Blog | Nov. 5, 2019

Environmental Defenders Under Threat Around the World

On October 30, 2019, land and environmental defenders from different regions of the world came together in Washington, D.C. to share their work exposing environmental destruction and human rights abuses linked to destructive industries like mining and extractives – the deadliest sector for defenders last year.

The Global Picture

Global Witness figures reveal that last year, more than three environmental activists were murdered each week on average, with countless more criminalized for defending their land and our environment.  

The alarming rate at which defenders are facing efforts to silence them must be addressed. Different actors – governments, investors, companies and the international community – must come together to tackle the root causes of this violence.

Ben Leather, Senior Campaigner on the Land and Environmental Defenders team for Global Witness, stressed that one of the root causes is a lack of accountability, and emphasized how governments and businesses must all take action to support and protect land and environmental defenders. “Guaranteeing communities the right to have their say regarding the use of their own land,” he said, “is where it starts.” 

Defenders from the Philippines, Colombia, and the United States shared their firsthand experiences of the threats they face, and highlighted what different parties can do to support those who are fighting for the right to land and water, and freedom from violence. 

Clemente Bautista, defender from the Philippines, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment

Defenders event in DC - Clemente Bautista

In 2018, at least 30 land and environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines, making it the country with the highest number of such killings in the world.

Clemente Bautista shared the stories of some of the Filipino Defenders who have faced violent attacks for standing up to different industries. He highlighted Jimmy Saypan, a peasant leader and anti-mining activist murdered by hitmen; Brandon Lee, an advocate for indigenous rights, climate activist and San Francisco native who was shot after picking his daughter up from school; and Cris Heredia, a peoples’ lawyer and anti-large scale mining activist who survived an ambush and shooting while with her daughter. 

“We are here asking you to help us stop these human rights violations, asking if the U.S. government could investigate and release a statement on what is happening to defenders in the Philippines,” he said. 

Dr. Yesid Blanco, defender from Colombia 

Defenders event in DC - Dr. Yesid Blanco

Dr. Yesid Blanco is a pediatrician from Barrancabermeja, Colombia, which was one of the first regions in the country to begin fracking. 

Five years ago, the local government set up a landfill in the middle of what was meant to be protected wetlands in the community. In his intensive care unit, Dr. Blanco began to see babies being born with brain deformities – a side effect of mercury exposure. When he began speaking out on the links he was seeing between environmental hazards and severe health impacts in newborns, he faced threats of violence and attacks. “I received death threats last October. They extended to my family as well. I was pushed out of two jobs. They also hired a person to kill me,” he described.  

“For us, the most important area the US government can help with is monitoring the situation of corruption.”

Krystal Two Bulls, Organizer with About Face: Veterans against War & Voices of the Sacred, and defender from the US 

Defenders event in DC, Krystal Two Bulls

Krystal Two Bulls is an Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne organizer.  "I come from people who are the original stewards of this land. I'm here to protect that. We've always been persecuted for that,” she said. 

She was a prominent voice in the movement of water and land protectors working to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, which posed risks to the region’s land and drinking water. In response, she was slapped with criminal charges meant to suppress their movement. “Corporations try to silence and erase us... Oppressors know the emotional burden of lawsuits and threats,” she said.

End the Silencing

Governments, investors and business all have the power to protect the environment and those that defend it. A multi-pronged approach is needed to end the silencing, which includes: 

  • Tackling Root Causes: The only effective prevention in the long-term. This means combating corruption and impunity, securing and respecting land rights, upholding environmental safeguards and guaranteeing the right of affected communities to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent regarding the use of their land and natural resources.
  • Support and Protect: A range of measures can be taken by business and governments to publicly recognize the important role of defenders, advocate for their protection, provide them with the tools they need to carry out their activism effectively, and guarantee their safety when they are at risk. 
  • Ensuring accountability: In order to prevent future threats and dissuade would be aggressors, those responsible for attacks on defenders must be brought to justice, while those who fail to support and protect them should face political, financial and judicial consequences.

The United States must support and protect Defenders: 

  • The government needs to produce and implement holistic policies and mainstreamed practices, strengthening the State Department’s existing commitments on human rights defenders and ensuring their effective implementation. 
  • US embassies need to be proactive on taking action to support defenders, consulting with local activists on what actions will work best to deter attacks against them and encourage accountability when they do occur. 
  • Congress and the State Department must do more to ensure that US aid is granted transparently and with conditions ensuring that assistance can be withheld if civil society are unable to operate safely and without interference. 
  • The US government also needs to do more to ensure that US business is part of the solution, not the problem. 
For more on how governments and businesses silence land and environmental defenders, see our report: Enemies of the State?

The Defending the Land and Environmental Defenders Coalition (DDCoalition), Global Witness, EarthRights International, and World Resources Institute co-hosted this event to bring greater awareness to the significant threats facing land and environmental defenders, including physical attacks, being jailed, and becoming locked in costly legal battles that prevent them from carrying out their work.

Are you ready to stand with Defenders? Join us here.


  • Julieta Biegner

    Communications Officer