Indigenous Forest Defenders Around the World Are Dying Anonymous Deaths
On the Environmental Martyrs of the Global Resource War
One fall evening, I was driving through Wisconsin’s soya fields, drifting along in the half dark, listening to the BBC World Service, when a voice emerged from the ether to galvanize my attention. The voice started strongly in Spanish then faded as the interviewer translated the man’s words.
He had survived the massacre, he said. No, he did not want to give his name. Yes, he feared for his life. Yes, they will come for us again. They always do.
Beneath the translator’s dispassionate delivery, the faint voice of the unnamed man quavered as he spoke of the fallen—four indigenous Asháninka from the Peruvian Amazon, forest defenders, murdered by an illegal logging gang.
Then the Asháninka survivor said something that stopped me in my tracks: “Those people were dead to the eye before they were killed.”
Their apparently sudden deaths had been a long time coming. Before bullets pierced their flesh, before exit wounds wrenched them from their rain forest and from this earth, the killing of the four Asháninka men was already underway. For some time, those forest defenders had been “dead to the eye,” shrouded in obscurity, consigned to a political and existential purgatory, hovering between life and the sustained threat of an always imminent assassination.
In the global resource wars, “those people” appear as expendable shadow beings, weighing almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. In the global resource wars, the going price for tropical hardwoods—and the land beneath—is higher than the going price for the lives of the indigenous and the poor. In the cold calculus of the global resource wars—which are always also local—the Asháninka were barely visible, barely audible cost-effective casualties.
We are witnessing an epidemic of environmental martyrdom, particularly in earth’s vital but embattled tropical forests. Front-line forest defenders reside primarily in what we might call the environmental martyr belt that girdles the globe, the tropical midriff of the earth: Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Columbia, Brazil, Nigeria, Congo, Gabon, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.According to Global Witness, between 2008 and 2018 some 1,427 environmental activists were murdered. That’s nearly three every week.
In the contested forests of these lands, adhering to the values that make life feasible can expose inhabitants to the risk of murder. The environmental martyr belt is pocked with shallow graves and traversed by ghosts; it is full of shadow places to which we’re all materially bound.
Activists invoke the idea of environmental martyrdom, but they do not invoke it in isolation. A chorus of other terms recur: environmental assassination, targeted killings, cold-blooded execution, murder, persecution, massacre, carnage, ecocide, the green murder epidemic, eco-criminal hot spots. Each word or phrase inadequate on its own, all necessary, as people reach for ways to give voice to an intolerable, ambient terror.
Martyrdom is direct action in extremis. Martyrs put their bodies on the line, risking, for the sake of principle and survival, not just a weekend in jail, but burial in the dead of night in a shallow grave. Some environmental martyrs remain anonymous, vanish unheard of outside their villages. But others achieve in their earthly afterlife a complex rallying power and an enduring force. For we are witnessing a pushback from endangered forest communities against unregulated plunder by men wielding guns and chain saws, men whose actions jeopardize local life and, incrementally, our planetary prospects.
To be a martyr is to become larger than life after your life has ceased. To be a martyr is to die for a cause in a manner that confers on your being posthumous power and purpose. When repressive regimes have shut their eyes and closed their ears to suffering, the martyr’s body—by shocking insensate senses back to life—demands that the inattentive pay attention. Where words no longer serve, the corpse silently conscripts witnesses.
Martyrdom is a resonant word, but it carries certain risks. The risk that the singular figure who ascends into the firmament of memory may become uncoupled from the broader social movement. The risk of sanctifying suffering and forbearance. Yet, amidst the current spate of forest martyrdom, one is struck by the recurrence of ordinary martyrs, people whose lives and deaths attest to the quotidian violence against their communities, both human and ecological.
The corpse personifies a raw brutality—directed against the individual body, against the body politic of besieged communities, and against the living body of the forest itself. The environmental martyr thus mediates between systemic injustice and specific suffering.
Over the past decade, we have seen environmental assassinations soar. According to Global Witness, between 2008 and 2018 some 1,427 environmental activists were murdered. That’s nearly three every week—more than twice the rate of journalists killed, which has itself reached appalling levels. Hit men, security guards, private contractors, ranchers, and timber gangs—often abetted by the military or police—continue to murder defenders who try to hold the line against illegal logging, forest arson, unregulated mining, agribusiness, mega-dams, and associated land seizures.
All this while earth is hemorrhaging ten billion trees a year. The rate of deforestation has doubled since 2000 and the planet continues to shed trees like early autumn leaves. A forest the size of Italy goes under annually. As Global Forest Watch reports: “If tropical deforestation were a country, its emissions would be greater than those of the European Union.”
In destroying forests, we’re destroying the planet’s most significant terrestrial carbon sink—only the oceans store more carbon. However we strive to rein in this runaway process, community-held lands—many in the environmental martyr belt—are vital to any solution. A survey of 37 tropical countries found that community lands sequester 55 million tons of carbon, four times the world’s annual emissions.How can we summon the creative energies of witnessing to bring to the metrics of environmental suffering a granular specificity?
The real figure is likely to be much higher: in some regions, like the Central African rain forests—subject to acute resource wars—no reliable statistics exist on the murder rate of activists.
Intrepid NGOs like Global Witness, Not1More, and Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission play a critical role in keeping tally of green murders of indifferent interest to the corporate media. In mapping the distribution and scale of the killings, such NGOs do essential work. Global Witness, for example, insists on naming all the dead and, where possible, excavating their stories. Such stories are vital, for statistics in isolation can only get us so far as we seek to transform public attitudes and policies in the exacting pursuit of an elusive justice.
Metrics are indispensable. Yet metrics alone are insufficient for the task at hand. To bring numbers to life, we need ever more inventive forms of testimony that can infuse disembodied data with a bodily immediacy. How can story and image complement statistics with the quite different powers of nondata-driven knowledge? How can we summon the creative energies of witnessing to bring to the metrics of environmental suffering a granular specificity?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, makes this observation:
Racism is a visceral experience, that dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
Coates’s words apply with equal force to the indigenous communities and microminorities inhabiting the environmental martyr belt, where to take a stand for cultural and ecological survival can be a life-ending experience. The fate of such communities is twinned to the fate of the great rain forests in our age of climate breakdown, twinned to the future of forests where the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the soon-to-be martyred body.
Through the gravity of stories and images, artist-activists can bring a corporeal intimacy to the global environmental murder rate. And so we turn to them—these writers, photographers, filmmakers, street artists, oral historians, bloggers, video artists, and podcasters—in our quest to bring a vital urgency to a bloody epidemic. We depend on such witnesses to make visceral the algebra of a diffuse mass murder. For the dead deserve the vital specificity that is their due: names and faces and flesh to body forth the bare bones of graphs and charts. The suffering may be systemic but it’s never general.
Behind the numbers, people are living there. People are living there: behind the numbers, beneath the trees.
*Featured image credit: Zé Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Majesty. Felipe Milanez.
Excerpted from Rob Nixon’s essay “Fallen Martyrs, Felled Trees” in Conjunctions: 73 (Earth Elegies). Reprinted with permission.