In 2020 alone, 227 people who championed land rights and environmental issues have been killed. For every defender who was killed, many more were, and are, harassed, raped and silenced. Many simply “disappeared”. Though these events have taken place worldwide, most of the violence against these environmental defenders have been recorded in Latin America, Asia and Africa, as documented by the Global Witness report. This alarming trend has been noted by all three SEI centers based in the Global South.
My work with women environmental defenders over the past two years has allowed me to see how these grassroots environmental defenders lead a larger struggle that is going on worldwide to demand the systems changes required to achieve socio-environmental justice at multiple scales. These defenders often are part of the most marginalized and powerless communities. They are usually Indigenous Peoples, peasants, women, who rely on their environment for their direct survival. Their livelihoods are disturbed by the most powerful, including agribusinesses, extractive industries, states, and international development organizations and agencies. The power imbalance could not be worse. They have limited access to all types of resources, and directly oppose the decision makers, the moneymakers, the development goal-setters. In this fight, environmental defenders face the biggest risk of all: the loss of their own lives. When I directly asked them what drives their mobilization, many told me, “We have nothing left to lose.”
“What drives their mobilization? They say, 'We have nothing left to lose.'”
— Camille Pross, Research Associate
In many cases, environmental defenders do not realize the deeply political dimensions of their mobilization. They fight for their land, for their community, for their identity – life’s essentials. However, the violence they face in response shows that their mobilizations threaten established political orders.
In different situations and in different countries around the world, these defenders face the same challenges. They often work in the most isolated places, where the threats are the worst because it is easier to silence their voices in these remote locations.
Their mobilizations directly challenge our neo-liberal system and the development community which too often considers Western standards as the goal to achieve for the “developing world”. Make no mistake: environmental defenders do not reject development, they denounce maldevelopment. They challenge development planning that not only fails to profit their communities and people, but actually threatens their already precarious socio-economic conditions and the local environment. For example, hydropower plants that provide clean energy to cities often displace local communities from their ancestral lands and deprive local people from their livelihoods. Such projects are often funded by governments and international climate finance schemes. Similarly, some conservation organizations still consider humans as threats to nature, forcibly evicting Indigenous communities from their land, even though their livelihoods directly depended on sustainable use of resources.
The trend of violence against defenders points at deeper issues that can be addressed. The defenders I have interviewed suggest how we as researchers can support them – starting by documenting their struggles and mobilizations. At SEI, our position also allows us to work with governments, and to help inform policies that are environmentally sustainable and can retain local communities’ access and control over natural resources. Moreover, our work with development partners can emphasize co-designing programmes with local communities — giving them a space to voice their needs, to set their own development goals, and to decide what support can help them to achieve their aims. This will not only help end the violence faced by environmental defenders, but also begin to support our aims of a just and sustainable development.
The work colleagues and I have undertaken with women environmental defenders in Nepal and the Philippines shows that local communities are key contributors to environmental protection and disaster risk reduction through their traditional knowledge and sustainable practices. These women, their livelihoods and our environment are threatened by discrimination, insecure land rights, and inadequate planning.
These women have important stories to tell, as illustrated by the recent launch of a young adult novel on championing local rights, self-published by women environmental defenders in Mindanao, the Philippines. In it, Ina Bai, the heroine, wonders, “What would be left for your future and the next generations’ futures if we give up now?”