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Why We Must Fiercely Defend Those Who Defend the Earth

The urgency for recognition and protection for environmental defenders at COP22 and beyond

Activists protest against the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza, Honduras earlier this year. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

The climate movement has repeatedly demonstrated keeping fossil fuels in the ground can’t be left to governments alone to achieve, but that environmental defenders are essential. However, these defenders are often met with abuse and extreme violence; it is imperative that they are granted the legal recognition, security and protection of the state they deserve.

Just days before the current climate negotiations a group of indigenous leaders from the Amazon rainforest demanded recognition for the key role their communities play in conserving the iconic forest. Nearly 300 representatives of the Amazon’s several million inhabitants gathered in Lima demanding their important contribution be recognized for their countries’ commitments on reducing deforestation and lowering carbon emissions.

These and other environmental defenders are indispensable if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°. However, the intimidation of people defending land, waterways and forests from extractive industries is increasing. This year alone the violent attacks against peaceful protestors have been shocking. There was the tragic loss of life of environmental activists protesting a coal plant in Bangladesh. Farmers in the Philippines seeking assistance from a climate change-exacerbated drought were brutalized, as was Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe, an anti-mining activist in South Africa.

Environmental defenders are indispensable if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°

Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras, followed closely by the assassination of Nelson Garcia, another member of the environmental and indigenous rights group COPINH. Both were protecting indigenous peoples from the onslaught of big industry including hydro-electricity projects and large scale logging.

The evidence is hard to ignore – extractivism often tramples over human rights, lives and livelihoods of communities who live and depend on their natural environment. The Global Witness report “On Dangerous Grounds” states that more than three people a week were killed in 2015 defending their land, forests and rivers against destructive industries. Almost half of human rights defenders killed in 2015 were environmental, land and indigenous rights activists.

This is unacceptable. The threats the climate and the human rights and social justice movements face are linked at their roots, and we cannot fight for climate justice without fundamental human rights protections for those most impacted. The devastating effects will touch everyone, from ravaging communities due to extreme weather events, increasing the risk of health epidemics and aggravating food shortages.  If we are to succeed it will be because human right defenders have led us to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The threats the climate and the human rights and social justice movements face are linked at their roots, and we cannot fight for climate justice without fundamental human rights protections for those most impacted.

With thousands of fossil fuel projects proposed all over the world (even with the recent decline of coal, there are 2,400 coal-fired power plants currently under construction or being planned), more needs to be done. Many of these projects are proposed in places with the severest restrictions on protest; meanwhile, the people targeted in violent crackdowns—in both the Global South and the Global North—are very often the most marginalized people in a given community.

Governments need to recognise the important and incredibly high risk work that environmental defenders do, by offering recognition and legal protection to them. There is also a need for clear safeguards in the climate financing mechanisms for environment defenders as they go about their work defending the planet and livelihoods of the marginalized and those people living in poverty.

The economic and infrastructural transformation needed—going from fossil fuels to 100 % renewable energy—will not happen without resistance from the powers currently benefiting from the status quo. The fossil fuel industry is, after all, one of the most profitable industries ever, and no stranger to fights with movements.

Thankfully, the people fighting the extractive industries are increasingly united, and intimidation will not make these movements go away. We will defend the defenders by carrying on, building on their work and standing in solidarity honouring their accomplishments. Intimidation will not stop the movement.

More than ever we need to hold our governments and the fossil fuel industry accountable for the harm they continue to cause. Our demand to world leaders meeting in Marrakech is this: stop new fossil fuel projects from being built. Redirect finance for a just transition to 100% renewable energy that can empower people across the globe.

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Payal Parekh

Payal Parekh is the Global Program Director at, leading the organization's  international campaigning and mobilisation work. She holds a Ph.D. in Oceanography from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

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