Editor’s Note: The following Mongabay article is based on a recent study that found that marginalized subsistence communities are driving deforestation due to poverty. The article also writes that deforestation caused by these communities cannot still be compared to industrial deforestation. It is understandable that basic needs may drive people towards deforestation. But where does the poverty come from? It is unfortunate that the communities that once lived harmoniously with the forests are now doing the opposite. Why are they now unable to do so in the same forests?
It may be that the forests that they live in now do not produce as much as they used to in the past, or that the number of people dependent on the forests now exceeds the carrying capacity of the forests. Both of these are a possibility. Humans are currently in a population overshoot. Forests across the world are being used for industrial purposes, leaving less for the subsistence communities. In addition, the overall destruction of the environment has impacted the health, and hence productivity, of natural communities. In technical terms this is called “absolute poverty,” where a person’s basic needs are unmet. A related concept is that of “relative poverty,” where a person’s income is far less than the societal norms. In this type of poverty, the person thinks of himself/herself as poor in comparison to others he/she is exposed to on a daily basis. Exposure to the industrial culture is a tool that different states have employed to assimilate indigenous populations and, thus, destroy their culture. This turns indigenous cultures against their landbases: harmonious relationships are replaced by exploitative ones. While it is necessary to acknowledge this trend, it is also worth pointing out that a lot of the indigenous communities are risking their lives to protect their landbases.
Subsistence communities can drive forest loss to meet their basic needs when external pressures, poverty and demand for natural resources increase, says a new study unveiling triggers that turn livelihoods from sustainable into deforestation drivers.
The impact of subsistence communities on forest loss has not been quantified to its true extent, but their impact is still minimal compared to that of industry, researchers say.
Deforestation tends to occur through shifts in agriculture practices to meet market demands and intensified wood collecting for charcoal to meet increasing energy needs.
About 90% of people globally living in extreme poverty, often subsistence communities, rely on forests for at least part of their livelihoods—making them the first ones impacted by forest loss.
Subsistence communities, those who live off the forest and lead largely sustainable lifestyles, can actually become drivers of forest loss and degradation under certain circumstances, according to a new study. This happens when external changes put pressure on their traditional lifestyles.
This could be anything from market demands that shift agriculture practices to increased populations in need of resources living in forest areas. These shifts could make communities another alarming source of carbon emissions, say researchers.
Subsistence communities have often been associated with low environmental impact and a small carbon footprint. But as external pressures and demand for natural resources increase, these communities tend to intensify their forest activities to meet their basic needs, at the same time releasing more carbon stocks into the atmosphere from forest destruction, according to researchers.
In the new study published in the journal Carbon Footprints, researchers set out to look at this phenomenon on a global scale. They did a systemic review of 101 scientific reports, all based in the tropics, to see if they could identify the livelihood activities and triggers that lead to forest degradation. Thirty-nine reports are in Africa, 33 in Asia, and 29 in Latin America.
The authors point out that these are the same sustainable communities, such as Indigenous and local people (IPLCs), that will be the first ones impacted by forest loss and climate change, as they continue to depend on these diminishing forests and tend to be materially poor or deprived.
About 90% of people living in extreme poverty depend on forest resources for their survival, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“At the end of the day, these communities need support, and their impact, I think, while it has not been quantified to its true extent, their impact is still minimal compared to what the energy industry does,” says Wendy Francesconi, author of the report and senior environmental scientist with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.
Their initial aim of the research was to collect data about how much forest cover is lost due to sustainable communities, but this proved too challenging to track, says Francesconi. Their impact is minimal and not documented as well as larger scale or industrial drivers of deforestation.
“I think one of the key messages is that we have to start paying more attention to these communities and how to support them better because they also have power in numbers—and impact in numbers,” she tells Mongabay via video call.
The authors identified two main activities the communities engaged in that became the main drivers of forest loss or degradation: intensified wood collecting (particularly for firewood or charcoal) and agriculture.
Other activities include illegal practices such as illicit crops or illegal logging and mining. The latter has been a growing concern for environmentalists who have seen Indigenous communities engage in illegal mining in Brazil and logging in Indonesia to supplement their income.
The factors pushing these changes include increased local population pressures in conjunction with changing lifestyles, availability of alternative labor, land tenure rights, market access, governance, migration, and access to technology.
External factors were highly context-dependent, however, and not all of them led to forest loss in all cases. A larger household size, for example, was associated with higher deforestation in most cases; but some case studies showed a higher likelihood for large families to share resources among each other, resulting in lower demand for resources and less forest loss, such as one case in Ethiopia.
