• Maisie McDavid

Who are Environmental Defenders?

Environmental defenders - those defending their livelihoods and land from large corporations - are the people we need now more than ever, but their lives are at stake. Valuable and vulnerable environments are critical to the climate crisis to protect, but indigenous management systems of land and their rights are still being ignored by development organisations.

In 2007, the UN gave indigenous peoples the right to defend territories, resources, and cultures. However, where violence to defenders is growing year on year, the lack of preventive measures by international governance is inadequate to stopping murders, assaults, and kidnappings.


Human rights NGO, Global Witness, defines environmental defenders as:

“people who take peaceful action to protect land or environmental rights, whether in their own personal capacity or professionally”.

While not all environmental defenders identify as indigenous people, most act to protect nature and their ancestral homes that will otherwise be exploited for its resources. Professor Stephen Garnett et al. of Charles Darwin University states that “more than 28% of the global land area is owned, used or managed by indigenous people, including more than 40% of terrestrial protected areas.”

An overwhelming abundance of research on indigenous people and their relation to the land has shown that where they manage land, biodiversity thrives as land is treated as an investment that will sustain them for future generations. This message is essential to tackling the climate crisis, to approach environmental management with sustainability. However, the knowledge of indigenous people has largely been ignored.

The land grabbing is largely driven by market-centered development agendas that bring about violence as well as environmental harm. The violence is profound in Latin American countries such as Colombia and Mexico, and South-East Asian countries like the Philippines. These places are vulnerable to the resource curse, where governments receive more taxes/profits from extractive industries than citizens. This leaves environmental defenders underrepresented and silenced in governance.


In 2017, Global Witness reported that 197 people were killed defending their land and environment, this number rose to 227 in 2020. These statistics are an underestimate as many attacks are unreported. The attacks range from murder, dislocation, arrest, and particularly for women, assault. The power extractive companies have over governments means it is unusual for anyone to be brought to justice for killing a defender. Often the defenders are framed as terrorists and assassins so that governments and companies can justify the killings and jailing’s.

Global Witness and Ensia have reported that violence against environmental defenders has not only been driven by resource extraction, but conservation. For centuries the West have paid little attention to indigenous experts, with the prevalent view that only Western scientists can be relied upon to build an understanding of the natural world. This belief has resulted in land grabbing by conservation organisations from indigenous people. These actions are driven by sidelining indigenous ways of land management. Since global expansion for profit by the West, indigenous people have been “dehumanised, displaced, and decimated” (Ghazoul and Kleinschroth, 2018). Without sufficient support from international governance, this colonial ideology will continue, and the lives and livelihoods of indigenous people will continue to be threatened.

So, what are international organisations doing about it now?

Since developed countries profit and resources through the companies that kill environmental defenders, there is a global duty to act. This includes companies, consumers, investors, and governments. In 2018, the UN introduced a programme to promote solutions to protect environmental defenders.

However, Ghazoul and Kleinschroth (2018) and the IUCN have picked up areas where this policy is insufficient. The 2018 legislation included free prior and informed consent for indigenous people and local communities on land purchases. However, Ghazoula and Kleinschroth (2018) recognise that there has been no evaluation of the policies effectiveness. The IUCN states that approaches to defenders’ policy have lacked preventive measures. As demand for timber, palm oil, and minerals remains high, UN action is insufficient in sanctioning lands stealing for profit.

Perhaps the Western way of approaching land management and valuing nature is fundamentally unable to achieve sustainability and peace. This begs the question, how can we learn from the knowledge of indigenous people to invest in land and people, rather than exploit?


Garnett, S. Burgess, N. Fa, J. Fernandez-Llamazares, A. Molnar, Z. Robinson,C . Watson, J. Zander, K. Austin, B. Brondizio, E. Collier, N. Duncan, T. Ellis, E. Geyle, H. Jackson, M. Jonas, H. Malmer, P. McGowan, B. Sivongxay A. Leiper, I. (2018). A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation. Nature Sustainability, 1, 369-374, [online]. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0100-6

Ghazoul, J and Kleinschroth, F. (2018). A global perspective is needed to protect environmental defenders. Nature Ecology & Evolution, Vol 2, 1340-1342 [online]. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0640-1

Global Witness, (2021). Last line of defence [online]. Available from: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/last-line-defence/

Global Witness, (2019). Enemies of the State? [online]. Available from: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/enemies-state/

IUCN, (2021). Environmental defenders, human rights, and the growing role of IUCN policy: retired, red-tagged or red-listed. [online]. Available from: https://www.iucn.org/news/commission-environmental-economic-and-social-policy/202109/environmental-defenders-human-rights-and-growing-role-iucn-policy-retired-red-tagged-or-red-listed

Vidal, J. (2022). Why Indigenous People and Traditional Knowledge Are Vital To Protecting te Future of Global Biodiversity. Ensia [online]. Available from: https://ensia.com/features/indigenous-knowledge-biodiversity/