Defending Tomorrow Today

Two bulldozers surrounded by piles of cut trees with rain forest in background

When we think of dangerous, life-saving vocations, COVID-19 frontline workers come instantly to mind. They often labor under conditions of high risk and dire pay, their risk levels worsened by top-down political ineptitude. But there’s another group of frontline workers who live shadowed by perpetual hazard. Around the globe, especially in the great tropical rainforests that girdle the Earth, environmental defenders are trying to hold the line against devastating levels of deforestation. The threatened defenders constitute a vital protective barrier against the two greatest crises facing humanity: climate collapse and global pandemics.

In the 245 weeks since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was signed, an average of four environmental defenders have been murdered each week. To many readers, these killings may seem remote, yet the fate of the activists is tied to our shared planetary destiny. Only the oceans sequester more carbon than tropical forests, so the future of those woodlands will significantly shape tomorrow’s climate. Moreover, forest fracture heightens global vulnerability to zoonotic viruses that leap from animals to humans. Growing numbers of people now live cheek by jowl with creatures that previously inhabited intact, largely inaccessible jungle. Hence the vital role that forest defenders play in slowing the advance of the two most perturbing threats facing Homo sapiens.  

Portraits of environmental defenders in the foreground. Nuclear powerplant, smoke stacks, and logging equipment in background. Text reads "Defending Tomorrow."

Yet the lives, values, struggles and stories of persecuted environmental activists mostly pass beneath the radar of the international media. Global Witness seeks to change all that. Partnering with civic organizations around the world, Global Witness meticulously documents, country by country, the persecution and assassination of environmental and land defenders. The organization’s annual report, released last week, is aptly titled Defending Tomorrow: The Climate Crisis and Threats Against Land and Environmental Defenders. The report reveals that 212 defenders were murdered in 2019, making it the most lethal year on record since the organization began collecting data eight years ago. 

The six worst nations to be an environmental defender in 2019 were, in order of severity, Colombia, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. Per capita, Honduras was the most dangerous of all. Two thirds of defenders murdered in 2019 lived in Latin America. The biggest drivers of the violence? Mining. Logging. Megadams. Cattle ranching. And the razing of old growth forest to make way for biologically barren monocultures, particularly palm oil and soy plantations

These activities disproportionately kill and displace Indigenous people. In Colombia, Indigenous people comprise only 4.4 percent of the national population, but 50 percent of murdered defenders. Colombia is not only one of the most dangerous societies in which to be an environmental activist, but the country also suffers from one of the world’s worst levels of internal displacement. Environmental destruction is twinned to the forced removal of vulnerable communities, especially Indigenous communities with insecure land rights. Typically, their bond to the land predated the capitalist carve up of the commons into individual property. 

The fate of the activists is tied to our shared planetary destiny.

Take the example of the Guajajara tribe in northeastern Brazil. Last year, illegal loggers ambushed and shot dead 26-year old Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a passionate member of a group called Guardians of the Forest. The Guajajara number only 13,100. Yet in the past two decades 46 members of the tribe have been murdered for opposing lawless logging. Relative to population, it’s the equivalent of 1.1 million Americans shot dead for resisting deforestation. 

In Brazil, 90 percent of the killings last year occurred in the Amazon, as President Jair Bolsonaro—nicknamed “Captain Chainsaw”—effectively declared open season on the rainforest and its Native inhabitants. The assaults on Amazonian communities have quickened under cover of COVID darkness. The signal from the top is clear: the Indigenous are disposable people on desirable land. Yet, across the tropics, national parks from which Indigenous communities have been expelled fare worse than reserves where such communities persist as ecosystem managers. Their presence helps keep marauding human colonists at bay, thereby contributing to the protection of biodiversity and to the forest’s integrity as a carbon sink.  

If Indigenous communities are acutely exposed to anti-environmental violence, the circle of the vulnerable often includes even those who dare report on ecological crimes and territorial theft. Last year, two Indonesian journalists, Maratua Siregar and Maraden Sianipar, bore witness to a land dispute between a palm-oil company and a village in North Sumatra. On October 30th, both journalists were found stabbed to death. Police have accused the plantation owner of paying a hitman $3,000 to murder both men. 

A new study just out in Science by Andrew Dobson et al., expresses alarm at forest fracture from the perspective of public health. “Ecology and Economics for Pandemic Prevention,” argues that habitat fragmentation increases the length of the forest perimeter—the contact zone where the risk of pathogen transmission between humans, livestock, and infected wild animals is highest. Thus, the paper argues, forest disturbance increases the risk of globally threatening viral spillovers. Read in tandem, the pandemic prevention paper and the Global Witness Report point in the same direction: protecting forest defenders is a vital measure for slowing both climate breakdown and the spread of novel human viruses against which we have no defenses.

Yet, in most societies, such protections are threadbare. Indeed, we have seen the international roll out of laws that portray nonviolent environmental defenders as “terrorists” or “rebels.” This exposes defenders to both state and nonstate attacks. The Philippines offers a dramatic example: President Rodrigo Duterte has criminalized those who safeguard their forests and rivers from illicit logging and mining. The regime demonizes such peaceful protestors by “red tagging” them, portraying them as communists-in-disguise.

Global Witness also documents some of the distinctive ways in which women are exposed to environmental risk. While women are responsible for half of small-hold food production globally, they only hold legal title to 10-20 percent of that land. This leaves them particularly vulnerable to involuntary displacement. Moreover, rape and rape threats continue to be wielded against women protestors

Not all the killings occur in the tropics. Romania, the so-called “lungs of Europe,” possesses half of that continent’s old growth forests. Last year two rangers were murdered while patrolling the ancient beech forests that cover nearly five million acres of Romania. A single 150-year old beech tree can absorb sufficient carbon to offset a 35,000-mile car trip, a sharp reminder of the links between future climates and the fate of the great forests.

When threats go global, we’re all downwinders. Some sooner than others.

We cannot applaud frontline environmental workers from our urban balconies. But we can honor defenders who were killed while they protected their homes, their land, and climate-critical forests, whose actions also reduce pandemic threats for us all. We can honor defenders by opposing the spread of laws that criminalize nonviolent protest, laws that erode both the environment and civil rights. Such laws are not exclusive to the Global South: in North America we have seen a spate of new legislation criminalizing the protection of land, forests, and water, measures that disproportionately threaten Native defenders. This reminds us that the climate threat and the pandemic threat are both unequally universal, weighing most heavily on the poorest, the colonized, and, in the wealthier nations, communities of color. 

We can also help defend the defenders by eating less meat, a major driver of ecological devastation and land seizure. We can pressure corporations to clean up their supply chains. We can support organizations—like Global Witness and Global Forest Watch—that grant imperiled communities access to technologies that allow them to monitor illegal logging, unregulated mining, and land theft. The more fortunate among us currently live sheltered from environmental devastation and barely habitable climates. But ultimately, as COVID-19 reminds us, when threats go global, we’re all downwinders. Some sooner than others. 

Featured Image: Illegal logging on Pirititi Indigenous Amazon lands. Photo by Felipe Werneck/Ibama, May 8, 2018.

Rob Nixon is the Barron Family Professor in the Humanities and the Environment. He is affiliated with the Princeton Environmental Institute’s initiative in the environmental humanities. Before joining Princeton in 2015, Nixon held the Rachel Carson Professorship in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was active in the Center for Culture, History and Environment. He is the author of four books, most recently Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2013). His work has appeared in the New YorkerNew York Times, GuardianOutsideLondon Review of Books and elsewhere. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “The Swiftness of Glaciers” (2018). WebsiteContact.