03 Sep 2018 Press release Environmental rights and governance

Environmental rights under spotlight in Brazil with launch of major new rights initiative

Rio De Janeiro, 3 September 2018 – UN Environment and its partners today underscored their commitment to take on environmental rights issues and reiterated their efforts to protect environmental defenders from ongoing intimidation, threats and murder, with the launch of the Environmental Rights Initiative in Brazil.

Among the hundreds who turned out for the event, hosted by Rio De Janeiro’s futuristic ‘Museum of Tomorrow’, were environmental defenders, Brazil’s Attorney General, Raquel Dodge, Brazil's Minister of State for Human Rights, Gustavo do Vale Rocha, Justice Antonio Herman Benjamin, celebrities, and TV Globo.  Global Witness, an international anti-corruption organization devoted to exposing human rights abuses, took the opportunity to discuss the unsettling findings of its recent report which sees Brazil top the list as the most dangerous place for land defenders to live.

“Year after year, in a bitter struggle over land, more environmental and land defenders are killed in Brazil than anywhere else in the world. Our data shows that in 2017, 57 defenders were murdered, 25 of them during three mass killings,” said Billy Kyte, Global Witness.

“As brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced. Enough is enough. Businesses, government and all the candidates for the forthcoming elections should commit to tackling this issue, strengthening the institutions that protect land rights, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders, and ensuring that justice is done.”

Among those defenders who recounted harrowing experiences of intimidation and harassment was Maria do Socorro, who has been leading communities from the Amazon against alleged land-grabbing, corruption and pollution for over 10 years.

“I am an activist and I have to keep defending life, fighting against companies that throw heavy metals in the river and in the air. Our soil does not produce anymore, it is totally contaminated. We want to live and we want future generations to also live healthily. My activist friends and I are being threatened, others have already been murdered and we are hiding, struggling to save the environment. We want to see our rivers full of fish again. We want to drink clean, non-poisoned water,” she said.

Brazilian environmental defender Antonia Melo, recipient of this year’s Alexander Soros Foundation Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism, also spoke passionately of her fight for justice and reparations for the Belo Monte Dam on behalf of the indigenous communities affected by it.

The Environmental Rights Initiative was launched in response to the escalating violence facing those working on the frontline of environmental protection, and at a time when biodiversity loss has reached alarming levels. Through the initiative, the many different actors working on environmental rights can more easily cooperate, pool their efforts and unite their voices to promote, protect and respect environmental rights. The launch came at a significant time, as 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights.

“Environmental defenders are the unsung heroes of this age, and it’s up to us to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they stand their ground on the most fundamental right – that of having a safe planet to live on,” Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment said. “It’s a tragedy that so many defenders around the world are paying the ultimate price for their work. It becomes our responsibility to make sure they are not silenced.”

Organized in partnership with Global Witness, and with participation from British newspaper The Guardian, the event also featured portraits of nine environmental defenders risking their lives to protect the environment from exploitation and abuse.

"It is essential to emphasize the role of environmentalists to defend the right of all of us to enjoy our planet with a balance between a healthy environment and development that benefits each person,” Gustavo do Vale Rocha, Brazil's Minister of State for Human Rights said. “So, we must guarantee that people’s actions occur in safety and that it is recognized and valued by our society".

Global Witness’s latest report ‘At What Cost?’ found that almost four environmental defenders  on average, are being killed per week, with many more harassed, intimidated and forced from their lands. Around 25 percent of the 207 environmental defenders killed in 2017 came from indigenous communities.

"The consequences of environmental harm caused in a country reflect on others and on human life as a whole. Therefore, it is essential that we reach an agreement about what is important for the life of this and future generations”, said Raquel Dodge, Brazil’s Prosecutor General.

2017 was the worst year on record for environmental defenders, with the majority of killings, attacks and threats centered around the Amazon. Many activists are targeted for defending their communities against illegal logging and the expansion of cattle ranches and agriculture like soy, palm oil and eucalyptus.

UN Environment stands against the harassment of Environmental defenders, and urges all governments to prioritize the protection of environmental defenders, and bring their attackers to justice swiftly and without impunity.


UN Environment Defenders policy paper: Promoting Greater Protection for Environmental Defenders

High resolution images of environmental defenders

Defenders video in English and Portuguese

Spokespeople available for interview:

  • Billy Kyte, Defenders Campaign Leader, Global Witness
  • Ben Leather, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness
  • Antonia Melo, Environmental activist and defender

About UN Environment

UN Environment is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. UN Environment works with governments, the private sector, the civil society and with other UN entities and international organizations across the world. 

About the Environment Rights Initiative

The UN’s Environmental Rights Initiative will bring environmental protection nearer to the people by helping them to better understand their rights and how to defend them; by working with media to improve coverage of rights issues; by calling on the private sector to move beyond a culture of compliance to one where environmental rights are championed; and by assisting governments to implement environmental rights obligations.


About Global Witness

Global Witness aims to protect human rights and the environment by fearlessly confronting corruption and challenging the systems that enable it. As an international organization, they have shone a spotlight on the brutal killings of those defending their land from forced seizure by corporations and governments alike, campaigned for an end to the use of anonymous companies, and much more.

More information about Global Witness.

More information about Global Witness Defenders campaign.

For more information, please contact:

Keith Weller, UN Environment Head of News and Media, [email protected]

Niamh Brannigan Communications for Environmental Governance +254 717 733348, [email protected] 

Heather Iqbal, Senior Communications Advisor, [email protected].