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Noteworthy heroes of the environment

Many people think of environmentalists as granola-eating pacifists.  The stereotype is more shrill than hard-edged. The fact is that environmentalism is part of a culture war fighting for a cause that many are deeply passionate about.  There are environmentalists that have risked life, health and reputation to save something greater than themselves, and here are a few examples to prove it.

In July 1905, America still in the infancy of its conservation movement, Guy Bradley, then only 35 years old, was shot.  Guy Bradley fell back into his small boat and floated away from the coast of Florida, bleeding to death before he was found.  Bradley was one of a new breed of American wildlife law enforcement officers. At the time, birds were being massacred for their feathers, simply to decorate women’s hats.  

Guy Bradley had himself hunted birds for their plumes until it was made illegal, writing to the president of the Audubon Society, “I used to hunt plume birds, but since the game laws were passed, I have not killed a plume bird. For it is a cruel and hard calling not withstanding being unlawful. I make this statement upon honor.”  

Upon receiving his commission as a game warden in Florida, Gut Bradley was paid a monthly stipend of $35, the equivalent of $917 in today’s money.  Bradley was charged with monitoring a long stretch from the Ten Thousand Islands through the Everglades of Florida. Bradley set about educating locals about the new anti-bird hunting laws and setting up spies to inform him of any wrongdoing.  Mostly Bradley worked alone, an easy target for unlawful gangs.

Bradley had previously arrested his killers, a father and sons for poaching birds for their feathers in the region, fueling a long standing grudge that finally boiled over into murder.  Today, Guy Bradley is memorialized with a trail in the Everglades.  The death of Guy Bradley catalyzed the passing of more bird protection laws and better enforcement, perhaps being instrumental in saving some bird species from extinction.  

When most people think of environmentalism, they think of saving species or stopping climate change.  Few I think consider the saving of indigenous cultures as part of environmentalism. I would argue that saving cultures evolved with a specific environment and part of the greater natural whole is of utmost importance.  

Brazil is a hotspot of cultural diversity; and according to Povos Indigenas no Brazil, of the world’s 7,000 languages and dialects, 150 are spoken by native peoples in Brazil.  To differing degrees these languages represent different cultures of people that are at a huge disadvantage compared to the mainstream Portuguese speaking European Brazilians.  Over the years rubber barons have enslaved natives, torturing them physically and threatening death to their children to collect rubber. Missionaries have brought disease that inadvertently devastates native peoples.  Logging, gold prospecting and oil extraction all negatively affect native populations of Brazil.

Early on, the government of Brazil had a program intent on reaching the tribes of people living in the vast green lowland rainforests.  The program intended to ease transitions of people just coming into contact with the outside world and help them survive in peace with the mainstream culture of Brazil.  It was in this tradition that Sydney Possuelo began working, initially under the Villas Boas brothers, who first succeeded in having large tracts of land set aside for indigenous people in Brazil, creating the Xingu Indigenous Reservation.  In his book, The Unconquered, Scott Wallace vividly recounts some of Sydney Possuelo’s struggles to protect indigenous people:

“After he’d faced down an angry mob eager to invade Kayapó lands along the Xingu.  He was knocked to his knees and had his arms pinned back by two men while a third shoved a loaded pistol in his mouth.  He lost four teeth that night, but he stood his ground…”

Since Possuelo’s early days contacting native peoples in an effort to help them, he’s changed course.  Working as director of FUNAI (Fondaçao Nacional do Indio), Sydney Possuelo was able to double the area of officially designated lands in merely two years during the 90s.  Eventually Possuelo resigned as the director of FUNAI to instead work to protect uncontacted indigenous people, without disturbing them. According to, by 2001, Sydney Possuelo had located 40 tribes, without contacting them, allowing the decision of contact to be theirs.

In 2006, Sydney Possuelo was fired from FUNAI because he contradicted a statement by the FUNAI president who said that there was too much land set aside for very few Indians.  Possuelo continues his crusade to help indigenous people of Brazil working in a non-profit organization. Taken together the land Possuelo has helped set aside is not only land for indigenous people but acts as land for wildlife as well.  Indigenous land is protected from environmentally hazardous extraction industries and even from anthropology which while recording cultures may actually destroy them just by contact.

In February this year, The Guardian reported that an American man living in Nairobi, Kenya was stabbed to death in his home.  The initial police reports said that the murder was likely part of a botched murder but there were possibly deeper motives at play.  Esmond Bradley Martin had been investigating the illegal ivory trade in Kenya for years and had the year before had success in China making ivory imports illegal.  Others working to stop the illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horns have been killed recently, including one man shot point blank in a taxi.

Esmond Bradley Martin was one of the first to seriously investigate the trade in ivory and horns, getting some of the first solid numbers on the trade.  It seems likely that someone didn’t like the interference into their illegal and immoral trade. From his humble beginnings working largely independently, Esmond Bradley Martin was working for CITES and federal governments by the end of his life, making real impacts by all accounts.  

The Economist reported that Latin America is the deadliest place in the world to be an environmentalist, and it’s been true for many.  Isidro Baldenegro López was murdered in the Sierra Madre last year for standing up against loggers. Isidro’s father was also killed by loggers decades earlier and witnessed by his son.  Both men were Raramuri/Tarahumara Native Americans, defending not only the environment but their traditional lands.

Isidro Baldenegro López organized blockades, marches and protests featuring the wives of murdered activists.  Isidro spent 15 months in prison related to his environmental activism but was acquitted of all charges. In 2003, Isidro Baldenegro López was successful in getting logging banned by a court ruling.  It’s clear that Isidro knew his life could be at stake and fought on against oppression of his people and the land.

A large chunk of environmentalists killed or threatened are indigenous too.  According to The Economist, one third of environmentalists murdered in 2015 were part of indigenous groups.  Whether someone dies fighting for the survival or a species or for the protection of their people’s own land, it’s not hard to see that often environmentalism is a fight between the haves and the have nots.  For some the land is all there is. For some this is enough to risk their lives for. These are all people who should be remembered, they are true heroes.

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer

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