Safeguarding the lives, livelihoods and rights of environmental defenders who act peacefully to protect the planet.
Conflict over natural resources is intensifying, with more and more incidents turning violent as rising global demand for minerals, timber, oil and fertile farmland pushes companies onto territories that many Indigenous Peoples and local communities have sustainably managed for generations. Nearly three environmental defenders were killed each week in 2018, and anecdotal evidence suggests that, for every murder, there are dozens more cases of physical or legal intimidation, coercion, abuse and restrictions on defenders’ rights. This growing wave of violence and criminalization not only represents a dangerous closing of civic space, but it also poses grave environmental risks.
Many defenders, particularly those from indigenous and local communities, are among the planet’s greatest stewards, caring for lands, biodiverse ecosystems and natural resources that sustain up to 2.5 billion people. Globally, these groups manage nearly 300,000 million metric tons of carbon in their forests and soil – 33 times the global energy emissions for 2017. And research in the Amazon Basin shows that deforestation rates on tenure-secure indigenous and community lands are between 35 and 50 percent lower than what they are in similar areas.
Yet few governments have taken concrete steps to protect environmental and land defenders, and to attract investment, some countries are even rolling back laws that once safeguarded communities’ rights to participate in environmental decision-making. Development finance institutions – powerful organizations that could set standards to reduce risks environmental defenders face or create more inclusive development projects – have also largely failed to protect local communities advocating for natural resource conservation. And many private sector leaders have turned a blind eye to violence against defenders within their supply chains.
WRI works with governments, civil society organizations, Indigenous Peoples and local communities to tackle this critical, highly complex problem. We identify and advance preventative measures that reduce the risk of attacks, violence and stigmatization against environmental and land defenders by:
Analyzing the political, economic and social root causes of violence against environmental defenders. We examine the conditions – from weak enforcement of laws that safeguard defenders’ environmental rights to insecure indigenous and community land tenure – that create a dangerous environment for those who seek to protect their land, wildlife and natural resources. Understanding these root causes of systemic violence will help decision-makers develop policies that keep defenders safe and promote peace over the long term.
Advancing national and regional reforms to safeguard those who protect the planet. We help governments and civil society develop laws that strengthen transparency, public participation and accountability in environmental decision-making – reforms that reduce risk factors that incite violence as well as legal frameworks that protect defenders. For example, WRI campaigned for and supported a six-year negotiation process among Latin American and Caribbean states, culminating in the landmark Escazú Agreement. This accord not only protects environmental defenders, but it also makes it easier for nearly 500 million people to access information, participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives and hold powerful interests to account. Yet ratifying the agreement is just the first step in a long process of realizing its ambitious goals, and WRI advances implementation by helping governments adopt legal reforms, rallying support for these national-level changes and building civil society’s capacity to monitor progress.
Convening coalitions to scale approaches that prevent and reduce risks that environmental defenders face. A founding member of the Defending Land and Environmental Defenders Coalition, we work with a broad network of partners to better understand the scope of threats and violence against defenders by aggregating and analyzing data from around the world. Using this information, we develop strategies to address the attacks, slow the closing of civic space and protect defenders as well as run targeted advocacy campaigns in partnership with a diverse set of stakeholders to persuade governments to address the root causes of violence. And finally, we share resources for defenders – emergency response measures, psychosocial interventions and personal support systems – across the network and with governments.