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Why it works

Local & practical

In five countries – Colombia, Peru, DR Congo, Indonesia and the Philippines – we work on specific interventions which improve the safety of environmental defenders. Together with local partners, we work on implementing a digital reporting system to better register incidents, we help organize safety trainings and measures, and assist in providing legal support. An emergency fund is put in place to bring people to safety in case of emergency. The interventions are tailored to the local situations and needs.

Structural improvement

To structurally improve the protection of environmental defenders, we advocate for the international recognition of the right to defend the environment with authoritative bodies such as the United Nations. Recognition at an international level will contribute to the development of international legal mechanisms to better protect environmental defenders. An important step promises to be the UN Binding Treaty, which should contain obligations to respect environmental defenders and their rights. In a petition to the Dutch parliament, we ask them to actively support this Treaty and to ensure that it protects environmental defenders in an adequate way.

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  • Every week, four people are killed because they stand up for nature.
  • Conflicts over mining were the number one cause of killings
  • Almost 40 percent of the victims are from indigenous groups

International human rights law recognises that environmental human rights defenders have rights to carry out their work without interference. States have obligations to protect them from harassment and violence and to provide remedies for violations of their rights. - UN Special Rapporteur John Knox


How big is the problem?

It is without a doubt that violence against environmental defenders is increasing. But because not all violent incidents and murders are registered, the exact extent of the problem is difficult to pinpoint. For several years now, Global Witness has been recording how many environmental defenders are killed each year.

In 2019, Global Witness registered 212 deaths with an average of four deaths a week. Still, this is most likely only the tip of the iceberg: many countries provide unreliable information due to corruption. In addition, local deaths in remote areas are often not registered. With the support of the National Postcode Lottery, IUCN NL is therefore working on better registration of incidents. 

Who are these environmental defenders?

  • Employees of civil society organizations who stand up for nature and the rights of the local population

  • Citizens, including indigenous peoples and farmers who stand up for the right to a healthy living environment

  • Park rangers who watch over protected areas of nature

What type of violence do environmental defenders face?

  • Murder 

  • Arrests and detentions without formal charges

  • Violence

  • Bullying and threats

  • Criminalization

What are the underlying causes of violence against conservations? 

The violence against conservationists is a symptom of the increasingly fierce battle for natural resources around the world. 

The growing world population with an increasing consumption creates an increasing demand for raw materials, such as minerals, timber and palm oil, which are often extracted in an unsustainable way. In countries that are rich in natural resources, there is an increasing demand for land. Environmental defenders are at risk because they speak out against the destructive impacts of, for example, gold mining or the construction of a plantation. Because environmental defenders try to protect their land, forest and water against the intruding industry, they find themselves literally in the fire line. 

Most conflicts that involve deaths are related to mining and large-scale agro-industry, such as palm oil and soy. Logging, poaching and hydropower plants are also a source of conflict.


In what countries is this problem present?

The countries affected most in 2018 were the Philippines (30), Colombia (24), India (23) and Brazil (20). The sharpest increase in killings occurred in Guatemala, where 16 defenders were killed (more than five times as many than in 2017).

Why are mostly indigenous people victim?

Of all environmental defenders who were killed in 2017, 25% have an indigenous background (in 2016, this was even 40%). Indigenous people are extra vulnerable because their land rights often are not acknowledged and because they live in isolated but resource-rich areas.

Who are the offenders?

Often paramilitary groups, the army, the police or private security forces turn out to be involved in the violence. Presumably, they have links with governments or companies that have an interest in the arrival of, for example, a mining company or a timber concession. Companies that violate the rights of conservationists are still able to get away with this, as there is no binding legislation that forces them to respect human rights. We want to change that by advocating a binding UN human rights treaty for companies. 

Are the offenders being punished?

Offenders are rarely traced or convicted. This impunity is a major problem because it endorses only more violence. This must come to an end: murderers can no longer go free.

Become a partner

Do you see opportunities to work together on increasing safety of environmental defenders?

Contact our expert Liliana Jauregui.

Get in touch


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