The Deadly Business of Grassroots Climate Activism
A recent report found that 2015 was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists, raising concerns for those who continue to fight on the frontline, writes Liam Turner.
The Deadly Business of Grassroots Climate Activism
Two activists hanging a banner across the street from the US Department of State in protest of government inaction on climate change during a Major Emitters Forum meeting, on 5 August 2013.
By Liam Turner / newint.org
Nov 15, 2016

It’s 2015, and Honduran campaigner Berta Cáceres has just won the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmentalism in South and Central America. The crowd claps as she walks up to the podium in her silver-sequined dress, a slight smile on her face. Then the room goes quiet, and Berta adopts a much more serious tone.

She speaks of her people, the Lenca, and their constant battle to protect their land. She speaks of how the world must break free from the grasp of ‘rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy’ that will ultimately lead to its self-destruction. She speaks of how her people’s sacrifice is not just for them, but for the world and everyone in it. She ends by dedicating the award to the martyrs who have given their lives in the struggle to defend our natural resources.

Less than a year later, armed men would break into her house in the middle of the night and murder her in cold blood, making her the latest to die for her cause. She was 44.

UMWOMEN/Natalie Jeffers, Matters of the Earth
A woman holds signs asking for justice after the murder of Berta Cáceres in a rally at New York City's Honduran Mission, on 17 March, 2016. UMWOMEN/Natalie Jeffers, Matters of the Earth

Climate activism has always been risky. Not only are there hazards that come from protesting at large, industrial sites, there is also the danger that comes from conflict with people whose interests lie with extractivist transnational companies. Ultimately, those who make a stand put themselves in harm’s way one way or another.

In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that climate activism is now more dangerous than ever. In June, a report by Global Witness revealed that 2015 was the deadliest year for environmental activists. It had recorded a total of 186 killings across 16 different countries, an increase of 59 per cent from the previous year. Global Witness also believes this number should actually be much higher, as a lack of reliable data meant that they weren’t able to record all fatal incidents.

An increasing threat

In a postscript to the Global Witness report – entitled ‘On Dangerous Ground’ – campaign leader Billy Kyte said: ‘As demand for products like minerals, timber and palm oil continues, governments, companies and criminal gangs are seizing land in defiance of the people who live on it. Communities that take a stand are increasingly finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers.’

The report revealed that activists in Brazil were the worst hit, with a total of 50 recorded deaths. The Philippines was the next highest, with 36 deaths.

One of the key reasons for the high rate of murders of environmental activists in Brazil is the ongoing fight to save the Amazon. It’s no secret that some illegal timber companies hire criminal gangs to ensure their operations continue unopposed. When these companies are challenged, they often utilize these gangs in an extremely brutal way. Isídio Antonio, for example, was murdered for defending his land against the interests of more powerful organizations.

No choice

‘Fighting against climate-change destruction in the Global South has always been dangerous work,’ says Joanna Levitt Cea of the International Development Exchange (IDEX). ‘And in the past couple of years, my goodness, we have been losing a lot of incredible people.’

IDEX is currently in the midst of a transition and will be renamed Thousand Currents. The foundation is to place more of an emphasis on grassroots movements in the Global South at a time when it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be a climate activist. But, according to Joanna, some of these activists have to make a stand – otherwise their way of life may become irrevocably altered.

‘Many frontline community members do not feel they have a choice,’ she explains. ‘I have had grassroots colleagues say to me, “I know I might lose my life, but if I lose my land and our way of life is destroyed by this project, that life is not worth living.” They have no illusions about the danger. Berta Cáceres and so many leaders like her knew that they were risking their lives every day they do this.’

A different kind of danger

Those who come to harm from standing up to extractivist practices are almost entirely from developing countries in the Global South. Activists who make a stand in the West, however, seem to face a different kind of danger.

Ella Gilbert is a member of Plane Stupid, a network of grassroots activists who take nonviolent direct action against aviation expansion. In July last year, she was one of a group of 13 activists who cut a hole in the fence around Heathrow Airport and chained themselves to railings on the northern runway, protesting against the recommendation that a new runway should be added to the airport.

The new runway project eventually did get the go-ahead, but the group’s actions were not entirely without consequences – at least not for the activists themselves. They allegedly cost the airport £14,000 ($17,500) due to flight cancellations and, as a result, all 13 were found guilty of aggravated trespass and being unlawfully airside. They were each given a six-week custodial sentence, which was later changed to a suspended sentence of 12 months. On top of that, they were sentenced to 120-180 hours of mandatory community service and had to pay costs of between £500 and £1,000 ($625-$1,250).

