Eleanor Parkes: Will the Real Environmental Heroes Please Stand Up

I am sitting at the opening plenary session of the United Nations Environment Assembly and it seems a world away from the environments we are seeking to protect. These negotiations between governments happen in an artificial environment, (with some token plants in the corner that were wheeled in yesterday) but let’s not underestimate the significance of what happens in this bubble.

Here the State Delegates with voting rights take the front seats, while we try to squeeze in at the back row or stand in the doorways. But at least we are here and hopefully that means we can have a voice for the environment. 

Not here today are the real heroes of the environment - the people who put themselves on the frontline to fight against the destruction of the natural world. These individuals make incalculable sacrifices to protect the natural environment, and some make the ultimate sacrifice.

On average two people are killed every week defending the environment and this number is rising. ‘Some victims are environmental protesters killed in crackdowns, others murdered by hired assassins because they live on a desirable plot of land’ (Global Witness). 

The United Nations Environment Assembly is the highest decision making body on the environment. This is why we, members of the Major Groups and Stakeholders attending this assembly, have been pushing for the sacrifices of these people to be officially acknowledged in this forum. 

We drafted a statement calling for a minute of silence to acknowledge the deaths of our environment defenders. It is of great importance to me that these individuals are properly acknowledged and so I took this one step further. I requested that we not only ask for silence, but that we stand for this minute. It is governments that are ultimately accountable for the risks faced by our environmental defenders, and I wanted to see which governments would acknowledge this. 

Heads of State stand for a period of silence at UNEA2 opening plenary session in honour of environmental defenders who have died.

At least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014, and around 40% of these people were indigenous to the places they were seeking to protect (Global Witness). Missing in these statistics are the staggering number of people who are killed in remote areas and deep in the jungles and forests whose deaths are almost invisible. 

Also missing are those who end their own lives because they have continued to suffer the impacts of intimidation and violence long after the fight is over. "Even many years after campaigns, whether defeated or successful, environmental defenders regularly suffer similar effects of Post-Traumatic Stress as seen in soldiers" explains Michael Tavares, an environmental activist who spent two years living on the frontlines to protect ancient forests in Tasmania, Australia. 

Supporters gather underneath a giant tree occupied by environmental activist Miranda Gibson. Miranda was attacked with a sledgehammer during the campaign but the group was ultimately successful in gaining World Heritage status for large areas of ancient forest in Tasmania. - Photo credit Miranda Gibson.

These individuals give everything they have to stand between destructive forces of “development” and the shrinking untouched natural environments. The physiological impacts of the violent siege they live through is only just starting to be recognised. Global Witness now documents not only deaths but also trends in violence and intimidation around environmental activism. (See their report ‘How Many More?’ for full analysis and testimony from environmental activists).

I am pleased the Heads of State here today at UNEA2 have observed the period of silence. This is a small victory for those of us who want the voices from the frontlines to be heard. However it is not enough. 

I would now like to see the real numbers of people who die directly or indirectly during their defence of the environment to be included in the official reports put out by the United Nations Environment Programme and other relevant international bodies. I have been told that it is too late for the report being presented during UNEA2, but that throughout the week I may be able to influence this for future United Nations assemblies. 

I will continue to push for this change. Acknowledging and documenting the true number of people who die in defence of the environment is part of forcing governments to take immediate action to reverse these devastating trends and protect both the environment and its defenders. 


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.



Posted on May 24, 2016 and filed under UNEA 2016.