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The Price We Pay

The Price We Pay

Environmental activists around the world are paying the price for speaking up and standing against oppression, writes Anadya Singh.

“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”  – Chico Mendes (1944 -1988)

Environmentalist, wildlife defender, human-rights advocate and a resilient thorn in the side of the avaricious and powerful, Chico Mendes’ words epitomise his revolutionary fight in the Amazon. Francisco ‘Chico’ Alves Mendes Filho was gunned down by a disgruntled rancher, angered by his relentless campaigning to save the Amazonian forests. Thirty years later, Chico Mendes’ legacy inspires millions, and today he is known as the icon for the global environment movement.

As more and more earth heroes fight the battle of their lives, Chico’s words reverberate in the quiet of our mourning, “I am fighting for humanity.” The good fight is not restricted to just one landscape or one species. Environmental activism is a struggle for human rights, justice and the truth.

Today, protecting the planet has become more dangerous than ever before. Global initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreement are widely spoken of but those working on ground zero, at our frontline of environmental defence, continue to face abuse by powerful elites.

From park rangers, researchers, investigators, to indigenous activists, the faces of our environmental defenders span borders of geography, race and religion.

Global Witness, an organisation investigating and exposing environmental crime and abuse, published data, revealing that 197 people were killed in 2017 for standing up to corrupt governments and large corporations. The year 2016 was the most violent year and took 201 environmental defender lives, a 10 per cent jump from 2015. The trend promises to grow upward.

The highest number of environmental killings were recorded from Brazil, largely due to clashes over the Amazon rainforest, where indigenous tribes are fighting to defend their land from developers and the government. Information source: The Guardian

In 2018, we have seen a miserable share of bloodshed already. The Guardian in partnership with Global Witness placed the death toll of environmental defenders at 30 as of May 2018. Of these, five were killed in Brazil alone, the country that has ranked the highest in land and environment defender killings over the past 15 years. Most defenders campaigned against mining, palm-oil plantations, toxic waste generation, large dams and socio-ecological injustices.

Latin American countries such as Brazil, Honduras and Mexico have garnered a sinister reputation in the last two decades with Honduras earning the dubious tag of being ‘the deadliest country in the world for environmental activism’ with the most number of killings per capita. Around 130 people have been murdered in Honduras since 2009, when the pro-business government unleashed a barrage of commercial permits for dams, mines and urban townships on indigenous lands. Most recently, in April 2018, Carlos Hernandez, a lawyer representing the mayor who had been elected on an anti-dam platform was shot dead. In 2017, Colombia recorded
32 deaths at the hands of armed groups in a nation where palm oil has left rural communities landless across the country. Targeted assassinations of social leaders have risen drastically. Hernan Bedoya, a Columbian community leader defending collective land rights for Afro-Colombian farmers was assassinated by a neo-paramilitary group, as reported by Mongabay.

Mexico, at a death toll of 15, suffered a similar scenario as Philippines, the most murderous country in Asia for environmental defenders . ‘Guns and Governments’ was described as the leading cause behind the violence in these two countries by The Guardian. A crackdown on environmental activism by the Philippian president Rodrigo Duterte in 2017 saw the death toll rise to 41 in the country.

While the escalating violence in Latin America is largely driven by conflict over land, in Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), wildlife defenders lose their lives to the illegal wildlife trade and operatives hired by ruthless poaching networks. An ambush attack, termed as the worst to date, in Virunga National Park in April 2018 horrified the world when five rangers and a driver were gunned down by a local militia. A depressing figure of 170 rangers died protecting wild animals over the past 20 years, according to The Guardian. Protecting the gorillas of Virunga is considered the most dangerous conservation project in the world.

Another killing that shook the conservation community was that of the ivory-investigator and conservationist Esmond Bradley Martin in Kenya in February this year. While initial reports claimed that Esmond’s death was a consequence of a botched robbery, Mongabay, has questioned these claims, factoring retribution for his outspoken opposition to the illegal wildlife trade as a plausible motive.


India, to our utter shame, does not lag far behind. At fourth place, according to data published by Global Witness for 2015-17, among countries that are deadliest for activists, it ranks only behind Brazil, Columbia and Philippines. In 2018, out of the 30 activist deaths reported, three were recorded from India. In March, Sandeep Sharma, a journalist probing illegal sand mining in Madhya Pradesh, was run over by a truck. Sharma, as reported by The Times Of India, had filed a complaint citing immediate threat to his life, from a police officer he had accused of being hand-in-glove with the sand mafia.

In May 2017, four people were killed and two injured when villagers in Jatpura, Jharkhand, clashed with a sand mining company. While most Indian states have laws against sand mining, they are routinely ignored, with local officials and the police often playing the role of mute witnesses.

India, the world’s largest democracy, should be at the forefront of protecting activists working for environmental issues. Instead, we find our government diluting environmental protection laws and often cracking down on NGOs and individuals supporting local tribes. In 2015, the government revoked Greenpeace India’s registration, under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), in a transparent attempt to browbeat them into submission. In 2016, another 25 human-rights NGOs had their licences revoked. The move was denounced by UN experts, who declared the revocations to be illegal under international law.

