in community forests), or where user-rights are granted by corrupt governments (for example, access to water already used by communities), and through political processes that fail to respect “free prior informed” consent (for example, oil drilling in concessions in indigenous territories in Peru. 

“In other cases of conflict, traditional natural resource users are excluded from the land, often in the name of conservation in national parks or marine protected areas that restrict fishing activities (for example, evictions of indigenous Sengwer from their traditional forest lands in Kenya). Some conflicts are the indirect effects of the extraction that lead to conflicts (for example, water pollution caused by mining or oil drilling and air pollution from factories),” says the study.

Indigenous peoples are often the biggest victims. In 2017, at least 185 environmental and land defenders were killed, says the research. Of this, Indigenous peoples died in higher numbers than any other group - approximately 40% of such deaths in 2015 and 2016 and 30% of deaths in 2017. According to data, regionally, most of these deaths were in Central America (36%), followed by South America (32%) and Asia (31%). Further, the Philippines and Colombia had the greatest number of deaths of Indigenous people overall (36 and 22 people, respectively) during 2015–2017.

The study says Indigenous peoples manage or have tenure rights over at least 38 million square km globally - about a quarter of the world’s land surface, which overlaps with about 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes. “Conflict over natural resources and land often arises due to failure to recognize Indigenous land rights or poor law enforcement to protect those rights,” the study says.


Corruption and weak rule of law

The researchers say that there are three conditions that increase the chances of violence against defenders. This includes strong incentives (financial, political and other) by government and private actors to exploit natural resources; marginalization (economically, culturally and politically) of those who depend most on natural resources; and weak rule of law (corruption, lack of enforcement and impunity). 

Among these drivers of violence, says the team, the rule of law and corruption indices are closely linked to patterns of killings. The reason is that the level of impunity in the deaths of environmental defenders is high. Globally, on average, estimates reveal that just over 10% of these murders result in a conviction, which is low when compared to global homicide convictions - 43% of all murders (in 2012) resulted in a conviction. 

“The new analyses we did look at relating the distribution of natural resources, which are often what conflict is over, to the deaths. We did a country-by-country analysis, using data for agricultural land clearing, deforestation, mining concessions, and dams, but did not find any significant correlation. What we did find, however, was that rule of law (or corruption) was the most important driver of the murders. This implies that the weak rule of law is a huge problem in terms of environmental protection,” Dr. Butt told MEAWW.

According to the researchers, impunity in cases of violence against environmental defenders is linked to two main factors. Corruption within police and judiciary branches in many countries lead to cases being not adequately investigated or tried. Sometimes, it is the police and/or government authorities who are directly responsible for the violence or have financial and/or familial ties to those responsible. For example, says the team, the massacre of 10 land activists at Pau D’Arco (Pará, Brazil on May 24, 2017) is one instance where civil police are the main suspects. 


Relatives of victims who were killed when police arrived at the Santa Lucia farm in the municipality of Pau D’Arco, attend their burial in 2017. According to the study, the massacre of 10 land activists at Pau D’Arco is an example where civil police are the primary suspects.
(Lunae Parracho)

“The second reason is that because they are linked to natural resources, many murders occur in remote areas with a weak government and police presence, which adds to the difficulty of gathering evidence. In Brazil (consistently the country with the highest number of deaths of environmental defenders, especially of indigenous peoples), the election of Jair Bolsonaro raises new concerns. He plans to relax gun laws and environmental protections, labeling non-governmental organizations and activists as terrorists, to undermine and repress those in disagreement with the political regime. In the Philippines, there was a 71% increase in the murders of environmental defenders from 2016 to 2017 under Rodrigo Duterte, who has taken a violent stance toward human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, women, drug users, and others,” the study states.

To address this situation, the researchers say that governments, businesses, and investors must be held accountable for their role in supply chains that drive violence.


The team says that companies and consumers must investigate the sources of products, publish the results, and commit to eliminating violence from supply chains.

“We believe that companies that profit from natural resources extracted under conditions that disregard the rights of environmental defenders are complicit in driving violence through their supply chains, and have a responsibility to act ethically. All of us should be aware that environmental defenders are on the frontline on behalf of all of us: in many cases they 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,” Dr. Butt told MEAWW.


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