Research highlight

Defending the environmental defenders

Nature Sustainability

August 6, 2019

Corruption and lack of law enforcement are key factors that influence the number of deaths of individuals defending the environment or land rights, a paper in Nature Sustainability indicates. The findings highlight that defending the environment has become more lethal than serving in some war zones.

Between 2002 and 2017, more than 1,500 people in 50 countries were killed while engaged in environmental activism or defence: protecting land, forests, water and other natural resources. Those involved included lawyers, journalists, park rangers and members of Indigenous and traditional communities trying to prevent eviction from or encroachment on their lands. The rate of deaths has doubled over that time period from two to four per week, which is more than double the number of British and Australian military armed service people who were killed in active duty globally during the same period.

Nathalie Butt and colleagues analysed the relationship between governance, natural resources and their importance to a nation’s economy, and environmental-defender deaths. They identified that deaths occurred across different regions and conflicts but most were linked to the mining industry and agribusiness. The research indicates that countries with higher levels of corruption and less legal oversight tended to have more environmental-protector deaths. The authors find that environmental defenders from Indigenous groups had the largest number of deaths, with most violence occurring in Central and South America.

The authors suggest that only 10% of environmental-defender murders will result in a conviction, and argue that businesses, investors and governments need to be accountable for their role in the environmental conflicts that cause the violence.

doi: 10.1038/s41893-019-0349-4

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