It’s important to understand these dynamics so we don’t start to see “a more vicious cycle, where deforestation creates more poverty, then more deforestation, then more poverty, etc.” Martha Vanegas Cubillos, senior research associate at the Alliance for Biodiversity International and CIAT and another author of the study, tells Mongabay via video call.
Changing livelihoods in Indonesia
One of the studies analyzed from Asia looks at the impact of mangrove deforestation in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and its socioeconomic consequences. The 2016 study identified that the total area of mangroves decreased by 3,344 hectares (8,263 acres), or 66.05%, in the study area of the Takalar District between 1979 and 2011.
The majority of this loss was for the creation of shrimp ponds, mainly driven by local fishermen changing their livelihoods to shrimp farming. There are two reasons for this shift: as an export product, shrimp have more stable prices, but also government incentives, like credit and subsidies, were available for farmers to expand shrimp ponds, says the report.
This forest loss had a number of impacts on the local community, as it reduced the area where they could continue with their traditional use of the mangroves, like collecting firewood, house materials, and fish traps. It also exposed them to coastal erosion and saltwater into their territory, and released the rich carbon stocks stored in the mangrove trees, says the report.
This shift in production made the communities here more vulnerable, as they put all their eggs in one basket, centralizing their earnings in shrimping, and removing the protective cover of the mangroves from climate changes, says Ole Mertz, professor in the department of geosciences and natural resource management at the University of Copenhagen, and one of the authors of the South Sulawesi study.
But Mertz is skeptical that any global generalizations can be made from a literature review alone, referring to the Carbon footprints study, saying these drivers are often context-dependent.
Speaking from his experience working with communities in South East Asia, the most important driver of forest loss by smallholder communities – a term he prefers to ‘sustainable communities’, which he considers an inaccurate generalization – has been the political pressure to develop land to something more productive.
This includes policies to promote industries like palm oil, rubber, or, in the case of South Sulawesi, shrimp ponds, which has more to do with political decisions rather than the community’s socioeconomic situation, he says.
“Poverty might in some cases be driving deforestation, but I think it’s always in combination with other things, with other drivers,” he tells Mongabay.
More energy needs, more deforestation in the DRC
Communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are already feeling these external pressures, says Raymond Achu Samndong, a manager at the Tenure Facility, an IPLC organization based in Sweden.
In his 2018 paper – which was included in the Carbon footprints literature analysis – Samndong and fellow researchers take a closer look at deforestation at the community level in the Bikoro and Gemena regions, two REDD+ project areas in the DRC. After conducting interviews in the communities, 82% of households said they engaged in some type of forest clearing in the year prior to the study, despite the REDD+ incentives not to deforest.
All of them said it was for agriculture purposes, like moving or expanding crop area, while some also said it was for wood collection, either for charcoal production or artisanal logging. Charcoal and firewood are the main sources of energy in the DRC, with only 9% of the population having access to electricity, including in the capital Kinshasa.
As energy needs increase, particularly for businesses and restaurants in the city, the traditional use of charcoal is now a concerning driver of deforestation.
The main decision to clear forests in the REDD+ areas was economic poverty, lack of alternative livelihood or income generation, and lack of basic infrastructure and services, says the study.
Samndong says communities he’s worked with in the DRC are already seeing the effects of climate change, as changing weather patterns have reduced their harvest. They are aware that more deforestation will contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss, but community members tell him they don’t have any economic alternatives, “it’s like a survival strategy,” he tells Mongabay by a video call from his home in Sweden.
Solutions to deforestation should look at all the dimensions and drivers of it, not just depend on one economic incentive, like REDD+, to address it, adds the study. Better land use planning, tenure rights to communities, and more accountable institutions are among the needed solutions, researchers point out.
But Samndong says it’s essential that communities be involved in these plans. Billions of dollars have already been spent on development programs in the region over the years and nothing has changed, he elaborates.
“The problem is that development programs have been very challenging in Congo because they are mostly top-down,” he tells Mongabay, adding local communities still know and understand their local forests better than experts in the capital, or abroad.
Conflict and cash crops in Colombia
Deforestation in Colombia has long been a problem but has skyrocketed since 2016 when the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government signed peace agreements to try to stem the conflict. Deforestation in parts of Colombia then accelerated—reaching a peak in 2017 with 219,552 hectares (542,524 acres) of forest loss—as the FARCs left many strongholds in the forests and mountainsides, which opened up previously forested areas to illegal economic development, such as growing small coca fields for cocaine production as cash crops.