Despite this, Ella is convinced that such actions are worth taking, even when there is a risk of severe repercussions. ‘I absolutely and wholeheartedly think protests like this are essential,’ she says. ‘Partly because we face sentences like this. Sending peaceful protesters to jail is an utterly ridiculous thing to do, and it needs to be challenged. Things don’t get changed with petitions and marches; it takes people who are willing to make a sacrifice to get things done, and, yes, to face criminal charges and potentially prison.’

The Heathrow 13 protest isn’t an isolated case. Earlier this year, 25 peaceful protesters were arrested following a demonstration outside the Horse Hill exploratory site near Gatwick Airport. Fifteen of their cases were quickly dropped, with another following suit not long after. However, the other nine protesters face fines totalling £1,235 ($1,500). They’ve since launched a crowdfunding campaign to help pay their costs.

Ella believes that protests akin to those of the Heathrow 13 and Horse Hill demonstrations are needed if we are to challenge the threat of a climate crisis. But does she think these protests will be enough?

‘We must have a diversity of tactics to achieve what we need,’ she says. ‘That means people using “legit” means – for example, through the parliamentary process – alongside more spiky direct-action approaches. I sincerely hope it will be enough, because it has to be. Otherwise we’re fucked.’

Worth the risk

The battle for a cleaner, greener world is being fought on many fronts. It is being fought in countries that are both rich and poor, hot and cold, large and small. Some fight because they have to, others because they believe they have to. Although some face more severe dangers than others, they all agree that it is worth it for the sake of their cause.

*

Midway through her speech, Berta Cáceres pauses and looks directly at the camera. ‘Let us wake up!’ she urges. ‘Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time.’ It takes a few seconds before the room is quiet enough for Berta to continue. This is the message that resonates the most.

Berta Cáceres is survived by four children, all of whom continue to fight in her name.

4.0 ·
1
Trending Today
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 20,256 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Obama's Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Stansfield Smith · 2,990 views today · It should be a scandal that leftists-liberals paint Trump as a special threat, a war mongerer – not Obama who is the first president to be at war everyday of his eight years...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 2,008 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,124 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Make The Serengeti Great Again | Resource Scarcity, Demagogues and How Creativity Can Trump Hate (2017)
5 min · 532 views today · A Familiar Tale of Resource Scarcity, Demagogues, and How Creativity Can Trump Hate A quick, original, illustrated allegory that pokes at the demagogues we’ve got with an...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 495 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Deconstructing Hierarchies: On Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power
Colin Jenkins · 451 views today · Bosses don't grow on trees. They don't magically appear at your job. They aren't born into their roles. They are created. They are manufactured to fulfill arbitrary positions...
Baraka (1992)
97 min · 382 views today · Featuring no conventional narrative, this film presents footage of people, places and things from around the world. From chaotic cities to barren wilderness, the movie takes...
"Desert Goddess" Remembers Arizona's Glen Canyon
7 min · 368 views today · In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNation, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview the "desert goddess," Katie Lee. When the Glen Canyon Dam was...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 315 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 272 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
What Is a Gift Economy? - Alex Gendler
4 min · 247 views today · What if, this holiday season, instead of saying "thank you" to your aunt for her gift of a knitted sweater, the polite response expected from you was to show up at her house in...
Introversion Is Not a Personality Fail
Cat Elz · 228 views today · A few years ago, I got into an argument with my now mother-in-law over my supposedly “backwards” ways. My transgression? I did not attend a party of my now husband’s (then...
HUMAN (2015)
382 min · 226 views today · What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery?  Driven by these questions, filmmaker and artist...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 224 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Defiance in the Face of Oppression - Iranian Artist Atena Farghadani Defends the Right to Draw
Gavin Aung Than · 215 views today · Atena Farghadani is a 28-year-old Iranian artist. She was recently sentenced to 12 years and 9 months in prison for drawing a cartoon.  
Here's How We're Going to End Factory Farming
2 min · 198 views today · Factory farming is a huge problem. But the solution is simple, if you'll join us. Watch this short 2 minute video to see how... Help make a kinder world possible...
Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More
Josh Jones · 197 views today · Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have a access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization…? Everyone seems to have...
Trump Is a Symptom of a Sickness That Is Raging All Across The World
1 min · 174 views today · This is why we are here. And this is what we need to remember. 
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 169 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
The Deadly Business of Grassroots Climate Activism