One of the first murders of an defender of environmental rights in 2017 was Isidro Balenegro Lopez, a subsistence famer, activist, and leader among the Tarahumara people.  He was a Goldman Environmental Prize winner in 2005 for his peaceful action against deforestation from illegal logging in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Amidst threats against his and his family’s lives, Balenegro left the community, but was murdered upon returning to visit a family member in Coloradas e la Virgen. Balenegro’s story is one of many cases of deaths and increased risk of harm to land and environmental activists in 2017.

With the UN’s release of the Sustainable Development Goals, the alarming lesson in these casualties and escalating violence is whether our global priorities also protect the defenders of those initiatives. The Sustainable Development Goals list among its environmental priorities climate action (including initiatives combatting climate change and the impacts of emissions), life below water (including the conservation and sustainable use of water resources and marine life) and life on land (including sustainable use of land resources).

According to a report released by Global Witness, 197 land and environmental defenders were murdered globally in 2017. The report defines defenders as “people who take peaceful action to protect land or environment rights, whether in their own personal capacity or professionally.” This includes family members, friends, and colleagues of the defender who may have been murdered in retaliation of the defender’s efforts or in the same attack as that which resulted in the defender’s death. While the Global Witness’s coverage is limited, the underreporting of verified cases highlights the challenges in validating violence globally. Tension between government, companies, and local communities predominantly were driven by mining and oil, logging, agribusiness, poaching, water and dams.

While Global Witness largely tracks verified murders, the Environmental Justice (EJ) Atlas tracks claims and testimonies of communities engaged in ecological conflict. So far, the EJ Atlas recorded 2,344 current claims of tension globally across 10 categories: Nuclear, Mineral Ores and Building Extractions, Waste Management, Biomass and Land Conflicts, Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy, Water Management, Infrastructure and Built Environment, Tourism Recreation, Biodiversity Conservation Conflicts, Industrial and Utilities Conflicts. The data illustrates the magnitude of global tension surrounding environmental causes and the onus upon governments and organizations to protect the activists who are at the front lines of environmental causes.

Large scale ecological social tension often results in the murder, criminalization, and disappearances of human rights defenders. The cases presented by Global Witness and Environmental Justice highlight infringements of international law prohibiting violence against human rights defenders.  For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’s protections include the right to life, liberty, security, freedom of expression, prohibition on torture, peaceful assembly and association. Additionally, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders contains protections accorded to human rights defenders, which include the right to peacefully assemble, to form non-governmental organizations, to freedom of expression regarding human rights complaints, and to protection under domestic law.

The magnitude of escalating violence and casualties highlight the increased risk for environmental defenders.  Furthermore, the heightened vulnerability poses critical questions of whether our global initiatives sufficiently protect the defenders of those efforts and who is best responsible to protect these advocates.