One study published in 2013 takes a closer look at the conditions under which local communities plant coca. Their research, included in the Carbon Footprints analysis, found a direct correlation between coca cultivation areas and those deemed Rural Unsatisfied Basic Needs areas, indicating that poverty was a major factor in areas where communities engage in coca cultivation. The others include weakness and low presence of the state, violence and armed conflict, inaccessibility, and favorable biophysical conditions.
Vanegas Cubillos, who has long been working with communities in Colombia and Peru, says Colombia is a very particular case, as the ongoing armed conflict has greatly impacted rural communities. Migration and forced displacements have forced communities to inhabit new territories, often causing some level of deforestation in areas where fertile lands are scarce.
Both in Colombia and on a global scale, there are opportunities for both the public and private sectors to create economic benefits for communities, and to break the cycle of deforestation, she says.
“Until they realize that they really have to pay attention to these communities,” she says, “I think that this is a problem that can continue to get worse.”
Featured image:Indigenous Tikuna paddling a dugout canoe on a tributary of the Amazon by Rhett A. Butler via Mongabay.
This is a press release by Process of Liberation of Mother Earth, originally published in Liberacion de la Madre Tierra. The Nasa people of Cauca had been pushed to the mountains by the invaders in the 16th century. For the past 17 years, they have shifted to direct action to get back their land. Although their pursuit had been disrupted in the past, they have now stayed in their original land despite state attempts to remove them. Both right leaning and left leaning governments have attempted to remove them from their rights to their land. DGR extends our solidarity to the Nasa people of Cauca valley in their struggle for land reclamation.
Now that the 48 hours have passed, we send this letter to the world to tell about our struggle and the danger that awaits us, and what we are going to do in face of the danger. The great chief sent word, that we are invaders and gives us 48 hours to abandon our struggle and the land where we fight, or the full weight of the law of the Colombian state will fall on us.
First we tell you about our struggle. This last September 2nd, 17 years have passed since we returned to direct action to fight for the land, a struggle that has roots in 1538, when our people decided to declare war to the invaders. The invaders took over our land and pushed us into the mountains, the invaders made of dispossession a way of life, the how of their civilization, and today they have in their possession the most fertile lands and they have documents that prove they own and they are an organized power that moves the strings of politics and economy and justice and the media in Colombia to keep the documents up to date and to exploit Mother Earth more and more until skinning her and sucking her blood and digging into her entrails and this is called progress, development.
For us, families of the Nasa people of northern Cauca, the land is Uma Kiwe, our mother. Everything that is in it has life, all of it is life, all beings are our brothers and sisters and all beings are worth the same. The invader indoctrinated us to teach us that we humans are outside our Mother and that we are superior to her, but deep in our hearts, nasa üus, we know that people are Uma Kiwe just like the condor and the butterfly and the corn and the stone are Uma Kiwe. The invader indoctrinated us to teach us that the moor is a resource that produces money, that by cutting down the jungle we can increase bank accounts, that by digging into Uma Kiwe’s entrails with large tubes we can access a life of well-being. That is the word of the invader and he calls it the goal, the life plan.
The lands of the Cauca river valley, where we now live, from where we fight, is the house and home of hundreds of animals, plants, rocks, waters, spirits, in a way of life that in Spanish they called tropical dry forest. The invader destroyed everything, that house and home no longer exist, he has damaged the face of Mother Earth. In their eagerness to impose their civilization, those who have the documents of these lands, planted the entire valley of the Cauca River with sugarcane and there are 400 thousand hectares where the cane is planted up to the riverbank. In other regions of Colombia, the invader displaced communities with war and planted oil palm on thousands and thousands of hectares, and in other regions they have displaced communities to build dams or to extract gold or petroleum.
And once, in a region called Antioquia, the Cauca River rebelled and damaged the machines and equipment of the dam and it overflowed and the people who had already been displaced by the hydroelectric project had to move again because once again their lands were flooded. For these facts there are no guilty parties, the invaders of the Cauca River, the displacers of those communities and those who committed the massacres to impose development, have not yet received the full weight of the law of the Colombian state. And so, every corner of this country they call Colombia, the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America, is made up of patches of development projects installed where the war displaced entire communities, where the forests, moors, savannahs, mountains, jungles and plains were or are being razed so that a few people can enjoy the honeys of development.
We, the indigenous families of the Nasa people who walk the struggle platform of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC -by its acronym in Spanish), our organization, we don’t believe in that development and we don’t believe in that civilization that imposes death through laws and legal actions to generate coins. They indoctrinated us to believe in their civilization and told us that humans are superior to other beings, but we see that among humans there are levels, some humans who are superior than others, the superiors take all the wealth and the inferiors have to live cornered in the corners that development leaves us available, but they tell us that if we try hard or sell ourselves we can rise to the level of the superiors. We don’t like that way of life, we don’t accept it.
