Environmental activists: at high risk of violence and assassination

1 in 5 cases of environmental conflict involving Indigenous people results in violence and even assassination
Published: 25 June 2020

Activists protesting against environmental injustices around the world suffer from high rates of criminalization, physical violence and murder, according to a study published this week in Global Environmental Change. Indeed, despite the fact that they primarily use nonviolent forms of protest, activists are victims of violence in 18% of environmental conflicts, and of murder in 13% of these conflicts. When Indigenous Peoples are involved, violence is especially frequent. In conflicts over mining and land use, assassinations occur in one out of five conflict cases, a figure which is significantly deadlier than other categories and the global average.

In the largest analysis of environmental conflicts to date, an international team of researchers, including a researcher from McGill, analyzed 2,743 cases of environmental conflicts worldwide that were registered in the global Atlas of Environmental Justice (EJAtlas). This interactive map identifies existing environmental conflicts and documents only cases that are verifiable through secondary sources, published previously elsewhere.

The study found that bottom-up mobilizations for more sustainable and socially just uses of the environment occur around the world, in all income groups and that grassroots environmentalism is a promising force for a just sustainability.


The heavy price of activism

But this activism comes at a heavy cost. In 20% of environmental conflicts, activists face criminalization, including fines, legal prosecution and prison terms. In 18% of cases, activists are victims of physical violence, and in 13% of cases, they are assassinated. When Indigenous people are involved, these figures significantly increase to a 27% rate of criminalization, 25% rate of violence and 19% murder rate.

In 11% of cases globally, protesters contributed to halting projects that were environmentally destructive and a source of social conflict, while at the same time defending their livelihoods. “Combining strategies of preventive mobilization, protest diversification and litigation can increase this success rate significantly to up to 27%”, explains Juan Liu, corresponding author of the study. The research also highlights the role of women as leaders in the mobilizations (21%), sometimes because of being disproportionally affected by the environmental and health impacts of these conflicts.


The environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous

The data shows that environmental defenders are frequently members of vulnerable groups who mainly employ non-violent forms of protest. Local activism includes opposition to fossil fuel extraction, open cast mining, tree plantations, hydropower dams and other extractive industries, to opposition to waste disposal in the form of incineration or dumps.

“This is the everyday activism of poor and indigenous communities defending their livelihoods and fighting dispossession,” said Leah Temper, a researcher in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University with the Leadership for the Ecozoic project and co-Director of the EJAtlas.“This study should give Canadians pause given that Canadian companies are overrepresented in the database of environmental conflicts we looked at, with involvement in 8% of the cases analyzed. The EJAtlas documents over 150 conflicts involving the Canadian mining industry, providing further evidence that these corporations are among the worst environmental and human rights offenders in the world.”


Global grassroots environmentalism - a promising force for sustainability

Arnim Scheidel, lead author of the study, from the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA-UAB), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona says that “to support environmental defenders effectively, better knowledge about the underlying environmental conflicts is needed, as well as a profound understanding of the factors that enable activists to mobilize successfully for environmental justice.”

The study also shows that environmental conflicts do not disappear with economic development but are shifted to new sectors, following the changes in resource uses. A lasting reduction of pressures on local communities’ territories as sources of resource extraction or sinks for pollution and emissions will require substantial societal changes.


To read “Environmental Conflicts and Defenders: a global overview” in Global Environmental Change, by Scheidel A, Del Bene D, Liu J, Navas G, Mingorría S, Demaria F, Avila S, Roy B, Ertör I, Temper L, Martinez-Alier J.

The research was funded by the European Research Council (ERC), the Government of Catalonia's Secretariat for Universities and Research of the Ministry of Economy and Knowledge (AGAUR), the International Social Science Council for the ACKnowl-EJ project and CONACYT (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología).


About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

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