Threats, prison, death: What environmental activists face, at an alarming rate

A new report says attacks against environmental activists remain prevalent around the world. Patrick Strickland lists the worst offenders and explains what the trend tells us.

By: /
August 1, 2019
climate arrest
A protester is detained by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers during a demonstration against the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline protest in Burnaby, British Columbia November 20, 2014. REUTERS/Ben Nelms

Around the world, governments continue to crack down on environmental protesters and land defenders, according to a new report, jailing them and deeming them terrorists, while state security forces, criminal gangs and private militiamen gun down and threaten these activists at a breakneck pace.

The report by the London-based Global Witness watchdog, released July 30, said 164 environmental activists and land defenders were killed last year by government security forces, criminal gangs and private militias. In 2017, the deadliest year on record, the number of those murdered reached 201.

“Governments and business have failed to act responsibly, ethically and even legally, making them a major driving force behind a litany of crimes against activists,” Heather Iqbal, Global Witness’s senior communications advisor, told OpenCanada.

“They are part of the reason so many defenders were killed in 2017, making it the worst year on record,” she said, “and why many, many more were attacked, threatened or criminalized for showing the courage to speak out for their communities, their way of life and our environment.”

The global clampdown “manifests radically differently” across the world, said Michael Loadenthal, a visiting professor of sociology and social justice at Ohio’s Miami University, who has researched the impact of crackdowns on environmental activism for years. “Latin America is dealing with it through lethal violence, the US is dealing with it through increased felonies and over-criminalization,” Loadenthal told OpenCanada.

He added that the new manifestation of what’s been dubbed the “green scare” in the past is “more openly driven by corporations as much as it is driven by governments.”

In Europe and the United States, several governments have launched aggressive campaigns targeting environmental activists.

French authorities have tasked counter-terrorism units with investigating climate change activists. German police have cracked down on students demonstrating against harmful mining practices. British authorities have promised to stamp out climate activists with the “Extinction Rebellion” movement. United States lawmakers have sought to criminalize activism targeting pipeline projects around the nation. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s (ICNL) tally, at least seven US state legislatures have green-lighted laws increasing the penalties for people charged with crimes related to anti-pipeline protests. In June, the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed expanded criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison and hefty fines for protesters at rallies at or near gas or oil pipelines, as first reported by Politico.

"Latin America is dealing with it through lethal violence, the US is dealing with it through increased felonies and over-criminalization."

Elly Page, an attorney and legal advisor at the ICNL, told OpenCanada that the anti-pipeline laws fit into “a larger trend of efforts by the government to restrict the right to protest more generally,” citing the more than 100 anti-protest bills and laws introduced in the US since 2016.

“A lot of the pipelines run through tribal communities’ lands or through low-income, rural communities,” said Jen Hensley, director of state lobbying and advocacy at the Sierra Club environmental organization. Hensley said the legislation creates a “chilling effect” and deters marginalized communities from “being able to stand up and say they don’t want these [pipelines] running through their homes.”

In Canada, a number of publicized arrests have been made at pipeline-related protests in recent years, including against the Trans Mountain extension project and the Coastal Gas Link project. More recently, in July, 25 activists were arrested in Montreal at an event organized by the Quebec chapter of Extinction Rebellion. It is unclear if arrests in Canada are on the rise, however.

In more deadly cases, last year, more than half of the murders took place in Latin America — at least 24 environmental rights activists were killed in Colombia, and another 20 in Brazil. Guatemala saw a fivefold increase in deadly violence, with 16 killings, making it one of the deadliest countries per capita.

Well into 2019, the crackdowns and violence have continued. In Brazil, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed concerns over the Amazon and escalated a violent crackdown on Indigenous communities fighting land grabs. In February, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report noting at least 16 attacks — four of them fatal — on Indigenous communities in a three-month span.

In the Philippines, the country with the highest overall number of environmental activism-linked deaths in 2018, the government has repeatedly lobbed terrorism accusations at Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Philippine national and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Although a Manila court ordered the justice ministry to remove Tauli-Corpuz from a list of 600 individuals the government claimed had links to a Maoist rebel group last year, she has continued to weather accusations and threats.

“This is a phenomenon seen around the world: land and environmental defenders are declared terrorists, locked up or hit with paralyzing legal attacks, for defending their rights, or simply for living on lands that are coveted by others,” Tauli-Corpuz said in the Global Witness report.

Global Witness’s Iqbal says the global crackdown should alarm everyone, arguing that the environmental rights activists and land defenders are “on the frontline of fighting climate change, preserving ecosystems and safeguarding human rights.”

“These are struggles that should be important to all of us,” she concluded, “not least because [activists] stand up for causes that benefit us all: sustainability, biodiversity and justice.”