Defending the environment now more lethal than soldiering in some war zones – and indigenous peoples are suffering most

Environmentalists and activists with posters “peace in the forest and an end to indigenous genocide” in protest of the rights of indigenous people, in São Paulo, Brazil, January, 2019. PARALAXIS /Shutterstock

By  - 05. 

Despite centuries of persecution, indigenous groups still manage or have tenure rights over at least a quarter of the world’s land surface. Often inhabiting these lands as far back as memory extends, they share a deep and unique connection to their environment.

Recently released figures show that indigenous groups are continuing to pay a heavy price for standing up for their ancestral lands. In 2018 alone, at least 164 indigenous people were killed defending the environment, adding to hundreds more deaths in preceding years.

They’re not the only ones – numerous lawyers, park rangers, and journalists have also been killed attempting to protect both resource and biodiversity-rich land from extractive industries. But indigenous groups account for the largest proportion of these killings, in a global battle that according to new research published in Nature is now more lethal than some war zones.

We must make sure that these deaths aren’t in vain. The same key UN report that declared a million animal and plant species as at risk of extinction also highlighted that nature under indigenous control is declining less rapidly than in other lands. It’s time for us to sit up and take note of how they safeguard biodiversity, and why they’re willing to put their lives on the line for nature.

Indigenous knowledge

Sharing a worldview that is centred on the land and their place within it, indigenous knowledge contains two central ideas that place nature front and centre. The first is connectedness. Constantly observing the surrounding environment, indigenous peoples have an intimate understanding of the interconnected nature of all living beings and natural systems. Tied to the changing world, this understanding is thorough but pragmatic and local in scale, always open to be altered in the face of evidence.

The second idea is collectiveness. Knowledge is not considered to be owned by individuals, but held collectively by people as shared experiences that represent the sum of their wisdom. People are responsible for one another, nurturing values of cooperation, sharing and reciprocity.

Research on indigenous livelihood practices shows how these values preserve the integrity of nature. In Amazonia for example, centuries of attention to crop health, climate, and forest regeneration has led to the development of rotational farming practices, whereby diverse crops are grown within a small farming area and continually rotated across a larger natural landscape over successive harvest seasons.

Compared to modern intensive monoculture farming, this traditional method improves soil water and nutrient retention, reduces erosion and degradation, stores carbon more efficiently, increases crop biodiversity, and preserves forest habitats. The system provides a continuous flow of food through different seasons, where surpluses can still be sold, and its diversity makes it more resilient to environmental threats. The involvement of many in the success of the crops reinforces community cohesion, and a closer connection with the natural world.

At a larger scale, indigenous territories have been recognised as crucial for maintaining vital natural stores of carbon. For example, studies using satellite imagery from northern South America suggests that indigenous lands have lower incidence of deforestation rates as a result of less invasive methods of farming, fishing, hunting, and land management. These methods not only require much less open space, but also support healthy soil and animal populations, creating much more resilient ecosystems.

Monocultures of crops such as soy in the Amazon are causing deforestation and environmental degradation. Frontpage/Shutterstock

Indigenous fire management practices have also been shown to support biodiversity. By performing small-scale burning at different times during the year linked to cultural customs, the resulting mosaic landscape of burned and unburned patches makes it harder for large-scale, catastrophic wildfires to spread.

More than statistics

The above examples are just a few of many ways in which indigenous peoples live in greater harmony with the natural world. The UN is right to emphasise that global ecosystems would benefit from greater recognition for Indigenous knowledge and perspectives. But we must also heed the words of indigenous scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Renee Pualani Louis, who warn us that only engaging with the academic “usefulness” of indigenous knowledge is a colonising practice.

While indigenous people account for roughly 5% of the global population, they make up about 15% of the world’s extreme poor. Many do not have adequate access to basic services such as health and education. In recognising the value of indigenous knowledge, we must also recognise that the legacy of colonialism has already eroded countless knowledge, values, and rights, and made indigenous peoples among the most marginalised on the planet. And the growing number of environmentally motivated murders of indigenous individuals shows that their access to justice is still severely lacking.

Research with indigenous people must not just draw from their knowledge, but prioritise their well-being and fundamental rights. This means acknowledging and respecting the distinctiveness of Indigenous worldviews and knowledge. It also means interacting in ways that build on Indigenous traditions of collaboration, reciprocity and oral communication.

For example, a Darwin Initiative project in Guyana is using participatory video to allow local indigenous communities to showcase their knowledge and concerns about the management of protected land through autonomous storytelling. This allows indigenous people to communicate and codify their values in their own words, but more importantly, strengthens their ability to build more equal, collaborative, and responsive exchanges with decision makers. In conjunction with the Guyanese government, the project is developing a unique evidence-based national action plan that aims both to implement and maintain Indigenous knowledge, and empower indigenous people.

Indigenous peoples should be a source of inspiration for the global community. The sooner decision makers represent their knowledge at the table, the better for biodiversity and the climate. Crucially though, we must not just value their practices, but their rights too.


- Professor of Environmental Geography, Royal Holloway

Disclosure statement

Jayalaxshmi Mistry has received funding from the Darwin Initiative, the European Commission, British Academy, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Leverhulme Trust, National Geographic, Nuffield Foundation, Royal Society and the Woodspring Trust. She is affiliated with the Cobra Collective CIC.


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The supply chain of violence

By Nathalie ButtFrances LambrickMary MentonAnna Renwick - 


Every year, more people are killed defending the environment than are soldiers from the United Kingdom and Australia on overseas deployments in war zones combined.

