Berta Caceres

Berta Caceres who was murdered in 2016, stands at the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras where she, COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and the people of Rio Blanco struggled to halt construction on the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project. 


According to a Global Witness report, a record number of environmental activists were killed in 2019. Another report from Front Line Defenders states that in 2020, at least 331 human rights defenders were killed globally with two thirds of these killings occurring against leaders who worked in defense of the land, the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples. The real numbers are likely to be much higher.

No other continent records more killings than Latin America. Colombia, Honduras, and Brazil are among the countries most dangerous for environmental defenders. Many of them are from indigenous communities. Recent examples include Carlos Cerros, a representative of the indigenous Lenca people in Honduras, who was shot dead in the street in front of his children in March. Cerros was president of a local advocacy group, United Communities, and had campaigned against a hydroelectric power station in the region.

Industries most linked to attacks are mining, agribusiness, logging, and hydropower, according to Global Witness. Land and environmental activists protest against the often brutal effects these industries have on communities and nature: displacing people and cutting them off from their land and water, polluting rivers, and frequently doing irreversible damage to ecosystems. 

“In Brazil alone, 24 activists were reportedly murdered in 2019, almost half of them from indigenous communities” says Elias Wolff, member of the EWN’s International Reference group. “A lot of them were killed in the Amazon where people are fighting against the deforestation which has accelerated again in the past decade.”

To intimidate and silence environmental and human rights defenders they are not only threatened and attacked, but also criminalized. Pastor Jose Pilar Alvarez from the Guatemala Lutheran Church (ILUGUA), a member of the WCC’s Ecumenical Water Network, has received death threats and was arrested for his struggle to defend the environment and the right to water of the indigenous population living in the Las Granadillas Mountains. He is currently facing a lawsuit because of his engagement. 

Women play a key role in many of the movements defending water, land, and forests. As they stand up for their rights and the rights of other disadvantaged groups, gender-specific violence and threats are disproportionately used against women activists to control and silence them and suppress their power and authority as leaders. The murder of Marielle Franco who was a Brazilian politician, sociologist, feminist, and human rights activist, demonstrates the danger of questioning established power structures and gender norms.

Bread for the World, another EWN member, finds in its “Atlas of civil society 2021” that in many countries the situation for people taking action against social injustice, discrimination or environmental degradation has worsened, becoming more difficult and dangerous. The authors underline that the Covid-19 pandemic has further intensified these unfortunate developments.

Governments have the legal obligation to protect defenders and bring those who harm them to justice. Yet state actors such as police, military personnel, public officials or government authorities are often the perpetrators of violence against environmental activists, according to a 2020 brief prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in partnership with the World Wide Fund Netherlands and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

“Big media institutions often do not even report attacks,” laments Veronica Flachier, a Lutheran pastor and journalist from Ecuador who is a member of the International Reference Group of the WCC’s Ecumenical Water Network. “Those behind the violence have a lot of economic and political power. That’s why it is so important that churches help to make the voices of land and environment defenders be heard.”