That is why 17 years ago, on September 2, 2005, we came down from the mountains to make a struggle that we continue today and that we have called the liberation of Mother Earth. Because we say that people will not be free while Uma Kiwe is enslaved, that all animals and beings in life are slaves until we get our mother to recover her freedom. At that time, September 2005, we had a tactical error, as one liberator said, and we negotiated an agreement with the Uribe government, an error that cost us a nine-year delay. But then we came back to enter the sugarcane agribusiness farms in December 2014, which means that we are almost eight years old, and in these eight years the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America has not managed to evict us from the farms despite more than 400 attempts, and we are not going to leave, and we have been advancing by entering in these lands, so much that we already have 24 farms in process of liberation, already eight thousand hectares.
When we enter the farms we cut the cane and instead of the cane the food we sow grows, the forest also grow because Uma Kiwe has to rest, chickens, ducks, cows and little pigs grow, wild animals return… We are returning the skin and the face to Mother Earth. That is our dream, or if you prefer, our life plan. And there is still a long way to go, sometimes the word of the invader arrives and confuses us, but as a community we are talking and clarifying things. And other times the media from agribusiness or power in Colombia arrive and brand us as terrorists, lazy, that we slow down development, and tell us that we are invaders, as the current government of Petro and Francia says, and now they have planted the lie that we are stealing the land from our neighbors of the Afro-descendant communities who live cornered on the banks of the cane fields: what we can tell you with complete certainty is that the documents of the 24 farms that are in process of liberation, they are listed in the name of Incauca, the largest owner, and other landowners, or their land is leased to Incauca or other mills that process cane for sugar or agrofuels.
And also the judicial apparatus of Colombian democracy says that because we are terrorists they are going to capture us at checkpoints or with arrest warrants and they are going to take us to jail. And the paramilitaries, organized by the sugar cane agribusiness say that since the Colombian state has not managed to kill us, they are going to do it and they have already arrived at the farms in process of liberation to shoot us with short and long range weapons, but our range is longer because we already know how they are organized and how they work. And the agro-industrialists -Incauca, Asocaña, Procaña- have been sending us negotiation or association proposals for seven years and we have answered NO because a struggle is not negotiated and NO because for them being partners means that we put the labor as cheap as possible and that they provide the capital, NO gentlemen, we are not here to change bosses, we fight so that there are no more bosses.
And now that a new government and a new congress have arrived to strengthen the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America, the congress tells us that we can send proposals for the agrarian reform law “because the liberation of Mother Earth is a concrete agrarian reform”; we haven’t responded yet, but we know how to restore the balance of Uma Kiwe, our Mother Earth, and it goes far beyond an agrarian reform. And the latest thing that has happened is that the new government of President Petro and Vice President Francia tell us that we are invaders and that we have 48 hours to leave these lands where we fight, we sow, we graze, we watch the forest grow and the wild animals return, well, in this land where we live, and that’s how we started this letter.
At the end of 48 hours, this September 2, the state attacked with the army and esmad (Mobile Anti-riot Squadron (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios or ESMAD), there was no half hour of dialogue, as the new government had promised, the tank came in shooting gas. Later the army fired its long-range weapons against us, the communities that are liberating Mother Earth, there was no dialogue either. 17 years ago, on September 2, 2005, it was Uribe who ordered the esmad and the army to fire their weapons at us. This new government is from the left, the Uribe government was from the right. After eight hours of trying to evict us from one of the farms in process of liberation, the esmad and the army of the oldest democracy… they failed to evict us, here we continue, from here we launch this letter to the world.
We, the process of liberation of Mother Earth in northern Cauca, send word to the great chief that we are NOT going to evict, that here in these lands we are staying because this is our home to live and fight II. We say II because before we have already written that this is our home to live and fight I. At that time, 2018, the paramilitaries gave us a deadline to leave this land, but the paramilitaries gave us a slightly longer, more rational deadline, because they gave us two months, and when the two months were up we told them NO, that we couldn’t leave because this is our house to live and fight. That’s why we say II, because despite everything we don’t lose our smile. And you have to know that neither Uribe, nor Santos, nor Duque ever told us “they have 48 hours.” And we also tell you that we are not leaving because here in these lands in process of liberation, 12 compañerxs have fallen since 2005, murdered by the private company of Incauca, Asocaña and Procaña, and by the Colombian state. Here we already take root. We continue here until the government completes the process of delivering the documents to our indigenous authorities, either through agrarian reform or by the fastest way, and if it doesn´t happen, for the years of the years, we will continue here.
