In defense of nature: women at the forefront

November 27, 2018


According to Global Witness, 2017 was the deadliest year so far for environmental activists; 207 environmental defenders were killed for defending community land or natural resources. More than half of these murders occurred in just three countries - Brazil (23%), Colombia (18%) and the Philippines (14%), and agribusiness, mining, illegal logging and organized poaching crime syndicates accounted for most of the murders. About 10 percent of these murders were of women, most of them indigenous, and this number continues to grow every year.

Women, especially indigenous women, are particularly vulnerable to environmental-related violence – roughly half of all female activists were murdered for defending community land and environmental rights. In 2016, the world widely condemned the murder of Berta Cáceres for defending her community’s rights against the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Honduras. But violence against many other female defenders largely goes unnoticed, including such women as Emilsen Manyoma of Colombia, who defended her community’s land rights from abusive mining and agricultural projects; Leonela Tapdasan Pesadilla of the Philippines, who defended her community from large-scale mining projects; and Laura Leonor Vásquez Pineda of Guatemala, who defended her land against mining interests, all of whom were murdered last year. An even larger number of female environmental defenders face threats, intimidation, rape, torture and/or imprisonment every year, such as Patricia Gualinga Montalvo, indigenous Kichwa activist, who faces regular death threats for her defense of her community’s rights in the Amazon Rainforest.

Violence against women defenders, including indigenous women, represents a tragedy for them, their families and their communities, but it also points toward several troubling trends that affect all of us.

  • More than half of all acts of violence recorded by Global Witness are perpetrated by policy, military or security personnel, and many women environmental defenders are increasingly branded as ‘terrorists’ for the simple act of peacefully defending their lands and territory. This trend represents a global turn toward authoritarianism, and women, especially indigenous women, are at the wrong end of this power spectrum.
  • Violence perpetrated by corporations against the most powerless represents one of the top ten global risks identified in the 2016 World Economic Forum report, citing that decreased national governance capacity, coupled with the increased power of multi-national corporations, represent a global threat to peace and stability.
  • Violence is increasingly expanding to those who defend the defenders. Female journalists such as Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo of Colombia, who was killed while reporting on land right disputes in Colombia, and female lawyers such as Maria da Lurdes Fernandes Silva, who legally challenged illegal activities in the Pará region of Brazil, appear to be facing increasing threats for their environmental activism, casting a shadow on the future of an open press and a robust legal system that protect us all.

There is a reason for hope. Earlier this year, partly in response to the death of Berta Cáceres, 24 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean signed a legally binding pact, clearly protecting the rights of environmental defenders. However, much more work is required to ensure that women and men not only are not persecuted for defending their rights, but do not have to fight for them in the first place.

Some steps we can take now to achieve this end include:

  • We must hold governments accountable for violence perpetrated against peaceful protestors who are defending their rights. Expanding the signatories of the new pact on environmental defenders, especially in hotspots of violence, could help build momentum for peaceful solutions;
  • Hold corporations accountable when violence and/or environmental pollution can be directly attributed, including holding accountable their shareholders and investors;
  • Expand global news coverage of stories about the frontlines of environmental defenders, the challenges they face and the injustices they endure; and
  • Invest in resolving and securing land and resource rights of indigenous communities, as these rights are at the heart of environmental disputes.

UNDP has a clear role to play to achieve these goals by strengthening the work of national human rights institutions and other independent oversight mechanisms as a cornerstone of national human rights systems