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Killings of environmental defenders strongly linked to corruption and weak rule of law, according to new study

Over 2,000 of Brazil’s indigenous people protested environmental damage to their land at a recent march. Image courtesy of Dr Felipe Milanez

Killings of environmental defenders doubled between 2002 and 2017, with the number of recorded deaths now similar to those of war zones, according to a new paper co-authored by a University of Sussex Research Fellow. 

Environmental defenders refer to anyone involved in protecting land, forests, water and other natural resources. Using data from watchdog NGO Global Witness, the new paper has revealed that, between 2002 to 2017, recorded deaths of environmental defenders increased from two to four a week. 

With at least 1,558 people killed in 50 countries, more people are killed defending the environment every year than are soldiers from the UK and Australia, combined, on overseas deployments in war zones. 

While some killings have sparked international outcry, some still remain unreported – these numbers are an underestimate of the full extent of the problem. 

The most recent Global Witness report, released last week, shows a slight decrease for 2018 (164 murders) but highlights the thousands of others who are being threatened, criminalised, or subject to other forms of violence. The killings are the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper problem.

Dr Mary Menton, Research Fellow in Environmental Justice at the University of Sussex, co-authored the paper, published in Nature Sustainability, along with Dr Nathalie Butt and Dr Anna Renwick from The University of Queensland, and Fran Lambrick from environmental campaign group Not1More.

According to the researchers, the killings are linked to increasing global demand for natural resources, with mining and agribusiness implicated in the highest proportion of deaths. 

Dr Menton, part of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP), said: “The atmosphere of violence that environmental defenders currently face is of urgent policy and humanitarian concern. 

“We found that the murders of environmental and land defenders were strongly correlated with the rule of law and corruption indices.”

All but three of the countries where deaths were recorded are classed as highly corrupt, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index score.

Only 10% of defender murders results in a conviction, according to the paper. The killers operate with impunity: they know they are unlikely to be brought to justice. 

The study comes just under a month after an indigenous leader and defender, Emyra Wajãbi, was murdered in Brazil. According to his tribe and the country’s National Indigenous Foundation, Wajãbi was found stabbed to death by ‘non-indigenous people’.

Dr Menton, part of the School of Life Sciences, said: “This paper will now contribute to a wider project which is currently underway, and seeks to explore how atmospheres of violence around ‘sustainable’ development projects are experienced by environmental defenders.

“When we speak of atmospheres of violence, we are referring to various forms: from direct physical acts, to threats, criminalisation, smear campaigns and forced displacement.

“We hope that by understanding the actors and the root causes involved, we can work towards mitigating and preventing the threats to which environmental defenders are exposed.”

The project, funded by the British Academy Sustainable Development Programme, covers six countries including Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, DRC, Ecuador and Guinea Bissau, and sees the researchers carry out interviews with defenders who are fighting against various development projects. 

As part of SSRP, the wider project also includes Dr Paul Gilbert and Dr Judith Verweijen, from the School of Global Studies, alongside colleagues at the Federal University of Bahia (Felipe Milanez), the Catholic University of Graben (Paul Vikanza), the University of Oxford (Laura Rival and Kaysara Khatun), the University of Dhaka (Tanzim Khan), the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar (Melissa Moreano), Not1More (Fran Lambrick), and Our Resources (Justino Sá).

Professor Joseph Alcamo, Director of the SSRP, said: ““As researchers we tend to overlook the human costs of protecting the forests and waterways we study.

“But in this case Dr Mary Menton and other researchers have been responsible for bringing to light a shocking story; a story about the people who’ve lost their lives in protecting the forests, lands and ecosystems that make up their home.

“Researchers have put the facts on the table - now the politicians have to act to stop the killings.”

Read more about the research in The Scientific AmericanThe Guardian, or The Conversation.

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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Friday, 9 August 2019

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