We also sent word to the great chief that we are going to enter in other farms because our struggle doesn’t stop. Yesterday we were in a great action to accompany a community that is liberating a farm because the esmad has been bothering them with gas every day for several days, despite the fact that they promised us that the esmad was going to end, then to transform and then that it was going to change it’s clothes, and it’s true because they wear a sports uniform for a soccer game while here they continue to shoot gas at us. We will continue our actions to root ourselves more with this land , so that our word has sustenance, because otherwise it would be like a decree or a campaign promise, which is written and signed but not fulfilled.
To the communities that in other regions of Colombia are fighting directly for the land, we invite to not leave the farms. We invite more families, more communities in the northern Cauca and in Colombia and in the world to enter in more farms and take possession and build life and community as we are already doing in these lands, the same way as many struggles that have been branded as invaders by the great chiefs of the country, because no fight has been won with little kisses on the cheek.
We also send word to our compañerxs who are now in the power of the Colombian state not to get tangled up along the way. Because they have walked alongside our struggles but now we see that they are forgetting where they come from, something that can happen to anyone who reaches a peak, who doesn´t see that after the top comes the descent. That is why we also sent word that we will enter to another farm where we will carry out rituals and plant food to share with them and we will pray for them so that when they finish their time in the state they continue to be the same people who one day arrived there with the votes of millions of people who saw in them some kind of hope.
So far this letter ends, but our word goes on. We write our word on the farms where we are liberating, that is our first word. The documents, the letters, the videos, the radio…, the second word, that helps us to tell the world what we do, the danger that awaits us and how we will continue walking in the face of danger. Thanks to the struggles and peoples of the world who listen to us and stand in solidarity with us. As we have already said in “this is our house to live and fight I”, the best way to support us is to strengthen your fight: it will be very difficult for capitalism to evict or bring down with the full weight of the law thousands and thousands of battles throughout the world.
Editor’s note: Land defenders, especially indigenous land defenders, are at risk across the world, more so in some places than others. In their fight to protect their communities and their land, they directly confront structures of power, challenging the powerful’s sense of entitlement. In order to maintain the status quo, the powerful employ any means necessary to silence the resistors. In some places, this may take the form of political and legal attack, in others, this may lead to murder. Either way, the objective of such repression is not merely to silence one voice, but to set an example, to shut down those hundreds of voices which may have been raised in resistance. This strategy has been used through history.
Even so, resistance lives on. Where the repression becomes strong, defenders find new ways to adapt to their political situation and to continue fighting the powerful. Statistics say that one land defender is killed every two days. While it is necessary to hold the states accountable for these unlawful killings, it is also important for defenders to take measures to protect themselves. This may include being familiar with the laws of one’s region, or to learn self-defense, or whatever is appropriate for one’s situation. Following rules of security culture may help in increasing security for defenders.
“I could tell you that, around the world, three people are killed every week while trying to protect their land, their environment, from extractive forces. I could tell you that this has been going on for decades, with the numbers killed in recent years hitting over 200 each year. And I could tell you, as this report does, that a further 200 defenders were murdered in the last year alone. But these numbers are not made real until you hear some of the names of those who died.” – Dr. Vandana Shiva
In Brazil, two Yanomami children drowned after getting sucked into a dredging machine used by illegal gold miners. A 14 year old Pataxó child was shot in the head during a conflict over land in the northeastern Bahia state. A Guarani Kaiowá person was killed by military police during a clash over a farm the Guarani had reclaimed from settlers. “There has been an increase in the amount of conflict – socio and environmental conflict – in our lands,” said Dinamam Tuxá, of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Brazil’s largest coalition of Indigenous groups. ”It’s destroying communities and it’s destroying our forests.”
Between 2011 and 2021, at least 342 land defenders were killed in Brazil – more than any other country – and roughly a third of those murdered were Indigenous or Afro-descendant. That’s according to a new report by Global Witness, an international human rights group, that documents over 1,700 killings of land and environment defenders globally during the same time period. The report says that on average, a land defender is killed every other day, but suggests that those numbers are likely an undercount and paints a grim picture of violence directed at communities fighting resource extraction, land grabs, and climate change.