Environmental activists, including indigenous adivasi groups are often termed as ‘anti-development’ criminals and continue to live under threat. The Dongria Kondh tribe members who have been involved in active protesting against mining by MNCs in their sacred Niyamgiri hills for a decade now, in 2016, reported harassment and abuse by the state for causing deterrence in the state’s mining projects. A tribal from the community was gunned down by the local police force and was later termed a Maoist insurgent. This state-wide repression only pointed at the government’s aggressive pursuit of foreign investment and its complete disregard of indigenous voices.

While some of these incidents make it to the mainstream media, many remain under-reported, and deaths go undocumented. Global Witness reported that in 2017 as many as four people lost their lives to poachers, commercial plantation owners, mining, developmental and infrastructural projects worldwide every week.

The number of activist killings has seen a dramatic rise since 2014, with new research showing that at least four people were killed every week worldwide in environmental struggles. Information source: The Guardian 
The number of activist killings has seen a dramatic rise since 2014, with new research showing that at least four people were killed every week worldwide in environmental struggles. Information source: The Guardian


This rising trend of violence, is the unsparing consequence of a global economy driven by expansion, over-consumption and profit mongering. All too often, in India, we find Central and State governments parcelling lands out to industries, without any, or inadequate, clearances, or public debate.

Indigenous communities fighting for their land and water resources are the hardest hit. Activists are painted as criminals, and public vilification serves as further deterrent to prolonged and expensive SLAPP (Strategic Law Suits Against Public Participation).

According to Global Witness and The Guardian, agribusiness was ranked as the deadliest industry with the most number of links to activists’ deaths, followed by mining. Poaching networks are high on the list as well and while most such crimes occur in developing nations, in industrial countries such as the U.S.A, violence, government clampdowns and ungodly pressures are on the rise.

Clearly, even democratic governments across the planet are failing in their duty to protect the environment and its defenders. Meanwhile, large investors, shrug off accountability, even as some openly fuel this violence, profiting from the very projects that harm the environment.

Mining mafias have been on a rampage in the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape, destroying prime elephant habitats and wildlife corridors. Photo: Rohit Choudhury


The recent deluge of killings and the numbers published by Global Witness compelled global organisations to address the issue. In April 2018, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a new policy for protection of environmental defenders. UNEP’s commitment to those on the frontlines of the battle for our planet, will hopefully push states and businesses to change their practices. The strongest element of the policy lies in its recognition that businesses need to change their practices and stand against abuse and partake in positive commercial engagement and action.

To prevent this abuse of environmental defenders, it is crucial that governments and businesses undertake independent social audits and consultations with local communities and credible environmental groups on the matter of how their land resources are used. If this is not done, those who dare to speak out, will continue to face increased violence, imprisonment and loss of life.

The price we must pay to protect what we love and need is eternal vigilance. And those of us living comfortable lives in the city should know that tomorrow the victim could be one of our sons or daughters.

In Goa, while uncovering illegal mining, an attempt was made on me and my cameraperson and producer’s lives as goons tried to run us over with a car. They were called in to snatch our video camera and the tapes that had recorded the illegal mining activity. We were covering a site where iron ore was being extracted even though there was a Supreme Court ban on it at that time. I wasn’t prepared to let go of the story. Even at that time what saved us was an honest forest officer, who testified that our story was true and that the footage we had was indeed a genuine record of illegal mining. The mine was asked to shut shop after we came back to Delhi and filed a case in the CEC using the footage as evidence. Yes it was risky, but would I do it again? Absolutely!

Bahar Dutt, Environmental editor, CNN-News18

The National Tiger Conservation Authority-ban on mining, quarrying and crushing in the Kaziranga Karbi-Anglong landscape, which was imposed after I filed a complaint with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change seeking action against illegal mining, has earned me quite a few enemies. I came to know from sources that rich and powerful persons from the mining industry may try to cause physical harm to me and my family. These people are also trying to create an atmosphere of distrust against me in my community. While I have informed the seriousness of the matter to the state Chief Secretary and Director General of Police, seeking protection for me and my family members, I will under no circumstance give in to fear.”

Rohit Choudhary, Environmentalist and RTI activist

UNEP’s Policy outlines certain measures

* Denounce attacks against activists and call for accountability from hose responsible.
* Advocate with governments and businesses for better protection and practices.
* Create a rapid response mechanism through which environmental activists can communicate threats or instances of attack, informing UNEP, which then will take supportive action.
* Will provide technical and legal support to civil society, governments and judges in regard to defender support.
* Launching a global campaign to raise awareness on environmental protection, with defenders taking centre stage.
* Scaling up of partnerships with a wide range of actors from civil society, the UN, governments and private sectors.

Author: Anadya Singh, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 6, June 2018.


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