Under the pandemic, environmental defenders battle on two fronts

In 2020, 331 environmental and human rights defenders were killed, according to a recent report from the organization Frontline Defenders.

Photo: Tatiana de Nevó/Rainforest Foundation Norway

Sixty-nine percent of those killed fought for rights related to land, indigenous peoples' rights, and the environment. 

Of the 331 murders, 177 occurred in Colombia. 

"Unfortunately, the figures from Frontline Defenders confirm the feedback we have received from our partners," says Aina Grødahl in Rainforest Foundation Norway. Indigenous movements and environmental organizations in several rainforest countries such as Peru, Brazil, and Colombia report similar patterns. The pandemic has made those at the forefront of the fight to protect land and forests even more vulnerable than before. 

Measures resulting from the pandemic, such as lockdowns and declarations of a state of emergency, have weakened the ability of environmental police forces and other government functions to crack down on land invasions and illegal activities in the rainforest. 

- We are very concerned about how criminals find ways to take advantage of the crisis, Grødahl says. 

Concern among organizations in the rainforest 

In a survey, Rainforest Foundation Norway mapped the consequences of the corona pandemic among some 60 of our local partner organizations. Several report concerns that economic stagnation and the state of crisis are fomenting illegal activities such as gold mining. 

- Logging, gold mining, oil activities, and agricultural expansion are the biggest threats to indigenous communities living in and off the rainforest. Getting legal recognition and respect for their rights to the forest and the land they live on is essential for survival as a society, says Grødahl.  

Lives on the line.

Those who fight on the front line for the environment are putting their lives on the line doing so.

- Aina Grødahl, senior advisor at Rainforest Foundation Norway.

- At the same time, those on the front line need our support, as they stand up to powerful forces in society at large and organized criminal circles. Those who fight on the front line for the environment are putting their lives on the line doing so. 

According to the report from Frontline Defenders, 85 percent of the killings were carried out with firearms. The fact that Colombia stands out so clearly is explained in the report.

If you protect the guardians of the forest, you protect the forest.

Photo: Tatiana de Nevó/Rainforest Foundation Norway

Shot for his commitment to the rainforest 

Rainforest Foundation Norway has experienced that representatives of indigenous communities that we work with have been killed or experienced severe episodes of violence. In October last year, José Luis Malpartida was attacked and shot in the open. He survived the attack. Malpartida is fighting illegal logging in the Ucayali department of Peru. 

The corona pandemic has contributed to the further loss of central indigenous representatives, which may weaken the further struggle to secure the remaining contiguous rainforests. 

- Indigenous peoples are extra vulnerable to infectious diseases, and the coronary pandemic has added a tremendous extra burden on communities that already had little access to information and health services. It's brutal to see that the pressure is increasing on these communities and that representatives who actively work to protect the forest must also protect themselves and their communities from infection. For many, that comes on top of an increase in threats, invasions, and violence says Grødahl. 

Rainforest Foundation Norway works to draw greater attention to environmental crimes and the alarming situation for the protectors of the environment. We also do safety training and protection measures for vulnerable people on the front lines. Colombia, Peru, and Brazil have signed the so-called Escazú agreement, which will give environmentalists access to protection, information, participation, and justice in environmental matters. 

- Authorities worldwide must now show that they are serious by ratifying and implementing the agreement, says Grødahl. 

- Protection of nature is something we all depend on, and the dramatic figures from the report confirm the importance of an international focus to protect nature's champions. When the international community plans for vaccines and post-pandemic reconstruction, measures to curb and reverse this negative development must be included.