“We will continue to protest, we will continue to show up.” -Dinamam Tuxá, APIB
“All over the world, Indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and other land and environmental defenders risk their lives for the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss,” reads the report. “They play a crucial role as a first line of defense against ecological collapse, yet are under attack themselves facing violence, criminalisation and harassment perpetuated by repressive governments and companies prioritizing profit over human and environmental harm.”
After Brazil, the Philippines and Colombia recorded the most killings: 270 and 322, respectively. Together all three countries make up more than half of the attacks recorded in the global report.
In the Philippines, Indigenous and local environmental activists have been fighting huge infrastructure projects like the Kaliwa Dam and the Oceana Gold Mine, both of which Indigenous leaders say threaten their land and the environment. According to Global Witness, over 40% of the defenders killed in the Philippines were Indigenous peoples.
“It’s clear that the government has not taken this crisis seriously,” said Jon Bonifacio, national coordinator at Palikasan People’s Network for the Environment. “This statistic has not been recognized in any way by the Philippine government, despite the crucial role environmental defenders play in the fight against climate change.”
According to Global Witness, those statistics are uncertain due to a lack of free press and other independent monitoring systems around the world and other types of violence are also not counted in the report. “We know that beyond killings, many defenders and communities also experience attempts to silence them, with tactics like death threats, surveillance, sexual violence, or criminalization – and that these kinds of attacks are even less well reported,” Global Witness said.
An April report from the nonprofit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre documented some of those other tactics, tracking 3,800 attacks, including killings, beatings, and death threats, against land defenders since January 2015. But even those numbers aren’t the complete picture. “We know the problem is much more severe than these figures indicate,” Christen Dobson, senior program manager for the BHRRC and an author of the report said at the time.
The Global Witness report’s authors say governments should enforce laws that already protect land defenders, pass new laws if necessary, and hold companies to international human rights standards. Global Witness also says companies should respect international human rights like free, prior, and informed consent, implement zero-tolerance policies for attacks on land defenders, and adopt a rights-based approach to combating climate change. The report specifically calls on the European Union to strengthen its proposed corporate sustainability due diligence law by adding a climate framework and more accountability measures for financial institutions.
While international advocacy offers some hope for Indigenous leaders on the front lines, those leaders also know that they have to keep fighting to protect their land, lives, and environment. In Brazil, resistance to Indigenous land demarcation and advocacy for resource extraction in the Amazon pushed by President Jair Bolsonaro, has led to record deforestation in the Amazon since he took office in 2019. Dinamam Tuxá and other Indigenous leaders in Brazil are hopeful that the upcoming presidential election may lead to change, but remain skeptical. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president and current leading candidate, has promised better treatment for Indigenous peoples in Brazil but Tuxá says that Indigenous peoples cannot rest all their hopes on politicians.
“President Lula would not solve the problems of Indigenous peoples,” Tuxá said. “Regardless of who gets elected we will continue to protest, we will continue to show up.”
“Joannah Stutchbury loved trees, practiced permaculture, was an environmentalist, and bravely advocated for the environment, with a fiery and unwavering passion.” And she was wonderfully crazy and full of life and joy to be alive. She was shot dead on her way home in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, in July 2021. “
Editor’s note: This article is a call for courage in the face of adversity, apathy, and violence. Two hundred and seven environmentalists were murdered last year—at least. Each fallen land defender is a hero. To save the planet, we must be willing to take risks and make sacrifices.
States, corporations, and vigilantes use violence because it is brutally effective. Our best defense against murder and other intimidation techniques including detention, torture, surveillance, harassment, and infiltration is solidarity, organization, and strategy.
Deep Green Resistance activists are active in many of the most dangerous parts of the world, where environmentalists are murdered regularly. This is why we advocate for security culture and teach techniques regarding privacy, anonymity, personal safety, and self-defense. As land defenders, we must be prepared. This work is dangerous, and by being prepared, we enable action.
An analysis by Front Line Defenders and the Human Rights Defenders Memorial recorded at least 358 murders of human rights activists globally in 2021.
Of that total, nearly 60% were land, environment or Indigenous rights defenders.
The countries with the highest death tolls were Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.
Advocates say the figure is likely far higher, as attacks on land and environment defenders in Africa often go unreported.
At least 358 human rights defenders were killed in 2021, according to an analysis by Front Line Defenders (FLD) and the international consortium Human Rights Defenders Memorial. Of the total, nearly 60% were land, environment or Indigenous rights defenders, and more than a quarter were themselves Indigenous. Researchers who worked to compile the data said the high proportion of activists killed while fighting against threats to community land and natural resources represented a continuation of a years-long trend.
“Unfortunately, in most if not all of the places where this is happening, there’s just flat-out impunity for these attacks,” said Andrew Anderson, the director of FLD.
