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The deadly business of grassroots climate activism

Too big to fail

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 Tim Aubry, Director of Visual Communication Greenpeace USA

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.

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).

Some fight because they have to, others because they believe they have to. Some face more severe dangers than others, but all agree that it is worth it for the sake of their cause

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.


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