How many real-life environmental heroes are reading a death threat or hiding in a safe house right now? The scary part is we just don't know
There is one surefire way to keep your life as an activist: give up.
Those who don't, often pay the price - persistence kills in the high stakes world of environmental defense. And more often than not, those at the frontlines protecting our forests, waterways and ancestral lands are Indigenous people. They have the most to lose from the deforestation, mining, agribusiness, send dredging and poaching devastating Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia without parallel.
In 2015, at least 185 environmental activists were murdered for speaking out, protesting or threatening to expose the often corrupt and exploitative development threatening their livelihoods. Of those, nearly half were Indigenous people, mostly from Central and South America.
It's hard to imagine the murder of 185 people in one year all around the world. You don't see people, you see a number. But I saw a face, a body, a bloody leg. I saw a defender die. It was five years ago and I was a reporter in Cambodia. Chut Wutty was a well-known illegal logging activist who'd asked me to join him on a trip to the country's Cardamom mountains, a 14,354-square-kilometer range containing at least 450 species of birds and 50 species of endangered animals, including the clouded leopard and the Siamese crocodile. We went, and the beauty was bewildering. Three days later, Wutty would be murdered by military police angry at our intrusion into their logging site.
Wutty ran his own environmental organization, had Western financial backers, the support of high ranking Cambodian military officials, hundreds of local supporters who watched out for him and tools - multiple cell phones, a GPS tracker, a Cannon camera and access to aerial surveillance. He was still murdered. Much less organized and prepared defenders, people who might be forced unexpectedly into protecting their lands due to evictions or enormous infrastructure developments, are up against the same violence.
Coming from the most rural, isolated and underdeveloped places in the world, untouched by 5G, drones and GoPros, defenders are often teenagers, mothers and grandfathers who lack cell phones, email access and powerful friends on which to call. They even lack basic necessities like water canisters and reliable footwear. Still, they set out peacefully for the forest, the elephant sanctuary or mining site and make their voices heard. Their demands are varied - an end to the hydro dam whose construction requires the clearcutting of trees, to the mine polluting their waterways, to the encroachments of the wealthy and powerful on their hunting lands. The response to their demands is also varied - they are told to stop, they are threatened, they are kidnapped, they are killed.
Understanding defenders' daily realities and finding strategies to address these risks is the task for a group of environmental activists, investigators, human rights leaders, researchers and lawyers gathering at the Forest Defenders Conference in Oxford, UK, June 21-22.
The conference is being organized by Not1More (N1M), a group founded in 2016 in direct response to the violence facing environmental defenders. The group, backed by global support networks, builds upon decades of experience working with environmental defenders in Asia and West Africa and seeks local solutions to violent repression.
Over these two upcoming days in Oxford, panelists, speakers and those passionate about environmental protection will hear from foresters, activists and community leaders about the risks they face, the intimidation they experience and the high-level, state-sanctioned criminals they refuse to give up fighting. The room will hear what these activists lack and where there are barriers to support, how powerful networks are skirting existing laws protecting Indigenous people and what needs to be done to prosecute those responsible for the murders.
The conference will bring together analysts and frontline activists from around the world, including: Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of murdered Honduran activist Berta Cáceres; John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment; John Vidal, former environment editor at The Guardian; Ouch Leng, a Cambodian forest defender and winner of the 2016 Goldman Prize; and Sir Ian Redmond, a renowned conservationist known for his work with elephants and great apes.
Almost one year after Berta Cáceres' murder in 2016, in an open letter to her mother, her daughter Laura wrote, "I remember her strong, powerful, immense, infinite fighting against the mega-projects that were taking over Lenca indigenous territories, fighting against abusers and aggressors of women, fighting against corrupt governments, against coups d'état, in solidarity with those who needed it."
The murders of those who protect lands, forests, rivers - who protect their ancestor's graves and their annual ceremonies - is the brutal, violent expression of a more pernicious, underlying violence. Ways of life, places, animals and people are destroyed, transformed from free, living beings into throwaways. As Berta understood, oppression as a whole must be fought to be free.
And the first step is defending the defenders - because giving up is simply not an option.
The Forest Defenders Conference, organized by environmental activist support group Not1More, will take place June 21-22 at St. Hugh's College in Oxford, UK. The conference aims to highlight risks and develop safety strategies for frontline defenders who face increasing violence for their work. Tickets are being sold on a donation basis, and will go toward funding the cost of the event and funding for activists to attend. To register to attend, click here. For a conference agenda, click here. For more information on Not1More, visit us online at not1more.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Facebook page, which will livestream the conference
Prof. John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment
George Monbiot, The Guardian, columnist and author
Ouch Leng, Cambodian Human Rights Task Forces, Goldman Prizewinner for Asia 2016
Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, COPINH, daughter of indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres, murdered in 2016
Claudelice Silva dos Santos, forest defender, Pará, Brazil
Justino Sá, founder of Our Resources, and Chief Legal Advisor to the National Assembly of Guinea-Bissau
Sir Ian Redmond, The Ape Alliance, eminent primatologist and conservationist
And with speakers from: Human Rights Watch, Universal Rights Group, Global Witness, Civil Rights Defenders, Global Diligence, Epsilar Group, and Oxford University
Olesia Plokhii is a writer and journalist in New York City. She has reported from the US, Canada, South Africa and Cambodia and in April 2012 witnessed the death of Cambodian illegal logging activist Chut Wutty during a reporting assignment deep into the Cardamom Mountain range. She recounts her experience that day in the feature film documentary I am Chut Wutty, and serves as the Media Director for N1M, a global support and protection network for environmental defenders. She can be reached at email@example.com.