Environmental Defenders Face Growing Danger Around the World. Who's Got Their Backs?

 An armed ranger in Virunga National Park, DRC. photo:  LMspencer/shutterstock

An armed ranger in Virunga National Park, DRC. photo:  LMspencer/shutterstock

Will the world’s environmental defenders survive another year of violence? In 2017, a staggering 197 people—around four a week—were killed worldwide while defending the environment from “mines, plantations, poachers, and infrastructure projects,” according to the watchdog group, Global Witness.

Even international recognition is no guarantee of safety. Two past winners of the Goldman Prize, often called the Nobel of environmentalism, were murdered in a span of months not long ago. And the killings continue apace; Global Witness has already noted nine murders in 2018.

Related: A Few Inspiring Facts About a Top Environmental Prize and the People It Honors

Some funders are taking steps to stop the carnage. But can their giving keep up with the death toll, which has risen fourfold since 2012?

To begin with, funders supporting the front line of environmental leaders are facing a hostile climate. Beatings and bullets aimed at their grantees are only one aspect of this.

“The political environment has gotten a lot more toxic for a number of reasons,” said Alejandro Queral, who's been following these issues for years and has firsthand knowledge of many environmental defenders’ cases.

Among other things, Queral told Inside Philanthropy that the "influence of the media, which is used to be a powerful tool for shining a light on the issue and shaming governments for their impunity, has been weakened on a global level." More broadly, Queral said, "it has become increasingly difficult to hold abusive governments and individuals accountable for their actions.”

Similar concerns are reported by those in the funding world.

“Not only have recent years seen a dramatic increase in the number of incidents involving environmental human rights defenders, but efforts to silence defenders are increasing,” said Alex Grossman, deputy director of communications at the Global Greengrants Fund.

Greengrants provides funding to strengthen grassroots environmental advocates around the world. Helping grantees deal with security threats is a fast growing part of its work, with grants going "toward bolstering physical security, securing legal assistance, developing safety protocols, purchasing equipment and supplies, relocation, and any other pressing need that may arise,” says Grossman. In the past year, Global Greengrants has given 21 grants totaling over $110,000 toward safety and security issues.

In recent years, though, it's become harder to channel financial support to groups that need it around the world. 

“Governments are using the fear of terrorism and influence from abroad to put forward legislation that limits funding available and creates burdensome administrative procedures. Over 100 such laws have been enacted in the last five years,” Grossman told Inside Philanthropy. “These restrictions increase the difficulty for human rights defenders to continue their work. As the space for civil society continues to close, more funding is needed to help defenders on the front lines.”

The Global Greengrants Fund gets its funding mainly from individual donors. But it's also pulled in support from some corporations like Aveda, which makes natural beauty products, and from several foundations, including the Arcus Foundation, which works to protect great apes. Arcus has funded a number of front-line efforts in Africa and Asia to combat poaching, which can be dangerous work. 

As we've reported, more funders are stepping up to defend endangered wild animals targeted by poachers and rain forests threatened by illegal logging. As a result, more funders are supporting local groups that are operating in harm's way, and some philanthropists have even provided funding to beef up the firepower of environmental defenders. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, for example, has provided support to strengthen the rangers working to protect Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the past 20 years, 130 park rangers have been killed by rebels, poachers and other threats. (Leonardo DiCaprio, an environmental funder, produced the 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, which shows the dangers facing those who protect the park.)

Protecting environmental defenders is often entwined with support for human rights activists writ large. The Open Society Foundations is a key player in this space, with offices in 37 countries, including areas with ongoing environmental conflicts. Another major outfit that has been entrenched in this space for a while now is the U.K.-based Sigrid Rausing Trust (SRT). Its Human Rights Defenders program supports organizations around the world that are providing security and increased media training to rights activists who are at risk of harassment, detention, torture and death.

Related: These Are Scary Times for Human Rights Defenders—As This Funder Well Knows

Alex Grossman said that the Global Greengrants Fund often works to put environmental defenders in touch with human rights outfits like Urgent Action Fund and Frontline Defenders, which offer rapid response grantmaking and protection services.

But more work is needed to connect environmental and human rights efforts, and funders can play a role, here. 

“I believe the most important thing that grantmakers can do is be a catalyst for deep collaboration,” Queral said. “The Goldman Environmental Foundation funded the Sierra Club and Amnesty International to speak with one voice on behalf of activists. The knowledge, credibility and ability to move volunteers to action of these organizations raised the profile of many cases around the world.”

Queral said that such campaigns had, in some cases, led to successes, like the release from prison of environmental leader Aleksandr Nikitin, and the similar liberation of Rodolfo Montiel, who fought against widespread illegal deforestation in Mexico.

Against the backdrop of 2017’s death toll, it’s hard to imagine 2018 will be a year of safety for environmental defenders. But it could be a year in which their security becomes better supported.