As was the case in 2020, the deadliest country for human rights defenders was Colombia, with 138 verified killings — more than a third of the global total. Mexico recorded 42 deaths, the second-highest number, and Brazil came in third with 27 killings, 19 of them land rights defenders.
Anderson told Mongabay that many of the murdered activists were targeted due to their opposition to dams, illegal logging, mining operations, and other extractive projects linked to powerful interests in their countries.
“Activists who are working to document what’s happening and challenge government-driven narratives are at extreme risk,” he said.
Murders of land, environment and Indigenous rights defenders were recorded in 15 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines and Thailand.
Colombia has topped the list of deadliest countries for human rights defenders for years, partly due to violent conflicts over control of remote smuggling routes and land that was previously controlled by the guerrilla group FARC, which disbanded following a peace deal with the government in 2016. Since then, paramilitary groups vying to fill the vacuum left by the FARC have targeted Indigenous groups resisting encroachment by warring factions onto their traditional territories.
In Mexico, five Indigenous land and water defenders from Paso de la Reyna in Oaxaca state were killed in the first three months of 2021 alone, including Fidel Heras Cruz, who had worked to expose threats to the Verde River from a hydroelectric dam and illicit rock quarrying. FLD said in recent years the Mexican government has given the military a greater role in the implementation of development projects, in part to intimidate Indigenous and other communities who object to those projects.
Many of those who were killed spent years facing threats and harassment as a result of their work, suggesting that if their governments had acted more forcefully on their behalf, their deaths could have been avoided. In the Mexican state of Sonora, for example, José de Jesús Robledo Cruz and María de Jesús Gómez were killed in April 2021 after organizing a campaign against Mexico’s largest gold-mining company. It wasn’t the first time the married couple had been targeted: In 2017, they were kidnapped and tortured by unknown assailants dressed in army fatigues. When their bodies were discovered last year, a note with the names of 13 other activists was attached to one of them.
Nearly three-quarters of the human rights defenders killed in Mexico were protecting land, the environment or Indigenous rights.
As staggering as the death toll is on its own, the true figure is likely much higher. Front Line Defenders relies on local partners to report on killings, and generally looks for at least two sources to verify each victim’s identity, background, and the cause of death. In countries where there are significant constraints on the ability of local human rights groups to gather and publicize data, deaths and other forms of retribution against defenders can simply go unrecorded.
Across the entire continent of Africa, for example, only 20 deaths were noted — less than half the total for Mexico alone. Advocates from the continent say that’s almost certainly an undercount.
“Because of the remote nature and way in which these people live and where they exist, you can hardly find any information,” said Alfred Brownell, a Liberian activist who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2019, two years after he was forced to flee his country.
Anderson said that in Central and South America, human rights reporting networks are more robust than in Africa, where media coverage in rural areas where extractive projects take place is often limited.
“In pretty much every country in Latin America you have an umbrella organization that’s a network of human rights defenders. Sometimes you have multiple networks, whereas in West Africa, with a couple of exceptions those entities don’t yet exist,” he said.
The report highlighted the death of Joannah Stutchburry, a 67-year-old environmental advocate who was shot to death in Kenya last year after campaigning against development in the Kiambu forest national park. And in northern Uganda, police and military forces shot and wounded 16 members of the Paten clan who were protesting against an irrigation project that they say is threatening their farmland.
“These are our first responders who are responding in a very effective way to the climate crisis,” Brownell said. “These are our democracy heroes who aim for transparency and accountability, and are blowing the whistle on these violations. We have to secure this firewall and protect them.”
Banner image: A mural in Palma, Majorca (Chixoy via Wikimedia Commons). Berta Cáceres was a Honduran (Lenca) environmentalist and indigenous leader fighting dams in Central America. She was assassinated in 2016 by armed men, several of whom were trained at the U.S. military’s infamous “School of the Americas” (now known as WHINSEC) at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Editor’s note: This is what environmental justice looks like. Not NGOs dictating what lands will be set aside for 30×30, which is just greenwashing colonialism. It is the people whose land it is making those decisions and the governments enforcing them.
An Indigenous community in southwest Colombia established a protected reserve in the face of illegal logging, mining and coca cultivation being carried out by criminal groups.
The Eperãra Siapidaarã peoples are especially interested in protecting the extremely poisonous golden dart frog, which they historically used in their darts while hunting.
Despite establishing the reserve, the community has more work to do to fend off violent non-state armed groups.
