“Hopelessly Outmatched” – Keeping an eye on the mass murder of indigenous populations and environmental activists globally

by Adam Bentley


During the course of my Human Rights, the Development and Community Resilience we have analyzed several cases in which violence has been inflicted upon local indigenous populations for protesting the degradation of their environment and land. One of these cases was the Social and Economic Rights Action Center and the Center for Economic and Social Rights (SERAC) v. Nigeria brought before the African Commission on Human & Peoples Rights. 1 In this case Nigerian security forces have “attacked, burned and destroyed several Ogoni villages and homes under the pretext of dislodging officials and supporters of the Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP).2 In this class, we also watched a video that documented the murders of environmental activists around the globe. Horrified by the sheer disregard of human life and their environment, I was inspired to conduct research on the tactical violence inflicted upon indigenous populations and environmental activists seeking to preserve the environment, to analyze exactly how prevalent this issue is, what locations this violence is most concentrated in, and most importantly where do these armed forces come from?

Violence directed towards environmental activists is a growing issue around the globe. According to Global Witness, in 2016 at least 200 environmental defenders were murdered.3 Additionally, almost 1,000 murders have been recorded since 2010.4 Global Witness has elaborated several other key findings: 1. The phenomenon is not just growing, its spreading, there were documented murders in 24 countries as opposed to 16 in 2015; 2. Mining remains the most dangerous sector with 33 defenders killed after opposing mining and oil projects (though murders associated with logging are on the rise); 3. Almost 40% of victims are indigenous one of the most vulnerable groups of defenders; 4. 60% of those murder in 2016 were from Latin America; 5. Columbia as seen a spike in murders despite signing the peace accords; 6. Park Ranger and forest guards face heightened risks, with at least 20 murdered in 2016; 7. Governments and businesses are failing to handle the root of the cause of the attacks.5 The great majority of murders have taken place in Brazil, Columbia, the Philippines, India, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh and Guatemala.6


Photo: Love & Struggle Photos

The fact that the murders of defenders of the land and the environment is clearly a growing issue presents us, as a global society, with the urgent task of identifying the sources of these violent actors and the reasons they have for engaging in this complete disregard for human rights and the environment. Unfortunately, as noted in the Global Witness report, it is often difficult to find out exactly who has conducted the attacks because these murders are rarely investigated and the perpetrators are not often prosecuted.7 However, the report has identified several different types of forces that may be involved. Paramilitary, police, landowners, private security guards, poachers, military, settlers, loggers, hired gunmen, and business representatives.8 One of the most serious problems is that these violent forces is that some of them are heavily armed and those activists and indigenous individuals that oppose them are hopelessly outmatched by their forces.9

One of the primary questions I have in focusing on these forces are what incentives they could possibly have for conducting such acts of violence. Indeed, it seems as though there are deep rooted tensions between these violent actors and the protestors. The Global Witness report reveals a text message that, Jakeline Romero, a Wayuu Indigenous and women’s right activist received stating: “Don’t focus on what doesn’t concern you [if] you want to avoid problems. Your daughters are very lovely, so stop stirring other people’s pots […] Bitch, avoid problems because even your mother could be disappeared if you keep talking.”10 Clearly these actors must have strong incentives to suppress activism to hold such hostile attitude towards them.

The clearest motivation I suspect is financial incentive. All of these murders, threats, and other acts of violence are backed by development efforts. For example in Nicaragua, Francisca Ramirez and her family were repeatedly assaulted for Ramirez’s efforts in organizing the local community against the building of a canal in Nicaragua.11 In Peru, the indigenous population were attacked for their opposition to oil mining in the area.12 Furthermore, the Global Witness Report indicates that “ In the vast majority of cases, land and environmental defenders are threatened because they have questioned or opposed a commercial project.”13 However, my suspicion is that there is more at play then just money. In a National Geographic article by Stephen Leahy, he points out that “Around the world, corporate and political leaders often demonize protestors, sometimes calling them terrorists…” Surely this demonization of protestors contributes to the hostile attitudes these oppressive forces take towards the indigenous and I am curious as to other possible contributing incentives.


Adam Bentley is currently taking ‘Human rights, the Environment, Development and Community Resilience’ this quarter with Professor Brownell.

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