Twenty-five years ago, Brazilian rubber tapper Chico Mendes was murdered for his efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest. Just a month ago, Edwin Chota, an Ashaninka activist from Peru, was murdered for his efforts to stop illegal logging.
Protecting land and natural resources can often be a risky business. According to some observers, it is becoming riskier: Global Witness released a report earlier this year showing that over 900 people, at a minimum, were killed between 2002 and 2013 as a result of competition for natural resources. Their research showed that these killings are occurring more frequently – an average of two activists have been killed each week in the last four years. Global Witness identified disputes over industrial logging, mining, and land rights as key drivers.
Global Witness’ co-founder Charmian Gooch joined Ka Hsaw Wa, 1999 Goldman Prize recipient from Asia and co-founder of Earth Rights International, to speak at the 2014 Environmental Grantmakers Association retreat last month. Ka Hsaw Wa argued that people will continue defending their land and resources even in the face of repression. He pointed out that people have no choice but to defend the land on which they live.
Here at the Goldman Prize, we have observed the increasing threats to environmentalists, including Prize winners. Marc Ona (Gabon, 2009) recently served a one-year probation due to his activism in Gabon. Yul Choi (South Korea, 1995) recently finished a one-year prison term that resulted from his activism. Tsetsegee Munkhbayar (Mongolia, 2007) is currently serving a politically motivated prison sentence of over 6 years due to a protest he organized against changes that would have weakened Mongolia’s mining regulations.
We have seen around the world that grassroots activists will stand up to protect their lands and their communities from environmental destruction. Their heroism naturally places them at risk. As an international community, we must think about what we can do to help shine a spotlight on these heroes – and the threats they face – and to help protect them when they are defending environmental rights.