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Environmental defenders are risking their lives to protect natural resources

According to a study from the University of Queensland (UQ), the conflict over natural resources has become very dangerous for protectors on the front lines of the dispute. The researchers found that environmental defenders are being killed at an alarming rate, with 1,558 deaths recorded between 2002 and 2017.

Study lead author Dr. Nathalie Butt is a researcher in the UQ School of Biological Sciences.

“The number of reported deaths of environmental defenders has increased, as well as the number of countries where they occur,” said Dr. Butt. “Environmental defenders help protect land, forests, water and other natural resources.”

“They can be anyone – community activists, lawyers, journalists, members of social movements, NGO staff and Indigenous people – anyone who resists violence. And importantly, Indigenous peoples are dying in higher numbers than any other group.”

The fatal violence is the result of an external demand for, and the subsequent conflict over, the natural resources that the victims are protecting such as water, timber, land, or minerals. One-third of the deaths between 2014 and 2017 were linked to the mining and agribusiness sectors.

Burial for victims who were killed when police arrived at the Santa Lucia farm in the municipality of Pau D’Arco. Image Credit: Lunae Parracho

“Although conflict over natural resources is the underlying cause of the violence, spatial analyses showed corruption was the key correlate for the killings,” said Dr. Butt. “Globally, 43 percent of all murders result in a conviction, while for environmental defenders this figure is only 10 percent.”

“In many instances, weak rule of law means that cases in many countries are not properly investigated, and sometimes it’s the police or the authorities themselves that are responsible for the violence. For example, in Pau D’Arco, Brazil, ten land defenders were killed by the police in May 2017.”

Dr. Butt is calling for more transparency and accountability from companies and governments, as well as an improved level of awareness among consumers.

“The ecology of the planet is fundamental to the production of food and resources – that we all depend upon – and we are ultimately bound to support it, otherwise it will not support us. Part of this support is to protect the people who protect it.”

“As consumers in wealthy countries – who are effectively outsourcing our resource consumption – we share responsibility for what’s happening. Businesses, investors and national governments at both ends of the chain of violence need to be more accountable.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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Main Image Credit: The University of Queensland

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