One of the most poisonous animals on earth, the golden dart frog carries enough toxins in its body to kill 10 people. If it enters the blood stream, the toxin paralyzes the nervous system and, in only a few minutes, stops the heart from beating.
The golden dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is found only in southwest Colombia, where mountains and rainforest meet the mangroves of the Pacific coast. For centuries, the Indigenous communities there harvested the toxin for their hunting darts. But in recent years, as criminal activity has spread through the area, some communities have begun to worry that the frog might disappear.
“The advancing agricultural frontier, mining and the expansion of illicit coca crops impinge on the life of the frog because it’s endemic to that one area,” said Luis Ortega, director of the environmental group Fundación Ecohabitats. “All the time, there’s less and less habitat for them.”
For some Indigenous peoples in the area, such as the Eperãra Siapidaarã of Timbiqui, the golden dart frog is more than a hunting tool. It’s also a central figure in their culture, and the reason their ancestors were able to survive after being relocated to the coast during Spanish colonization.
During that time, the frog’s poison helped save the community by giving it an easy way to hunt. Now, it was the community’s turn to help save the frog.
The best way to do this, the Eperãra Siapidaarã decided, was to establish a natural reserve that they would protect and maintain themselves.
“We have the working spirit to defend this territory,” community leader Carlos Quiro told Mongabay.
Quiro and the Eperãra Siapidaarã had already worked with the Colombian government on land titling issues in their territory as well as to help preserve mangroves and other local ecosystems. But these measures weren’t stopping the habitat destruction.
Non-state armed groups, including paramilitaries and guerrillas, have been deforesting the Chocó Biogeographical Region for decades. In recent years, they have pushed into Eperãra Siapidaarã territory to plant coca for drug production, sometimes leading to violent land disputes between rival groups.
In 2009, Colombia recognized the Eperãra Siapidaarã as one of the Indigenous peoples at risk of extinction due to the country’s ongoing armed conflict.
There are also three legal gold and silver mining operations upstream from Eperãra Siapidaarã territory, which satellite data suggest have advanced well beyond their concessions, according to Fundación Ecohabitats. Some residents noticed that the fish pulled from local rivers were becoming smaller and scarcer than in previous years, likely as a result of the pollution.
The makings of a reserve
In 2017, community leaders started meeting with Fundación Ecohabitats, the Cauca department government and the Ministry of Interior about developing a protected area for the golden dart frog. It would not require demarcating new land, they proposed, but instead absorb more than half of the community’s existing territory.
With funding from the Rainforest Trust, meetings were held for the next two years to discuss where the community wanted to establish the reserve and what conservation initiatives they should prioritize. In addition to protecting the golden dart frog’s habitat, residents were interested in stewarding the area’s many watersheds and developing a land use plan that would allow them to continue harvesting forest resources for their cultural, medicinal and spiritual practices.
Younger members of the community were trained in geographic information systems to assist with mapping the boundaries of the new reserve and carrying out patrols, while others studied tourism and business in hopes of turning their artisanal forestry practices into a sustainable source of income.
In September 2019, after years of work, the community officially announced the establishment of the 11,641-hectare (28,765-acre) K´õk´õi Eujã Traditional Natural Reserve — Territory of the Golden Dart Frog.
So far, it hasn’t stopped non-state armed groups from engaging in violent confrontations over control of coca production near Eperãra Siapidaarã territory. It also can’t do anything to prevent pollution from the illegal mining operations upstream. But with the newly established reserve, residents say they feel they have more of a fighting chance.
“There are areas abundant with plants for medicinal use,” Quiro said, “and there is also another area, another mountain range, where there are many trees that are useful for families, so we are benefiting from that. They are very important to the Eperãra Siapidaarã.”
The reserve contains 41 plant species and 11 bird species endemic to Colombia, according to the community’s preliminary research. It is also home to dozens of rare and threatened species, including the night scented orchid (Epidendrum nocturnum) and Licania velata.
The community is still training its rangers in data collection that will help it better understand how these different species are faring in the reserve. Right now, there isn’t hard data on the golden dart frog population or whether it has improved since the reserve was founded. Empirical evidence suggests that it has rebounded, community members say, but they want to know for certain.
One of the Eperãra Siapidaarã’s next goals is to collaborate with biologists and the local government on scientific research projects that will strengthen their understanding of the forest ecosystem, and then to use that work to make better decisions as a community.
In October and November, for example, the golden dart frog begins reproducing. Quiro said he wants to learn more about that process and what can be done to ensure it isn’t interrupted.
“It interests me a lot,” he said. “To understand that experience and, equally important, to share it with the younger generations.”