During the last 15 years, the number of both deaths of environmental defenders, and the countries where they occur, have increased. Recorded deaths have increased from two per week to four per week over this period.

These deaths are primarily related to conflict over natural resources, across a range of sectors. Of 683 total deaths, >230 were related to mining and agribusiness between 2014 and 2017.

We find that rule of law and corruption indices are closely linked to patterns of killings. Using spatial data, we investigate the drivers of these conflicts and violence and seek to identify who may be most at risk and why.

We argue that businesses, investors and national governments at both ends of the chain of violence need to be more accountable.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request, and were sourced from the following organizations.

For environmental defender deaths, see

For area harvested, see

For intact forest, see

For mining concessions, see

For major dams, see

For rule of law index, see


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We are grateful to B. Kyte, B. Leather and others at Global Witness for data provision and earlier discussion, to H. Beyer and A. Chauvenet for advice and help with data analysis, and B.A. Simmons for assistance with graphics. Thanks to the many environmental defenders we have worked with, interviewed and learned from. N.B. is supported by Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Award DE150101552.

Author information


  1. School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia
    • Nathalie Butt
    •  & Anna Renwick
  2. School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
    • Nathalie Butt
  3. Not1More, Harborne, UK
    • Frances Lambrick
  4. Sussex Sustainability Research Programme, University of Sussex, Falmer, UK
    • Mary Menton


N.B., F.L. and M.M. planned the work. A.R. and N.B. analysed the data. All authors contributed to the writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nathalie Butt.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Butt, N., Lambrick, F., Menton, M. et al. The supply chain of violence. Nat Sustain 2, 742–747 (2019).

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Colombia: being an environmental activist in some countries is much more dangerous than in others

By  - 29. 

An indigenous leader from Brazil protests against the destruction of their lands and people. EPA-EFE/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

Climate change, plastic pollution, rising sea levels – environmentalists in developed countries are calling for action on the planetary emergency. But when environmentalists are brave enough to speak out in places like Barrancabermeja, Colombia, they’re often protesting against very local problems. Lack of sanitation, contaminated water, deforestation for palm oil – degradation of the local environment and the direct threat to human health are closely linked and clear to people here.

Barrancabermeja hosts Colombia’s largest petroleum refinery, which has been operating for just over 100 years. Over that time, local industries have contaminated natural water courses with heavy metals, which has been absorbed by the soil and the surrounding vegetation that local cattle eat, which have also showed high levels of heavy metals. The plumbing that is supposed to supply the city with fresh water doesn’t reach all areas, meaning that some places lack running water and sewage treatment. This situation has motivated passionate environmental protests.

But these are nothing new. In the general city strike of 1963, pollution and access to water were two of the main issues. Safe drinking water was also a recurrent theme throughout the city strikes of the 1970s. Even during the worst of the Colombian conflict from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the people of Barrancabermeja were brave enough to continue protesting for the right to clean water, and they still do today.

Here in the heavy industry heartland of Colombia, environmentalism has old roots and has endured through decades of violence and intimidation. In order to understand how street movements can prosper, it’s worth asking how people here have maintained popular concern for the environment over so many years and under so much pressure.

A protest for safe drinking water in Barrancabermeja, January 2018. The sign reads: ‘Out of love for your mother, we want potable water’. Fatima Garcia Elena, Author provided

Local danger, global solidarity

Environmental protests in developing countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbeann can be dangerous. These regions are often collectively called the Global South. Of the 20 countries with the most murders of environmental activists in 2018, 19 are considered to be part of the Global South. The only exception is Ukraine, which ranks 10th with three deaths. Philippines has more registered murders than any other, with 30 killed in 2018. But it’s closely followed by Colombia, with 24.

These are only official numbers that don’t account for disappearances or unregistered assassinations. They also do not accurately capture the atmosphere of persecution and abuse that torments activists. In Barrancabermeja, environmental leaders are slandered, bullied and threatened. Many have had to abandon their home and seek political asylum abroad.

The environmental movement gained the support of millions of people in 2019. Extinction Rebellion and the climate strikes have mobilised people who are concerned about climate change but live lives of relative affluence, far from the front lines of battles over fresh water and clean air. This doesn’t diminish their role or invalidate their cause. Standing in solidarity with people less fortunate and calling for coordinated, global action is essential, and it’s great to see the media covering it. But the experiences of people protesting in Barrancabermeja need to be heard too.

A London demonstrator holds the planet aloft during the Global Strike for Climate, September 20 2019. EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER

It’s important to acknowledge the differences between environmental struggles around the world to address the diverse challenges of failing ecosystems and value the contributions of all towards finding solutions. Raising awareness of rising temperatures and shifting coastlines is important – the climate crisis is after all a global problem. But the risks aren’t evenly distributed, and the effects are more localised and pressing for some. Media scrutiny of the powerful in places like Barrancabermeja could raise pressure to protect the brave work of activists there.

Let’s show that environmentalism is both global and local, and responding to threats both present and future. Let’s show solidarity with the people in Barrancabermeja.


 - Associate Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University

Disclosure statement

Fatima Garcia Elena does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


Nottingham Trent University

Nottingham Trent University provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.

The Conversation is funded by the National Research Foundation, eight universities, including the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University and the Universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pretoria, and South Africa. It is hosted by the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Western Cape, the African Population and Health Research Centre and the Nigerian Academy of Science. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a Strategic Partner. more


We believe in the free flow of information

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.