Worldwide, four people are murdered every week for defending nature. Besides these murders, there is also criminalization, extortion, intimidation, arrests and violence. IUCN NL therefore led a project for three years to ensure more security for environmental defenders.

In five countries – Colombia, Peru, DR Congo, Indonesia and the Philippines – we worked on concrete interventions that improve the safety of threatened environmental defenders. Together with local partner organizations, we worked on a registration system to gain better insight into the problems and to be able to report an incident quickly. We also worked on safety training and measures, documenting evidence for criminal cases, legal assistance and getting environmental defenders to safety in the event of acute danger.

‘International law recognises that environmental and human rights defenders have the right to carry out their work undisturbed. States have an obligation to protect them against harassment, violence and violation of their rights.’

UN Special Rapporteur John Knox

We want that environmental defenders can do their work safely. We have done this by giving environmental defenders a face, bringing them to safety, training them in self-protection and increasing their international recognition in order to increase their credibility and visibility.

What has been achieved with this project?

  • There is better registration of incidents, as well as the development of local security networks and technological innovation.
  • Safe and transparent emergency funds have been established for critical situations.
  • Important steps have been taken to ensure institutional recognition of the right to a healthy and biodiverse environment as a human right. However, this is a process that requires our constant attention and pressure.
  • Environmentalists and nature organizations are beginning to gain a foothold in spaces where human rights are discussed. In these forums IUCN NL has positioned itself as an important ally.

Indigenous people hit the hardest

The environmental defenders at risk are often discredited civil society organizations or park rangers protecting a nature reserve. Citizens, indigenous people and farmers who defend their environment are also at risk. Indigenous people are often hardest hit because their land rights are often not well defined and because they often live in resource-rich areas. Josué Kambasu Mukura and his six family members were evacuated in November 2017. Josué Kambasu Mukura is the foreman of the local fishermen’s organisation and he was at great risk of being kidnapped or killed. He opposed oil drilling in Virunga National Park and was an important source for the ongoing investigation into the oil conflict as captured in the British documentary Virunga (2014).

Why are these environmental defenders being killed?

The reason environmental defenders are being killed is due to the combination of a rising world population and increased human consumption. This increases the demand for raw materials, which are often extracted in an unsustainable way. Environmental defenders want to prevent this and take up the fight, which puts them in danger.

Who is responsible for this?

The people who harm these environmental defenders are often paramilitary groups, the army, the police or private security guards. These people have ties to the government or have an interest in doing so themselves. There is no binding legislation yet that forces companies to respect human rights. We want to change this by setting up a UN human rights convention for companies. Besides companies, other perpetrators often get away with this crime, this must stop.

Binding Convention

In order to work towards a structural solution, we advocate the improvement of the legal position of nature conservationists at the international level with authoritative bodies such as the United Nations. By securing their position at the highest level, we work towards more long-term security. An important vehicle for this is a binding treaty that enforces respect for environmental defenders and their rights.

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Liliana Jauregui
Liliana Jauregui
Senior Expert Environmental Justice